Monday, May 31, 2010

Putanesca: a Sauce for the Working Girls

Here's an Italian dish that was fun to write up in my cooking column in the Athens banner-Herald.

How can I phrase this delicately for a family-oriented publication? "Sugo alla Puttanesca," a tangy Neapolitan pasta dressing of garlic, hot pepper, anchovies, olives, capers and tomatoes, means (gently speaking) sauce for ladies of negotiable virtue.

A post-World War II newcomer to Italian cuisine, it has a name whose origins are as rife with speculation as they are skimpy on authority. Cheap shots like "fast" and "easy to make" don't help. One explanation is that since the sauce requires only ingredients typically available in poor urban Italian kitchens, someone working indoors with little time between clients could throw it together quickly. Time is money, after all. While several attributions point to the notorious brothels of Naples (can you imagine those kitchens?), one Italian cookbook claims Trastevere, a poor district in Rome, another, Calabria. Yet another, citing interesting research, says puttanesca was created not by "working girls," but by a flamboyant local artist and host on the Isle of Ischia near Naples.

Italian sauces are often wryly named - "marinara" (sailor's sauce), "carbonara" (charcoal maker's sauce), "Fra Diavolo" (Brother Devil's sauce - titled like a Catholic monk). So whether pasta alla puttanesca really emerged from the sex trade is a mystery. But with its catchy name, it gets attention. It's also delicious.

What pasta to serve with puttanesca? Spaghetti (in Italian, little cords) and vermicelli (little worms) are typical in Naples. But linguini (little tongues), a pasta for seafood, seems reasonable because of the anchovies. Puttanesca with "ziti," originally a lengthy tubular pasta named "bridegrooms" (I'm not making this stuff up), probably is not a wise pairing.

The anchovy fillets should be olive oil-packed. Greek Kalamata olives are preferred over waxy, dull California black olives. The crushed red pepper is the same as used on pizza. For canned tomatoes, Hunt's is my favorite American brand. The "trick," a risky word in this context, is to make the sauce quickly while a big pot of water boils for cooking the pasta when the sauce is nearly done. Cheese is not customary with puttanesca.

Accompany with crusty bread and a simple green salad. Because of the anchovies, Italian food writers recommend dry white wines. I like a light-bodied Chardonnay, or a California or Oregon Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris.

Pasta alla Puttanesca

4 large cloves garlic, minced

1 2-ounce can anchovy fillets (save oil), coarsely chopped

24 Greek Kalamata olives, pitted and chopped

2 tablespoons capers, rinsed

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

6 tablespoons oil from anchovies plus olive oil

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (Hunt's preferred)

Salt to taste

10 ounces spaghetti

Heat large covered pot of water for pasta. Keep at low boil until needed. Prepare all the ingredients.

In large frying pan over low heat, fry garlic in the oil 10 seconds, stirring. Add anchovies and red pepper. Stir and fry 1/2 minute. Add tomatoes, olives and capers. Raise heat and boil, stirring, 2 minutes. Taste, and add salt as needed, making sauce slightly salty. Remove from heat and stir in parsley.

As sauce is cooking, add a tablespoon salt to pasta water, and over high heat add pasta, stirring immediately so it doesn't stick. As pasta softens, bite a piece to test. When just tender, drain in colander and shake off excess water.

In large serving bowl, toss pasta with 3/4 of the sauce. Spoon the remainder over the pasta.

Serves six as starter course, four as a meal.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Soup from Ancient Rome

In an article I wrote for the Athens Banner Herald on soups, I started with one of the oldest surviving soup recipes. It was published in De Re Coquinaria, a compilation of cookbooks from Imperial Rome attributed to Apicius.

Barley Soup with Legumes and Greens is adapted from that cookbook. Culinary judgment was needed, since Apicius specified ingredients and methods but not quantities.

Only asafoetida has been omitted, since the variety used in ancient Rome, grown in North Africa, is apparently now extinct. The strongly flavored and scented Indian-Persian asafoetida is thought to be different and is so overpowering as to not be a good substitute.

For convenience, I also left beet greens off the list of greens in the soup, because of their general lack of availability, unless you grow them. If available, add them to the other greens in the recipe.

Asian fish sauce is the available equivalent of the ubiquitous Roman seasoning “garum,” also called “liquamen.” Several ancient recipes for making the seasoning indicate that Roman garum was prepared like the modern Asian sauce. Celery seed is very similar to the lovage used in ancient Rome.

