My grandmother used to stay up late for his radio show. His name is Johnny Midnight and his controversial health philosophy had a cult-like following years ago. His real name is Johnny Xerez Burgos Joseph and he (?) left a comment in one of my archived entries sharing “my recipe for Pasta Putanesca served at the Wine Museum in Metro Manila.” The Wine Museum sounded familiar although I was sure I had never been there. A little Googling and then I remembered. There was an article about the place published in the newspaper where I write a column twice a week.
Nice timing. I had all the ingredients in my pantry and Pasta Putanesca was for dinner. And what great Pasta Putanesca it turned out to be. The links in the list of ingredients point to individual entries that provide more details. Canned stewed tomatoes are convenient but pricey. You can stew your tomatoes by throwing fresh tomatoes in the pot where the pasta is boiling. By the time the pasta is done, so are the tomatoes.
When the tomato flesh softens, the skins burst and separate from the flesh. All you need to do is pull them off. Then, roughly chop the tomatoes. If you have sweet basil growing in your garden, go out and pluck about 20 leaves. If you’re using market-bought basil, discard the stalks you only want the leaves. Rinse the leaves and shake off the excess water.
How thinly you want to slice the sweet basil leaves is entirely up to you. I like them to be rather substantial so that they don’t look like a mere garnish. Stack the basil leaves one on top of the other, roll as tightly as you can, and slice.
Take four cloves of garlic and crush them. Shake off the skins and chop. Fine or coarse chop? You decide. If you don’t want visible pieces of garlic in your Pasta Putanesca, you may want to grate the garlic cloves. Some people slice the olives crosswise, I do it lengthwise. It makes no difference either way. You just want them sliced thinly enough because large pieces of olives in a mouthful of Pasta Putanesca can be too overpowering.
Heat the olive oil and add the garlic. You don’t want to brown the garlic. Rather, you want the flavor to get into the oil. If you prefer, you can rinse the anchovy fillet in cold water first before adding them to the pan. Me, I just dumped all the contents of the can, fillets, and oil altogether. Stir gently to break the anchovy fillets into smaller pieces but be careful because you want visible pieces of anchovies in your pasta. Too much stirring and the anchovies might become invisible.
Now, add the chopped stewed tomatoes. Add a generous amount of freshly ground pepper. Stir and cook for about 30 seconds.
Add the sliced olives, capers, and sweet basil. Stir then turn off the heat. You don’t want to subject the basil to the intense heat for too long or it will lose much of its flavor and aroma. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce. Taste. If the salt in the canned anchovies didn’t do the trick sufficiently, add more salt. But do it little by little. The final step of course is to garnish the pasta putanesca with grated cheese. Parmesan is traditional but my daughters prefer mild or sharp cheddar.