mediterranean penne alla puttanesca
I read this great book called The Sharper your Knife, the Less you Cry by Kathleen Flinn about a thirty-something high powered executive who gets laid off. She decides to take nine months to study at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris while transitioning in her life to a job she really loves. I swear, I didn’t read it for the gushy romantic scenes, though I loved her descriptions of Paris and Parisians, where I lived last year. I was studying, but obviously I picked the wrong school. I’ve always told myself that even though I will pursue a career in politics, I will always make time for hobbies and learning-on-the-side. Someday I might even go to cooking school and “learn how to cook.” In the meantime, I’m pretty satisfied with exploratory learning.
Obviously, the book struck a chord in me. But what I really liked were the cooking lessons– most of the book is filled with descriptions about cooking lessons and even has recipes at the end of every chapter. I doggie-eared the recipes I wanted to try, and ended up with a handful of recipes ready to whip up, straight from Le Cordon Bleu cookbook.
This is not one of them. But it is inspired by the book, which I think is more the intention. The original recipe was made by her friend Sharon, who is routinely asked to bring her famous pasta to every potluck. I immediately doggie-eared it, finished the book, and put it back on the shelf. A month later and I’m still thinking about this pasta sauce, so finally decided to pull it out and take another look. Honestly, looking back at it, it seems pretty boring. I was remembering fantastic mediterranean flavors that burst through the tomato sauce and knock you off your feet like a vespa on the streets of Rome. Turns out it was a basic meat sauce (which I don’t eat anyways). But the inspiration really got me going, and this is what I came up with in place of the recipe.
Traditional Italian pasta sauce is actually raw and cold, served over hot pasta. While the thought of raw garlic is… well… interesting, it tends to turn out watery and bland. So I cooked it. I still tried to include mediterranean flavors of red wine, olives, capers, feta and fennel. Adding a touch of cream lends more depth to the sauce, though you can omit it for a more traditional red sauce.
Two notes: first, it’s a lot of sauce for the pasta. I purposefully did this in response to comments that there wasn’t enough of the sauce in other recipes. And oh lord, I’m glad I adjusted the portions. The sauce is highly addictive, so you’ll be happy there’s enough to go around. Second, it has quite a kick, I think from the red pepper flakes. I happen to like a little heat, but reduce the pepper if you’d like.
Penne Alla Puttanesca
- 4 cups of dry penne pasta
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 cup of red wine (preferably merlot)
- 1 28 oz “family size” can of tomatoes
- 1/2 can of tomato paste
- 3/4 cup of cream (half and half works well for a lighter version)
- 1/2 teaspoon of fennel
- 1/4 teaspoon oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon of basil
- 1/2 teaspoon of Italian seasoning
- 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
- 1 cup of fresh asparagus, trimmed
- 1 cup of white cannellini beans, canned or soaked
- 1/4 cup chopped Kalamata or Moroccan olives
- 2 tablespoons of capers
- 1/4 cup crumbled feta (optional)
- salt and pepper
- parmesan for topping (optional)
Dice the onions and garlic, and heat a little olive oil on medium-high in a large frying pan. Add the onions and cook until they’re just turning translucent, about 5 minutes. Then add the garlic and the red wine, making sure that’s it’s enough to cover the bottom of your pan at least half an inch. Leave the wine and onions on bubble lightly until it reduces by half, which takes very little attention and should take about 8-10 minutes.
If you can get fresh tomatoes, good for you, but they’re not exactly cheap here yet so I went with canned. Drain the canned tomatoes, saving the juice in a cup. Then add the tomatoes, tomato paste, raw asparagus and half a cup of the tomato juice to add more liquid. Feel free to use as much of the tomato juice as you need throughout in order to keep the consistency thinner, but I only used this first 1/4 cup for a chunkier sauce. Stir well and then cook for another 5 minutes covered, until the tomatoes are hot and well-mixed with the paste.
Then add the cream, fennel, basil, oregano, Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes, being sure to taste as you go to adjust seasoning to your taste. Stir well to incorporate the cream, and then cover and turn down to medium-low heat. Cook for another 10 minutes so the flavors have time to mix together, stirring occasionally. At this point, the timing is very flexible; if you have the time, I suggest turning the heat all the way down to low and cooking covered for 30-40 minutes for more flavor. I didn’t have that kind of time, and it turned out wonderfully regardless.
In the meantime, heat a pot of water for the pasta, and cook the pasta. By the time it’s ready, the cream-pasta sauce should be good to go. Cut the olives in half if you prefer, and then add the olives, capers, fennel, canned/soaked cannellini beans and salt and pepper to taste to the pasta sauce and stir for two to three minutes. Serve the drained pasta, top with the tomato sauce, and garnish with parmesan and fresh basil.