Pasta Puttanesca

In high school, I made pasta puttanesca for the first time. My teacher gave us a take-home assignment to cook an authentic Italian dish, and my team drew the puttanesca. All I really remember about the assignment was the name “Pasta Puttanesca” and just how funny it was, and the horrendous idea that we would have to eat capers (yuck!) and olives (double yuck!) and anchovies (too disgusting even to think about). I actually thought it turned out pretty good, though I imagine if I had to eat a meal prepared by three high school kids with no cooking experience, you might hear a few double yucks from me now.

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I haven’t made pasta puttanesca since high school, but every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve laughed — “Whore’s Pasta!” — gufaww! I’m laughing now. I guess jokes from your childhood have a way of making you smile. I find the name so funny that it was actually hard to cook it. I made joke after joke to Jim, who didn’t find them as funny as I did, and I even called a bunch of people to tell them I was making pasta puttanesca, hardy har har. I’m obviously regressing in leaps and bounds.

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But if reverting to a fourteen-year-old is the price for pasta puttanesca, I’ll pay it. Capers, olives, and anchovies all seem so delicious now; briny, oily, fishy — the stuff of my dreams! I’m rather ashamed of my 14-year-old self, sticking out my tongue at those lovely ingredients. And the name, whore’s pasta or street-walker’s pasta, or whatever it actually translates to in Italian, only adds to the greatness of the dish, adding a little sex to the tomatoes and chilies and big fat shrimp.

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To make a pasta puttanesca special, parsley is key. Use lots and lots of it. It’ll be the foil to the spice, the fish flavor, and the sweet tomatoes. Parsley brings it all together.

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I’ve heard that people don’t traditionally put cheese on their puttanesca, so we tried it without first. But a good block of parmigianno was in my fridge, and a load of pasta on my plate, and the combination proved too hard to resist. And I don’t really know why you wouldn’t want cheese in there; it was delicious melding with the spices, coating the shrimp. A good glug of olive oil on top won’t hurt, either.

big bowl o' pasta

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria cookbook (a lovely cookbook, indeed)

serves 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 flat anchovy fillets cured in olive oil, minced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
15 salt-cured black olives, such as Italian Gaeta or French Nyons, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 pound dried Italian imported spaghetti
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley, coarsely chopped.
1/2 to 1 pound big, fat shrimp, peeled and deveined

In an unheated skillet large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, anchovies, garlic, crushed red peppers, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour out a little of the juice from the can of tomatoes, maybe about half, then add the tomatoes with reserved juice into the pan, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Add the olives and capers. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the spaghetti, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to skillet with the sauce. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add the shrimp to the pasta and sauce. Toss, then tuck the shrimp into the pasta and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the shrimp is mostly done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce absorb into the pasta for another minute or so.  Add the parsley and toss. Serve immediately, passing parmesan cheese and olive oil at the table.

Pork belly and cabbage

There are two things in the kitchen that I take too very seriously. First, there’s spaghetti carbonara — made with guanciale, always, copious black pepper, real parmigiano-reggianno cheese, and never, ever a sauce made from cooked eggs. The carbonara is prepared — sans egg — then put in the “carbonara bowl.” You add the eggs and stir them in, without scrambling, just cooking them ever-so-slightly. It won’t resemble a cream sauce. It will be silky beyond measure. There’s just no other way.

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Second, there’s pork belly. I’m not as fanatical about pork belly as I am about carbonara. I don’t subscribe to totalitarian directions. A good pork belly braise, to me, is the opposite of strict. Feeling my way through the recipe, I prepare pork belly in the little of this, little of that method, thinking about the elements of flavor, adding pinches, sniffing, and dipping my finger in the braising liquid to get a good taste.

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I’ve never had great luck following pork belly recipes, probably because the pork belly itself is such an important factor. Too much fat and you better be careful to sear and render it enough. Too little fat and the whole thing may turn dry as a bone. For an Asian-style braise, you’ll need to add a bit more of those “kick” ingredients — vinegar, orange — to work with an overly fatty belly. If there’s not enough fat, you’ll want to save a lot of the dripping in the pan after you’ve seared the belly. Or you could just find a belly with equal amounts fat and meat, and then you’ll be fine, indeed. 

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Usually I serve pork belly over plain white rice, but this time I made a cabbage too. Spicy, of course. I sliced the cabbage thin and put it in a braising pot with some duck fat (my go-to fat for cabbage braising) and brown rice-wine vinegar, adding a few hits of sriracha once it was nice and tender. The result was just as sexy and handsome as that boiled kale I professed love for this winter, but a bit more, ahem, bow-chicka-wowow.

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Which was a good thing, because pork belly usually needs some heat. The belly was seared to hell, then braised with a bunch of scallion tops, shavings from half an orange, star anise, dark soy sauce, and chicken stock. I let it bubble away for a few hours, before slicing it into little squares along the crosshatch. Squares that I served atop the cabbage and covered in scallion slices and cilantro sprigs, and a few dashes of soy sauce. People, they were perfect bites.

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The weather may be too hot this weekend for a pork belly braise now (80 degrees in NJ lately). Unless, of course, you’re too very serious about your pork belly…

pork belly

Pork Belly Braise with Red Cabbage

For the pork belly:

1 piece of pork belly, about 1 pound, with about 50 percent fat and 50 perfect meat, scored
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 bunch of scallions, green parts only, coarsely chopped (reserve the white part of the scallions for garnish)
2 whole star anise
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thickly sliced
peel from 1/2 orange
3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1/4 cup Shaoxing wine
water to almost cover

For the cabbage:

1 small to medium head of red cabbage
2 teaspoons duck fat
1 cup Shao-Xing rice wine
1 cup water
sriracha
salt, pepper

In a dutch oven that fits the pork belly snugly, melt sugar into oil over medium-high heat for a few minutes, until sugar turns a deep brown color. Put the scored pork belly in the pot, fat side down, and brown on all sides, caramelizing, about 20 minutes. Transfer the pork belly to a plate.

Take some of the drippings out of the pan, or leave it all in, depending on how much has accumulated, and then add the scallion greens, ginger, star anise, and orange into the pot.  Cook for a few minutes and then add the wine and soy sauce.  Fill the pot up with enough water to come up the sides and almost completely cover the pork belly.  Cover the pot and cook over low heat, so that the broth is just simmering, for about 2 hours.  Uncover the pot and cook for another hour or hour and a half.  Remove the pork belly and cut into squares, following the scoring marks.  Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve and discard solids.  You can boil the broth if it’s too thin, otherwise serve it as is.

Meanwhile, prepare the cabbage.  Slice cabbage as thinly as you can. Add duck fat to a large pot over medium heat.  Add cabbage and cook for a few minutes.  Add wine and water and cook until the cabbage is completely tender, about 1 hour.  Add sriracha, starting with a few drops, then adding more until it is as hot as you like it (a little hotter, even, since it’s going to be mixed with rice and pork belly.) Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm until the pork belly is ready.

Serve the pork belly in big bowls with white rice and cabbage, pouring some broth into the bowls.  Garnish with scallions and cilantro, and pass around sriracha at the table.