The Cheap-Ass Gourmet – Puttanesca
Note: The Cheap-Ass Gourmet is a cooking series we recently started doing here at the League. Each recipe in the series has three things in common: each is perfect for a person on a budget, each is well-suited for those who say “But I don’t know how to cook!,” and each is delicious. A listing of previous Cheap-Ass Gourmet Posts can be found at the bottom of this one.
I got an email this morning reminding me that it’s been a while since I did a Cheap-Ass Gourmet post, so I decided to do one on the simplest, cheapest, most versatile staple in the Kelly household: Puttanesca. As a matter of fact, puttanesca is such a versatile dish that it feels a little weird writing down a “recipe” for it.
Puttanesca appears to have been developed in Italy in the early twentieth century, and was known there as “whore’s pasta.” (I’ve been told that a more accurate 21st century translation would be “slut’s pasta.”) I am unsure if the name was originally meant to be derogatory because it was something more likely to be made by poorer women, or if it was meant to be deliciously provocative because its flavors are spicy, sensual and wonderfully indulgent. You can use fresh ingredients, canned ingredients, items from the most upscale farmers markets and leftovers from the fridge. It can be vegetarian, vegan or a carnivore’s delight. In fact, when asked by friends what ingredients they should put in their puttanesca, my usual response is: “I don’t know – whatcha got?”
It’s also unbelievably easy. I can make it in the time it takes to boil pasta.
I’ll start out here with the base recipe I use, and then give a few common variations from my own kitchen. More than any recipe I’ve ever posted here, this is one where you should feel free to go as wild as you wish in the kitchen. (Maybe that’s where the name comes from – being a bit slutty and uninhibited with your food?) That being said I will offer a few notes of advice:
1. I always say this, but use whole wheat pasta rather than regular white pasta. It’s far healthier, and the texture is firmer. And if you’ve never had whole wheat pasta, this is a great dish to use as an introduction: the flavors in the dish are bold, so the difference in pasta will be less noticeable to you than they might in, say, spaghetti with red sauce.
2. If at all possible, use fresh basil leaves rather than dried. For those of you new to cooking, you’ll find them in the produce department rather than the spice aisle.
3. If you’ve taken my earlier advice and invested in a more expensive olive oil, don’t use it with this recipe – the bold flavors of the sauce can drown out the subtle hints of expensive oils. Use the cheap stuff.
4. With this recipe, take the amount of ingredients with a grain of salt – including the salt. In fact, if you decide to add capers, olives, or tapenade to your puttanesca you might do what I do and leave the salt out altogether.
Recipe(s) after the jump.
The Cheap-Ass Gourmet Basic No-Frills Puttanesca
1/2 Package Whole Wheat Penne Pasta (cost: $1.48)
2 Tablespoons Olive Oil (cost: $0.40)
2-4 Cloves Garlic, diced or crushed (cost: $0.15)
2 Teaspoons Dried Oregano (cost: $0.20)
2 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes, or more if you like your dishes spicier (cost: $0.15)
1 Fifteen Ounce Can Tomatoes; be sure to look at the label and buy a kind that does not have added ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup (cost: $1.49)
1/4 Cup Chopped Fresh Basil Leaves (cost: $1.00)
1. Fill a pot with enough water to boil the pasta, put on the stove over high heat. When it comes to boil, put in pasta and cook for the amount of time stated on the package. (Usually about 9 minutes.) When done, drain the pasta.
2. While the water is coming to boil, heat a large pan on medium. Add the olive oil; swirl it around until the entire surface is covered.
3. Add the garlic. Stir until the color just starts to darken, about a minute or two.
3. Add the oregano and red pepper flakes. Stir for a minute of two.
4. Add the tomatoes. Stir until the tomatoes are thoroughly mixed with the spice mixture, then set the stove on low. Cover until the pasta is done and drained.
5. After the pasta is drained, toss it together with the sauce and the chopped basil leaves. Serve.
Total time from start to finish: 10-20 minutes
Cost per serving: $1.21
Pretty easy and cheap, right? Now comes the fun part: making it even better.
Meat lovers can add whatever kind of meat they like, especially leftover meats like chicken, pork or beef. My favorite is to add spicy Italian chicken sausage. When I do this, I brown the sausage in the large pan first and then set the cooked meat aside in a bowl. (That way the juices from the sausage flavor everything else from the beginning.) I then throw the sausage back in the sauce right before I cover and simmer it.
Chopped olives are wonderful, as are capers. To save time, I sometimes just throw in a spoonful of olive tapenade. Sun-dried tomatoes are also a good add.
Bell peppers are a natural add, as are zucchini and yellow squash. We often have left over roasted cauliflower and broccoli – those are outstanding in puttanesca. If it’s August and fresh tomato season, adding freshly chopped heirlooms when you toss with the pasta creates a truly sublime dish.
Cheeseheads can also have their way with puttanesca. Fresh mozzarella is commonly added, as of course is asiago or parmesan. Goat cheese and feta are less common, but still yummy. I have even heard of people adding cheddar (which I just can’t bring myself to try). If you add cheese, add it at the very end, if not at the table.
Puttanesca, in other words, can be as simple or as robust as you wish. When I make it, I almost always add sausage and several vegetables, and don’t bother making anything else – it’s an entire meal. Bonus: Puttanesca is often better tasting as leftovers than it is on the night you make it.
UPDATE: My wife just read this, and informed me that it is her understanding that the dish was called “whore’s pasta” because it could be made quickly in-between “tricks.”
Previous Cheap-Ass Gourmet Posts:
Not Cheap-Ass, But Worth Doing for Summer: