Shrimp Puttanesca is, of course, made with puttanesca sauce. Puttanesca Sauce is so amazing I don’t even know where to begin. For starters, and no doubt it’s because of its ignoble name, many people assume that Puttanesca Sauce has a scandalous history. You see, while ordering pasta alla puttanesca may sound innocuous enough to the Anglophone diner, to an Italian speaker pasta alla puttanesca quite literally means ‘pasta with whore sauce’. Whoa! Hello!
Shrimp Puttanesca: Prostitute Style?
Apparently puttana is Italian for ‘prostitute.” I don’t even know what to say about that other than that I hope you don’t think I’m a bad person for thinking it’s hee-larious! How in the world did this sauce get such a ‘saucy’ name? There has been a good bit of dubious historical conjecture that attempts to answer precisely that question. It’s been suggested that prostitutes invented the dish as something quick and easy to make in between, um….well, you get the picture. It’s also been suggested that the sauce is called puttanesca precisely because it’s fast and easy, like a…um…a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession.
As it turns out, however, the name should be taken in a much more figurative and colloquial sense rather than a literal one. According to food and wine historian Jeremy Parzen, the Puttanesca Sauce dates to the early 1960s. And the most definitive, albeit still anecdotal, story of its origin comes from Annarita Cuomo who claims that restaurant owner Sandro Petti invented the sauce “by accident” (love that!) when friends asked him to make an impromptu dish when the cupboard was rather sparse on ingredients. “Just make us a ‘puttanata qualsiasi,’” one of these friends reputedly asked, which is apparently a colloquial way of saying. “Just make us whatever crap.” Echoing this account, Wikipedia offers a more diplomatic and G-Rated description of Spaghetti alla puttanesca as “spaghetti in the garbage style.” I, however, much prefer Slate Magazine associate editor L.V. Anderson’s blunt description of Puttanesca as “a bunch of shit from the cupboard, thrown into a pan,” because to me that might even be funnier than “whore sauce”. According to this definition, Shrimp Puttanesca certainly counts.
This brings me to the second reason I think Puttanesca Sauce is so amazing: there is no definitive recipe, because it’s essentially a dish concocted from whatever “crap” you have lying around in your pantry. What I find interesting about this is that if you’re just throwing a bunch of random ingredients into a skillet, what is it about that ‘mix of shit’ that marks it as a Puttanesca? The answer, from what I can gather, is that Puttanesca Sauce is defined by a small set of super-intense, super-flavorful foundational ingredients. Those ingredients are: olive oil, tomatoes, hot pepper flakes, a LOT of garlic, a LOT of salt cured anchovies, olives, and a LOT of capers. What you add in addition to that foundation is largely up to you. That makes for a lot of possibility and variation, and I really like that in a dish.
And this brings me to yet a third reason that I find Puttanesca Sauce so amazing: it’s a freakin’ over-the-top flavor bomb. Seriously! There is nothing subtle about this dish. Shrimp puttanesca will punch you right in the taste buds. It’s super garlicky, salty, and spicy hot, and so, so worth it.
For this reason it’s really important to show no fear when adding ridiculous amounts of the foundational ingredients. Don’t flinch. This isn’t for the faint of heart. Add copious amounts of those ingredients with wild abandon. The anchovies are probably the item that gives the greatest pause to most people. They’re intense and salty and fishy. Don’t worry. Dump the entire tin in there. Trust me on this. As L.V. Anderson points out in her Slate article, an entire tin will just melt into the sauce, leaving no really discernible fishy taste, but adding an intense and incredible umami quality to the entire sauce. It’s amazing.
About This Shrimp Puttanesca
The version of Shrimp Puttanesca I’ve made is a modification of Kerry Saretsky’s version from her blog French Revolution. I really like Kerry’s take for two reasons. First and foremost, whereas most people serve Puttanesca sauce over pasta (which I am sure is quite delicious), Kerry’s version serves as an intensely flavorful sauce for seafood. That makes for a much lighter dish. More importantly, it turns a carb bomb into a relatively low-carb dish. As someone trying to manage 2 diabetes I don’t do carb bombs.
The second reason I really like Kerry’s take is that she opts for fresh ingredients, which affords taking advantage of the last of the late summer vegetables. For instance, she uses fresh cherry tomatoes rather than canned, and fresh jalapeño instead of dried crushed red pepper. As we sit poised for the start of the Fall season, why not take advantage of this fresh produce while it’s still here? There’s plenty of time to make a canned tomato version this winter.
This dish is Paleo-friendly and naturally gluten-free, by the way. If you try this recipe, let me know how it turns out by leaving a comment. Take a picture and post it to Instagram with the hashtag #slowburningpassion.
- ¼ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Baby Zucchini Squash, thinly sliced
- ¼ Cup Chopped Green Onion
- 8 Cloves Raw Garlic, chopped
- 1 Jalapeño Pepper, finely diced
- 1 Teaspoon of Dried Crushed Red Pepper
- 1 Pint Cherry Tomatoes, each sliced in half
- 1 2 Ounce Tin of Anchovies in Olive Oil and Salt
- 20 Kalamata Olives, pitted and sliced in half
- 5 Large Greek Black Olives, pitted and sliced in half
- 4 Tablespoons Capers
- 1 Pound Raw Shrimp (I used 26/30), de-veined and peeled
- Black Pepper to taste
- 1 Tablespoon Fresh Parsley, chopped
- 1 Tablespoon of Chives, chopped
- In a large skillet, saute the zucchini in the olive oil over medium high heat a few minutes until tender, but not browned. Do not add any salt to this dish, as the anchovies, olives, and capers are already very salty.
- Add the chopped green onion, garlic, jalapeño, and crushed red pepper. Continue to saute until onion is soft and garlic is cooked.
- Add the tomatoes, olives, anchovies, and capers. Cook a few minutes until anchovies dissolve into the sauce and the tomatoes begin to release their juices.
- Add the shrimp and black pepper to taste and continue to simmer until shrimp are cooked through (be careful not to overcook).
- Divide the sauce with shrimp into to large bowls and garnish with fresh parsley and chives.