If ancient Greek culture is the foundation of European culture, Italian cuisine is the foundation of European cuisine. It’s smart, stylish, tasty, and makes everyone happy – I have never met anyone who dislikes Italian food. For me, cooking any kind of Italian food is enjoyable, and has a way of making me break into song in the kitchen.
My culinary training was very much based on classic French cuisine, which requires a lot of complicated learning, hard work, technique and kitchen hierarchy, plus artistic talent to complete any job... from carving vegetables to hanging the pots and pans nicely on the rack. I was pleased to learn it passionately and enjoyed the opportunity to work with many good chefs and cooks, but it was often stressful. I do not think anybody wants to do that at home, because it could destroy a family! Cooking and mealtime should be fun... not end in arguments over how to properly deglaze.
Italian cooking is different. It’s fairly easy, fun and stress free! And once you master the basics, you can execute dishes just like those from your favorite restaurant.
My assistants at work like it when I cook Italian food... not so much because they want to enjoy the taste, but because I become relaxed and not grouchy, and often find myself singing while cooking (when cooking French food I need to be quite serious, so there’s no singing).
O Sole Mio is my number one choice for making seafood pasta, O Mio Babbino Caro is for making porcini mushroom risotto, Tosca is for rosemary rotisserie chicken with roast potatoes, etc. Many Italian chefs sing while cooking, but the French do not.
My old friend Andreas was a cook from Sardinia. He was a small guy with a big mustache, but he was a great singer and would almost always sing while cooking. It was so much fun to work with him, because I really like Italian songs and I believe singing helps create a good working tempo in the kitchen. His repertoire included many great canzoni, but his best was Puccini’s Madama Butterfly while making Osso Buco alla Milanese. I loved it. Frankly, I cannot sing many Italian songs, so I often improvise O Sole Mio to begin, then change to Moon River ...or something else. But hey, it makes me happy in the kitchen.
Now it’s time to make Pasta Puttanesca while singing O Sole Mio. This is my most favorite pasta dish, a specialty of Napoli. Some sources says it was created by busy working women (prostitutes). The recipe is nothing complicated, and all the ingredients to make the sauce are pretty much common stuff in everyone’s pantry:
fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, capers, anchovy filet, black olives, fresh oregano and flat-leaf parsley
Just chop and put all the ingredients in a pan and cook with olive oil until softened and flavorful. That’s it... quick and delicious! You need not have all the above ingredients. If no tomatoes or capers, that’s OK. Most important are the onion, garlic, anchovies and black olives. If you do not like anchovies, you might use calamari or octopus, or even sun-dried tomatoes. I improvise this sauce all the time, but I always love it, and it’s 100% Neapolitan. Go ahead and sing!
4 oz anchovy fillets (2 small cans), lightly chopped
6 oz black olives (preferably Italian), chopped
1 onion medium size (8 oz), chopped
4-5 garlic cloves, minced
2 medium tomatoes (8 oz) peeled, seeded and diced
10 tablespoons good olive oil
3 tablespoons small capers (optional)
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano or marjoram (do not use dried)
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 oz good dried pasta – spaghetti or linguini
1 tablespoon dry red chili flakes (optional)
¼ cup grated Pecorino cheese (optional)
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the onion until soft for 2-3 minutes, stirring often with a wooden kitchen spoon. Do not brown the onion. Add garlic and cook 1-2 more minutes until it smells heavenly in your Italian kitchen.
The above are the most important basic ingredients you must almost always begin with before adding other ingredients.
Add 5 tablespoons olive oil to the skillet, then add the anchovy, olives and tomatoes. Stir gently and mix well all ingredients. Turn down the heat to medium-low and continue cooking the sauce for another 5-6 minutes, stirring every minute or so. Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. Finally, add the fresh oregano and the chopped parsley and mix gently. Set aside in a warm place.
Meanwhile, add about 4 quarts of water to a large pot. Bring to boil, then add 1-2 tablespoons sea salt and the pasta. Stir pasta constantly with a long spoon or tongs for the first couple of minutes to make sure it doesn’t stick together and each strand is separated. Simmer the water, continually cooking pasta until just slightly firm in texture (“al dente”), about 8-10 minutes depending on the product you are using.
When the pasta is cooked, drain the water and toss pasta with Puttanesca sauce. Add 2 remaining tablespoons olive oil or more if you prefer.
Serve Pasta Puttanesca with dry red chili flakes and grated Pecorino cheese.
Note: Do not use those whole or sliced black olives that come in a can or packaged for pizza topping at supermarkets. You won’t get the right taste for Puttanesca. If you cannot find good black Italian olives, substitute Greek Kalamata olives. I personally like/recommend small black niçoise olives, which have a distinct, slightly tart flavor. However, if you like green olives... why not use those. Use pitted olives to save prep time. I like De Cecco dried pasta and Sagra extra virgin olive oil (mild taste and fragrant). They are both reasonably priced and widely available.
Note 2: Anchovies and olives are normally very salty, so be careful using extra salt.
Wine suggestions: a simple dry white such as Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Trebbiano d’ Abruzzo or Sauvignon Blanc... or Nero d’ Avola (also called Calabrese), if you prefer red wine.
Here an Italian song for you: