Saucy: A meal that can be prepared in less than a day

August 15, 2010

The author shares a favorite pasta dish and his reasons why he loves it.

People who watch the TV show "Jersey Shore" understand that my home state of New Jersey is fortunate to have a large number of Italian-Americans and many fantastic Italian restaurants.

When I was a little boy, my Uncle Louie (not really my uncle) would bring his elderly mother over and she would cook spaghetti sauce, from scratch, beginning at about 5 am. The aromas would fill the house all day, my sisters and I would congregate intermittently in the kitchen to watch the process and socialize, and the end of the day would involve an enormous feast.

Spicy and savory dish

How can the busy ophthalmologist, whose hectic day is spent giving sight to his/her patients and carefully studying the latest issue of Ophthalmology Times, spend all day cooking? Fortunately, there is an alternative Italian dish that is quick and fun to prepare, and even more delicious (at least to my taste buds)-pasta puttanesca.

The name is interesting, as it derives from the Italian word that (to put it politely) translates to "lady of the evening." How it got this name and who invented the dish is a matter of controversy, so you can read up and talk about this to your dinner guests as you prepare their meal.

Some claim that the ladies who worked in the brothels did not have time for shopping in the markets for fresh ingredients, and this meal could be put together using mostly items that can be stored in the kitchen. But your guests probably will suggest other theories to explain how this "spicy, savory, and exciting . . . sauce" got its name,1 especially if you've had them sipping some nice Italian wine since they arrived at your home.

There are many different versions of the recipe. Some authors recommend adding tuna, salmon, or onions the latter in the "Americanized" version.2 Ignore these sadly misguided people and adhere pretty much to the "Joy of Cooking,"1 with a few modifications.

In a large skillet, sauté two minced garlic cloves and a dried red chili pepper in extra virgin olive oil for 30 seconds, while crushing the pepper to break it up. Then add chopped olives (I prefer pitted kalamata olives cured in oil and use about 50% more than recommended), a bunch of anchovy fillets (also more than recommended), and a teaspoon of dried oregano and cook for 30 more seconds. By now your kitchen already is full of aromas and the sound of sizzling ingredients. Then crush whole tomatoes from the can between your fingers and add them to the pan (the juice tends to go squirting all over the place, so be careful!) and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in minced parsley (I use less than the recommended amount) and lots of capers (which I like so use more than recommended), add salt and pepper, and voilà!

The sauce is spooned on top of al dente pasta and accompanied by a hearty red wine capable of standing up to the intense, spicy, and exciting flavors of the sauce. Your local wine shop proprietor should be able to recommend a high-quality Sangiovese (the grape used to make Chianti). If you can find one of those cute Chianti bottles with the wicker-covered bottoms, go ahead and stick a candle in it for your table, for atmosphere.

Even people who say they don't like fish or anchovies consistently enjoy this dish. With enough good Italian wine and your favorite Italian dessert (cannoli?), your dinner guests will be amazed that you, the busy ophthalmologist that you are, can make such a meal.

References

1. Rombauer IS, Becker MR, Becker E. Joy of cooking. New York, NY: Scribner; 1997:305-306.

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaghetti_alla_puttanesca

Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building, 600 N. Wolfe St. Baltimore, MD 21287-9278, Phone: 443/287-1511, Fax: 443/287-1514, E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu