Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Series of Fortunate Puttanesca

I admit, my title is somewhat misleading, as there is no series involved here.  But how else was I to explain both the dish and the title in one fell swoop?

The first book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events was published in 1999, making it a bit too new for me to have read as a kid.  Also, since I don't have children or younger siblings, and am not working in a school yet, it's not like I have other people in the house who would be reading the book.  It wasn't just laying around for me to pick up.  But given my love of children's literature, after I saw at least five children reading this series within the span of a week, I had to read it.  And yes, as a would-be (will-be!) librarian, I have every reason to have read this title, but this happened roughly seven years ago, when I had no reason at all.

In any case, I read The Bad Beginning (the first book in the series), and really enjoyed it.  And then when a friend of mine asked me if this blog was desserts-only (I do have a sweet tooth, don't I?), I sat down and thought about food from books that isn't coated in sugar.  The first thing that came to mind was, "hey! Didn't Lemony Snicket make puttanesca?"  Indeed, he did.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with these books, let me sum up.  In the 13 books of the series, orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire go through, as you would expect, a whole series of unfortunate events.  Some parents dislike these because they're so unhappy, and people do get hurt and occasionally die... but, even from reading the back cover of the book, you can tell that the author takes a fun look at even the sad things in life.  Some of the issues that the children face in book 1, for example, include "itchy clothing, a disastrous fire, a plot to steal their fortune, and cold porridge for breakfast."  (This marks at least the third appearance of kid-lit porridge.)  I appreciate that the horrible things in life are taken in stride with the generally annoying, and the children do seem to get through everything in good spirits.

In this book, the three orphans are forced to make dinner for the nasty, greedy Count Olaf and his theater troupe.  Given little money and no supplies, they looked up recipes and found one for puttanesca, which is, as Klaus explains, "an Italian sauce for pasta.  All we need to do is saute olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, chopped parsley, and tomatoes together in a pot, and prepare spaghetti to go with it." 

I love that the author explains what the hard words mean ("capers, which are flower buds of a small shrub and taste marvelous"), so readers can learn something new without having to use the dreaded dictionary.  When I was a kid, I hated to be told to go look up a word I didn't know; it would ruin the flow of the story, and I'd more often than not skip over a word and guess at the definition.

Anyway, I admit that I personally dislike olives, capers and anchovies, but this blog is not just for me, and the magic word here is "puttanesca," which my uncle loves - serendipity to have found the reference! So, thanks again to Uncle Hawk, who not only made this, but ate it so I didn't have to.  And to top it off, it's his very own recipe!

Baudelaire Puttanesca
 2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tin anchovies
1 3.5-oz. jar capers
1 can whole olives
1 28-oz. jar crushed tomatoes
1/2 jar tomato sauce, any variety
2 tbsp. garlic
herbs to taste

1. Open the tin of anchovies and chop the fish into very small bits.  In a large frying pan, add the olive oil and the chopped anchovies, as well as the liquid from the anchovy tin.  Drain the liquid out of the jar of capers and add the capers to the pan.  Drain the olives and add them, too
2. Cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often and breaking up the anchovies and olives if you like.
3. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, garlic, and whatever herbs you like (oregano, basil, or parsley would be nice) and cook for 5 minutes, then reduce to low and simmer until ready to serve.

As I said, this is my uncle's puttanesca.  He doesn't usually cook from a recipe, so I watched over his shoulder while he made it, and wrote it all down.  I have the following notes for you:
* If you like, you can chop the olives into pieces, or use chopped olives to start out with.  Uncle Hawk says he enjoys the olives whole, because then you get a whole bite of olivey goodness instead of just a small piece.
* Depending on how salty you want your sauce, you can add the juice from the caper jar and olive can, or add one of those instead of the liquid from the anchovies.
* The amount of tomatoes and tomato sauce also depend on whatever mood you happen to be in that day.  The less sauce you add, the thicker the sauce will be; tomatoes add chunkiness that tomato sauce does not.

Since this is cooking and not baking, this recipe can be a great jumping-off point for your personal likes and dislikes; add mushrooms, or chicken pieces, or take out the capers if you like.  If it were up to me, I'd take out the olives, capers and anchovies and add peppers, onions, broccoli and carrots, but that makes this dish a primavera and not a puttanesca, so it doesn't go quite as well with the book. 


  1. I've never actually heard of puttenesca, but it sounds delightful, and as soon as I'm not at work for 15 hours a day, I will try it!

  2. It was delicious!