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Puttanesca: Naughty Name, Great Flavors for Fish

This entry is part of a series, F4F 2012»

Fish and Italian Food Ingredients

The word sounds sorta funny, and most Americans smile when they hear it. What’s it mean? It’s short for “alla Puttanesca,” or “in the style of a prostitute.”

Now before you get your nose out of joint, consider: It’s really got nothing to do with sex, unless maybe the sauce is so good that it’ll do as a substitute. Here’s one interpretation: Saucy, spicy, earthy. I’m more sympathetic to the image of an exhausted working woman, dead on her, uhh, feet, and hungry, trying to figure out what to eat. Delivery places all closed, and she’s too tired to go out to some all-night greasy spoon. She grabs some items from the pantry and the fridge and mixes up a quick meal. The rest is history.

Of course, it could simply be marketing shock value. Whatever works. And believe me, these flavors work!

What are the key ingredients? Tomatoes. Olives. Fresh garlic. Capers. Red and black pepper. Anchovies. Now don’t run off, even if you’re worried about anchovies biting back or something. (I remember an anchovy pizza in college that nearly did me in; that’s for later.) In this sauce, with so many other things working this composition the anchovy flavor is a melody player, not a raucous sax solo by some street player. Leave it out at your own risk!

On to the preparation of the meal: Roasted Fish and Potatoes in Puttanesca Sauce

Gather a pound or so of small, roasting potatoes. Red or white “C” size work well, or fingerlings. Cut them into bite-size pieces and submerge in cold water. Cut up a half-pound of boneless, white-flesh fish into pieces about ¾-inch on all sides; cover and store in the fridge. Which fish, you ask? Halibut, trout, mahi-mahi, haddock; consult with your fishmonger if you’re unsure. Grab out the other ingredients: A few cloves of fresh garlic; a half cup of good-quality, oil-cured black olives; a large can (28 oz) of whole, peeled tomatoes; 4-5 anchovy fillets (in oil, a small can); a couple of shallots; capers; parsley. For spice, you need red pepper flakes, sea salt, ground black pepper, Italian herbs, and if you’re adventurous, some Cayenne powder. Oh, and you’ll need some extra-virgin olive oil.

Black Olives With Oil

Here’s how you bring it all together. Slice the garlic; halve or crudely chop the olives; halve the capers if they’re large; peel and quarter the shallots; chop some parsley and set aside. Put some oil, about an ounce, in a large saucepot over medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovies. Cook with stirring until the garlic is softened but not browned. While you’re stirring, break up the anchovies. Toss in some red pepper flakes and stir like mad for a half-minute or so. Pour in tomatoes, juice and all. Put the tomatoes through your hand, giving them a good crush into pieces. Stir to combine, then cook for a bit, until the sauce thickens some. Use your spoon to continue to break up the tomatoes. Put in the olives and turn the heat down to simmer.

While the sauce is coming together, heat the oven to 425° F. Place a wire rack on a big baking sheet. Put the potatoes and shallot pieces into a large bowl and drizzle with olive oil. Toss with salt and pepper. (You can add the Cayenne here, if you dare.) Spread potatoes in a single layer onto the wire rack and roast (use the top rack) for 15-18 minutes. Place the fish into a glass baking dish and drizzle with a little oil, then season; stir to coat. Put the fish in the oven under the potatoes and roast for a bit. It will take only about 7-8 minutes for fish to cook through, so watch closely! Once the fish is done, take dish out. When the potatoes are golden-brown and delish, take them out too.

To serve, use a large platter. Arrange potatoes on the plate in a fairly even layer. Spoon about 12 ounces of the sauce over the potatoes. Arrange the fish pieces on top, and drizzle with a bit more sauce. Let your artistic side go on this one! Garnish with capers and parsley and you’re ready to wow the crowd. Serve the extra sauce as a side, or save for later use.

If your mother-in-law is in the house, just tell her it’s Italian fish and press on…

Enjoy the (Naughty-Good Fish) Heat!

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