Growing up, the only ribs I ever had were those my Neapolitan aunt would make in tomato sauce. She used to brown them in olive oil and then slowly simmer them in a large pot of sauce, which sometimes contained cotenne, or pig-skin braciole. Yum! It was pork at its best.
It’s always a pleasure to find serious, well-researched, and eloquently written cookbooks that, like those of Elizabeth David and Alice Waters, promote and celebrate seasonal cooking. Recently, I came upon such a cookbook: The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, authored by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca.
Looking through the book’s summer section, I found a recipe for one of my favorite pastas: spaghetti alla puttanesca (spaghetti in the style of the prostitute). Although I’ve made this dish many times before, I was intrigued by the recipe’s instruction to make a fine mince of two of its main ingredients: the capers and half of the olives. I discovered that this simple step shifted the focus of the dish from the tomatoes and emphasized its olive and caper flavors, which was in line with the authors’ belief that true puttanesca is “not so much a tomato sauce with olives as an olive sauce with tomatoes.”
I adapted the book’s recipe to our tastes and used considerably more anchovies and capers than called for and opted for the stronger flavor of oil-cured black olives. Unable to find good tomatoes, I also substituted the canned San Marzano variety.
I must admit that this version of puttanesca was the best I’ve had and it made the perfect dish for a hot summer night’s dinner on the terrace.
Spaghetti Puttanesca (Adapted from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen by Diane Darrow and Tom Maresca)
3 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
½ cup oil-cured Moroccan-style black olives
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
2 small dried diavolino pepperoncini
8 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 28-ounce can of imported San Marzano tomatoes, drained and crushed
1 pound spaghetti
Mince the capers together with half of the olives.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil, garlic, and peperoncino and sauté until the garlic just begins to turn a light gold. Be careful not to burn the garlic. Remove the garlic and the peperoncino.
Add the anchovies and sauté, stirring until they dissolve.
Add the minced capers and olives, followed by the tomatoes and whole olives.
Reduce the heat and simmer covered for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in well-salted boiling water following package directions for al dente.
About a minute before the pasta is finished cooking, using tongs transfer the pasta to the skillet and finish cooking the pasta in the sauce.
Serve on heated plates.
I do not recommend serving cheese with this dish.
Wine Pairing: Frascati, Vermentino, Sauvignon Blanc
My brother recently sent me a link to a Mark Bittman recipe for pasta alla gricia on The New York Times website. In his email, he wrote that he had some success with it, but wasn’t sure he had executed the recipe 100%.
Since this classic Roman pasta is one of my go-to dishes when I’m in Rome, I thought I’d try it out. But as I read through the recipe, I was surprised not to find two ingredients, which, although used sparingly, are essential to the dish: olive oil and peperoncino (Italian hot chili pepper). Their absence led me to consult David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, which 14 years ago provided me with my first recipe for this dish. The olive oil adds an additional layer of unctuousness to the sauce and the peperoncino, that playful heat so typical of many Roman dishes.
Ultimately, I decided to use Downie’s recipe. Bittman’s recipe, however, contained a link to a story he had written for The Times last year on Roman pasta: “For Perfect Pasta Add Water and a Vigorous Stir.” In it, he describes how a renowned Roman chef, Flavio de Maio, demonstrated for him the “magic of water,” which creates a cremina, or a sauce, which Bittman describes as “thick and round and rich” for dishes like pasta alla gricia or carbonara. Intrigued, I applied this “magical” technique of adding some pasta water to the sauce and vigorously whisking it with a fork into the cooked pasta.
This relatively simple step yielded the best version of this dish I have ever prepared, and I believe it could stand up to many that I have enjoyed abroad. One word of caution. Should you choose to follow my version, which combines Downie’s and Bittman’s, or the original Bittman recipe on the Times website, please be sure to read the above mentioned Times story, which clearly explains how to use the pasta water. Bittman rightly warns that it can be tricky and, if not done correctly, can result in a “pile of pasta with a watery sauce on top.”
Pasta Alla Gricia (Adapted from David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way and Mark Bittman’s NY Times recipe.)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pepperoncino (hot chile pepper), shredded or -1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
8 ounces (about 8 1/4-inch-thick slices) guanciale, pancetta or bacon, roughly chopped
1 pound bucatini, rigatoni, or spaghetti
About 1-1/2 cups freshly grated imported Pecorino Romano
- Bring at least 5 quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot.
2. Heat the oil in a very large, high-sided frying pan over medium heat. Add the peperoncino and the guanciale and sauté, stirring until the guanciale is deeply golden, about 5 minutes.