Ancient Roman Barley Soup with Legumes and Greens

1/2 cup pearled barley
1 cup yellow split peas
1 cup tan lentils (supermarket type)
10 cups water
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon ground celery seed
2 tablespoons Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce
1 large or 2 smaller leeks, white part and 3 inches of green part, split, rinsed carefully and chopped
3 cups coarsely chopped Savoy cabbage, packed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, packed
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill, packed
1/4 cup chopped fennel leaves, packed
1/2 cup olive oil

Place barley, peas and lentils in a heavy pot. Rinse and drain. Add water and bring to a boil. Skim off foam. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are becoming tender. Add a little water if too thick.

Add chickpeas, salt, oregano, ground spices and fish sauce. Simmer 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare leeks, cabbage and greens. In a frying pan, cook them gently in olive oil until bright colored and wilted. Stir mixture into soup. Simmer, stirring frequently, just until cabbage is tender, 5-10 minutes.

Taste, and add salt as needed to make slightly salty, since the vegetables will absorb more salt.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Red Riot Soup: a Creation

At our restaurant in Athens, we make many different soups. In winter we often serve two contrasting soups at a time. The soup I call "Red Riot" I created for the restaurant as a counterpoint to our Green Garden Soup, which has been popular with vegetarians. As it turned out, we had so many soups already we did not actually use this one.

Red Riot soup combines 10 different red vegetables with red wine to make a dark cranberry-red potage that can be served hot or iced.

In a recent article I did for the Athens Banner Herald on soups over the ages, this was the 21st century soup I selected to anchor the series of recipes that extended from a soup recreated from an ancient Roman cook book. The middle two soups, Dutch Pea Soup with Smoked Sausage (4/22/10) and French Pumpkin (Butternut) Bisque (5/1/10) are already on my blog.

This multi-vegetable soup would only possible in recent generations, since it depends on fresh produce from spring, summer and fall harvests. Prior to modern shipping and refrigeration, the vegetables could not have been assembled at any one time. The soup also depends on modern technology, the food processor, for finely chopping or puréeing the vegetables.

The optional topping is sour cream, dusted with paprika.

Red Riot Soup

Prepare vegetables, as indicated, in a food processor:
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup split red lentils (from natural or health food store)
6 cups water
1/4 cup red wine
3 whole small beets, about 1/2 pound, peeled
1/2 pound (1 bunch) red radishes, finely chopped
1 small red bell pepper, seeded, finely chopped
1 pound (half a small head) red cabbage, finely chopped
1 (14-ounce) can crushed tomatoes (unflavored)
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 large red potato, scrubbed but not peeled, puréed with 1 cup water in food processor
1 tablespoon salt, plus to taste
Sour cream plus paprika for topping, optional

In large soup pot, fry onion in oil, stirring frequently, until softened.

Rinse lentils. Add to onion, along with water, wine, and whole peeled beets. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, about 10 minutes.

Add radishes, bell pepper, cabbage, tomato and spices. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender.

Test beets for doneness by piercing with a toothpick. When cooked, remove from soup and reserve.

Add puréed potato plus salt to soup. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add salt, if necessary.

Finally, purée the cooked beets in food processor, adding a little water if needed. Return beets to soup.

Simmer briefly. Add water if too thick. Taste and add salt, if necessary.

Serve hot or chilled.

Optionally, top with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle very lightly with paprika.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

French “Pumpkin” (Butternut) Bisque

Here's another recipe from my recent Athens Banner-Herald newspaper column on soups throughout the ages. While in the old days this would have been a winter soup, butternuts are now available year-round and this soup isn't too heavy for a meal in the spring.

French pumpkins, like their Italian relatives, are large, ribbed, flattened globes. Some farmers in Georgia grow them as a “heritage” vegetable. In the absence of the real thing, I prefer butternut or kabocha squash over American pie pumpkins, which have a heavy, different flavor.

This pumpkin soup, which hails from Provence, typically uses homemade chicken broth.

French “Pumpkin” (Butternut) Bisque

1 medium-small onion, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 1/2 cups unsalted chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
1 medium-large (1/2 pound) baking potato, peeled, in 1/2-inch cubes
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon Herbes de Provence or oregano
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 medium-large (1 3/4 pounds) butternut or kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, in 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste
1/2 cup cream
Minced parsley for serving

In soup pot, fry onion in olive oil until softened.

Add broth, wine, potato, herbs and pepper.

Simmer 5 minutes, covered. Stir occasionally.

Add squash plus salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, 10-12 minutes, or until squash is breaking up.

Remove bay leaves. With slotted spoon, lift chunks into blender and purée, or use immersion blender in the soup pot.

Add cream and simmer 2 minutes. Add a little water if too thick.

Taste and add salt, as needed.

The soup is best if made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated to serve. Sprinkle lightly with minced parsley.