Pasta a la puttanesca (Thank you Mr. Bittman!)

February 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

I, and I’m sure many others, was quite saddened when I read in the New York Times that the food column “The Minimalist” was drawing to a close. Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, during its long tenure in the NYT, I never really read “The Minimalist,” except when someone forwarded me an article specifically. When this happened, it was usually accompanied by the subject line, “This looks like something you would make…” And, usually it did. Over the last few years, in fact, I developed this almost eerie sense of being followed by Mr. Bittman. I would make slow rise pizza dough, and then a couple weeks later his column would be about slow rise pizza dough. I would learn to make sushi from a friend and start making it with all sorts of random ingredients, and days later “The Minimalist” would broach the subject of sushi adaptability. I would get really into grilling bread and the next thing I knew, Bittman would recommend grilling bread…

Hey! Was he copying me?! Er, well, except that he’s the one who’s a NYT columnist, followed by thousands of readers, and I’m just me, hardly in a position to be starting food trends (yet – haha ;)).  Sorry vanity, but that theory just doesn’t add up.  Then finally, when I read his goodbye to “The Minimalist” I understood.  It’s simply that I have a very similar attitude toward cooking as Mr. Bittman does, a sense that, sure a little technique here and a little technique there is useful, but a lot of making good food does not require anything futsy or overly specialized, and many techniques and ingredients are eminently interchangeable.  Cooking is something a person should actually feel like they can do, not an inaccessible (though enticing) spectacle.  So, thank you Mr. Bittman for being the bearer of this message to so many people for so many years.  But really, even more than that, thank you for your pasta recipe.  Seriously, thank you!!

You see, Joel also read the final column of “The Minimalist,” but, being a far better reader than me, he then went on to start exploring some of the old columns that were highlighted and came home absolutely bound and determined that we should make our own pasta.  It’s something that I had thought about many a time before, and I have made gnocchi frequently, but somehow I was always deterred from pasta by the assumption that rolling and cutting dough without a machine would be too time consuming and require too much fussy detail work.  Kind of the way I feel about rolling out and cutting cookies into fancy shapes – why bother if you can just make balls or logs instead?!  But Bittman had Joel absolutely convinced that making homemade pasta is, in fact, easy, fast, and fun, so I decided to believe him.  And by golly, he was absolutely right!  The whole procedure was nothing short of miraculous.  We started with a pile of flour and a few eggs and with only about 10 or 15 minutes of active  work time, had handily transformed them into a gorgeous pile of golden ribbons, ready to be thrown into a pot of boiling water.  The only thing that takes time is letting the dough sit for a half hour to allow the proteins to develop (giving the elasticity and texture needed to roll it adequately), but this is actually a blessing in disguise because during that time you can get everything for your sauce ready to go because once your noodle are boiling, it only takes a couple of minutes before they’re finished (literally!  Don’t wander off from the pot!).  I don’t think I could improve upon the process, even if I had a magical pasta wand!

We are absolutely hooked!  Now that we’ve discovered pasta making we may never buy pasta again.  In fact, we may change our names to Giovanni and Antonia and spend the rest of our days posing as an Italian nonno and nonna rolling out pasta until it is spilling out of our windows.  To me, this sounds like a rather splendid version of existence.

The thing I found to be key in reducing the intimidation factor was being reminded that noodles don’t have to be cut into eensy-weensy skinny little spaghetti threads.  They can be wide pappardelle style ribbons or even big squares or diamonds.  I have half a mind to make big heart shaped noodles for Valentine’s Day (awwwww).  And the flavor and texture of homemade noodles is so far superior to dried store bought noodles, you don’t have to worry about making anything too jazzy for a sauce.  A simple pesto, some roasted vegetables, or olive oil and a shower of Parmesan and black pepper.  Or whatever your favorite pasta sauce may be.  One of my personal favorites is a puttanesca sauce.  It’s incredibly quick and easy (which I’ve heard is why it’s named after prostitutes – leave it to the Italians to have a word for prostitute that’s so incredibly sonorous!  I don’t know if there’s a single Italian word out there that doesn’t have a melody to its pronunciation…), but it packs an amazing punch of flavor.  It perfectly combines the sweet acidity of cooked tomatoes with the brininess of olives and capers, and the little bit of anchovy you begin with melts into the sauce to suffuse it with an unexpected richness.  You could also throw in a couple of cans of oil packed tuna (drained) for an extra dose of il mare.  Never before has it been this easy to be this artisanal!  “The Minimalist” may be ending, but at least around here the spirit lives on…

Pasta a la Puttanesca (serves 4-6)

Homemade noodles a la Bittman

  • 2 cups of all purpose flour (or replace one cup with a cup of semolina flour for even better flavor and texture), plus more for rolling
  • 1 tsp. salt (plus a bit more for salting your water)
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • a bit of water
  1. In a medium bowl, mix together the salt and flour.  Make a well in the mixture and add the eggs and yolks to the well.  Using a fork, fold the eggs into the flour, bit by bit until it comes together into a dough – sprinkle with a Tbs. or so of water if it is too dry and crumbly.  Then, gather the dough bits together and press them into a ball.  Wrap the dough ball in plastic wrap (or, I just left it in the bowl and covered the bowl with a plate, and that worked fine) and let it sit at room temperature for a half hour.  After a half hour either roll it, or store it in the fridge until you’re ready to roll.  (And during the half hour, you can make the sauce.  Just bring the sauce back to a light simmer before  you toss it with your cooked pasta)
  2. When you’re ready to roll, a pot of salted water on to boil, so it will be ready to go.  Divide your dough into four pieces.  On a lightly floured surface, roll out one dough chunk into a sort-of rectangle until it is very thin – approximately paper thin (1/8 inch or even a little less – it puffs up a bit as it cooks).  Cut the dough into strips or irregular squares.  I can’t offer too much advice, since Joel is the slicer extraordinaire in our house.  But, after a couple of tries we discovered its easiest if you fold your dough over itself, like folding up a letter in thirds, and then you can slice that into short strips, and since you can make shorter cuts it goes much faster.
  3. Repeat the rolling and cutting with the remaining dough, using more flour as needed to prevent sticking.  When the water is boiling, add your pasta and let is cook just 1-2 minutes, until it floats up to the surface.  Drain and toss with the pasta sauce.  Enjoy with a nice glass of wine and a big salad.  Bellisima!!!

Puttanesca sauce a la Emily

  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 shallot (this is actually not necessary, but I had one, and I liked the flavor it added)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 anchovy fillets, or a tsp. or so anchovy paste (if you don’t have either, you can actually substitute a splash of soy sauce or miso paste)
  • 1/4 cup wine, red or white, doesn’t matter
  • 1 28-oz can of diced tomatoes
  • a couple of Tbs. capers
  • about 20 black olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  1. In a sauce pan heat the olive oil over medium-high until it is shimmering.  Stir in the shallot and garlic and cook about 2 minutes, until they start to soften.  Then stir in the anchovy, smashing them up, and cook for another minute (it will be kind of stinky, but don’t worry because it tastes marvelous!).  Pour in the wine, stir, and let cook another couple minutes until the wine is almost entirely cooked off.
  2. Stir in the tomatoes, capers, olives and nearly all of the parsley (reserve a few pinches for garnish).  Turn down to simmer, and cook for about 10 minutes, until thick.  If the noodles aren’t ready at this point, just turn off the heat, cover, and then bring it back to a simmer right before you’re ready to use it.
  3. Toss the finished sauce with the finished pasta and serve.

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