3. Adjust the heat as necessary to render the fat without burning the meat. The meaty parts should be browned and the fatty parts should be cooked but still slightly transparent. Remove the frying pan from the heat. (For this step, I’ve included elements from both recipes. Downie says to crisp the guanciale and calls for 1 minute of cooking; but I did not find this to be enough time to render the fat from the guanciale. I also did not want the meat too crisp. Bittman calls for 15 to 20 minutes to bring the meat to a deep golden color; but this seemed a bit too much time. Finally, if your meat is very fatty, you may want to remove some of the rendered fat from the pan.)
4. Drop the pasta into boiling water and stir. Cover the pot. When the water returns to boil, cook uncovered until the pasta is barely al dente, about 1 minute less than the suggested cooking time on the package.
5. About 5 minutes before the pasta is cooked, return the frying pan to medium heat and add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water to the pan, turn the heat to high, and reduce by about half. (This and the following step are adapted from the Bittman recipe.)
6. When the pasta is ready, use tongs to transfer it to the pan with the sauce. Stir the pasta in the sauce to let it finish cooking, adding more pasta cooking water if necessary until the pasta is done and the sauce thick and creamy. Add half the cheese and a pinch of black pepper, and stir vigorously to incorporate.
7. Serve the pasta on heated plates or in bowls, passing the remaining Pecorino Romano. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese di Romagna, Frascati
When friends ask me which style of Italian cooking I enjoy the most, I usually say “Roman.” It seems to meld the earthy richness of the north with the sultry spice of the south. My go-to book for Roman cooking is David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, and it is here where I found the recipe for today’s post: Martino al Forno, Monkfish Baked on a Bed of Lemony Potatoes. (The book is sadly out of print, but is currently available in Kindle format.)
The fish, coated with olive oil and breadcrumbs, is baked slowly for about 35 minutes on a bed of thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes dressed with olive oil, lemon, parsley, and fine breadcrumbs. What’s great about this dish is how the creamy, lemony potatoes highlight the rich buttery flavors of the monkfish, sometimes called “the poor man’s lobster.” It’s Roman cooking at its best.
I halved this recipe when I prepared it for two, using half of fish and potatoes called for, but slightly more than half measures of the other ingredients.
Martino Al Forno Adapted from Cooking the Roman Way (Yields 4 servings)
2 pounds Monkfish fillets (Try to get fillets that are approximately equal in size and that are not too thin to ensure even cooking.)
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes washed, peeled, and sliced 1/8 inch thick. (Use a mandolin for evenly sliced potatoes.)
4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
4 heaping Tbs of fine breadcrumbs (I only had seasoned Italian breadcrumbs on hand and they worked well.)
4 cloves garlic, unpeeled and mashed
4 heaping Tbs fresh Italian parsley minced (Be careful not to over mince the parsley as doing so leaves a lot of the herb’s flavor on the cutting board.)
1 lemon juiced (The next time I make this dish, I’ll also add some of the zest of the lemon to the potatoes.)
1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
2. Rinse fillets, pat dry with paper towels, and place on a platter. A paper towel on top of the fish will keep them dry.
3. Place the peeled, sliced potatoes in an oven-proof baking dish and drizzle with 2 Tbs of the oil. Season with generous pinches of salt and pepper. Toss lightly to evenly coat. (Be careful not to tear the slices as you toss.) Sprinkle in 2Tbs of the bread crumb and toss again. Arrange the potatoes in an even layer.
4. Distribute the smashed garlic cloves evenly over the potatoes and sprinkle with a generous pinch of the parsley.
5. Drizzle the patted-dry fish fillets with 1Tbs of the olive oil and gently rub it into the fish. Sprinkle the fish with the remaining 2 Tbs of the breadcrumbs and turn the fillets to coat them evenly with the crumbs.
6. Place the fillets in the baking dish over the potatoes and the garlic. (I folded under the thin ends of the fillets to ensure even cooking.) Sprinkle any breadcrumbs that are left behind the platter that held the fish.
7. Sprinkle 1 Tbs of lemon juice over the fish and the potatoes and then sprinkle with small pinches of salt, pepper, and parsley.
8. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes, until the potatoes are tender on the inside and crisp on the edges.
9. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the remaining parsley over the fish. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil (1 Tbs) and the remaining lemon juice.
Serve immediately on heated plates.
Wine Pairing: Chilled Frascati, Sauvignon Blanc, Dry Riesling