Of all the regions of Italy, the further South you go, the more things heat up. Our hearts are always with Tuscany, but other regions of our bodies and souls are more South, finally arriving at the epicenter of a dizzy feeling of ardor… Sicily. This dish, Shrimp Puttanesca, is ground zero in sexiness.
There are many legends about the origin of the name for this feast, all we know is that this one is a complete Italian umami bomb. The ingredients in this meal are pretty much everything we love… hot peppers, anchovy, charred red bell peppers, crazy good seafood, capers, darkened and reduced Marinara tomato sauce, Kalamata olives, the Porcini mushrooms we hunt in the Sierras, sun dried tomatoes, roasted garlic… and a crucial ingredient, lemon zest, which somehow holds it all together.
Oddly enough, the dish named Pasta Puttanesca first appears on menus only as recently as the 1950s, and for the first time in a cookbook in the early 1960s. In America, it became a sensation. In Italy, however, it was, at best, a regional favorite, from the islands off Naples and then further south. The folks in Sicily must have scratched their heads at all this, since a meal very much like this one has always been called Pasta Siciliana. But cuisine is a living thing. Once you partake, you will be back… every time that you feel the need to spice up your life. Enjoy!
2 pounds shrimp, shell on or off, heads off (we usually use wild caught Red Argentinian or Gulf shrimp)
1 whole oven roasted garlic, cooled and squished
3 red bell peppers, oven roasted
1 1/2 cups pitted Kalamata olives, sliced in half
1 pound pennette pasta (or we prefer Strozzapreti pasta from Montebello, or from Rustichella d’Abruzzo we use Casareccia, or our own homemade fresh pasta)
1/8 cup capers
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup sun dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons lemon zest (the secret ingredient, it holds everything together… we must thank the Moors for bringing lemons and the heat)
24 oz marinara sauce (we use Mezzetta brand since they import plum tomatoes from the San Marzano region of Italy, or we make our own sauce)
1 pound cremini mushrooms or porcini, (which we hunt for and dehydrate)
1/4 cup aged balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup red wine
1 cup roughly chopped basil
1 tablespoon red chiles, crushed, or 1 teaspoon cayenne, to taste
2 tablespoons anchovy paste or fish sauce made from anchovy
salt and pepper to taste, (you won’t need much salt, it’s already in the ingredients)
Peel the shells off the shrimp, salt and pepper them… (please don’t discard the shells, boil them down in 8 cups of water, with a 1/2 teaspoon of salt. When you have reduced by 2/3, cool and put away for another feast which cries out for seafood stock, like Frutti di Mare.)
Boil the pasta and when al dente, rinse in cool water and put aside.
Cut the very top off the garlic head and, drip by drip, add olive oil until the garlic bulb can’t hold any more. Roast the garlic head in a clay covered dish at 350 degrees for an hour, and possibly another 15 minutes, depending on your oven’s heat, until it is caramelized and has much patina. Remove, allow to cool, and squish out the fragrant creamy garlic.
Under the broiler, char all sides of the sweet bell peppers. Allow to cool, remove the skins, (toss in a paper bag), cut into strips about a half inch wide and 1 1/2 inches long.
Using a 12 inch fry pan, heat the olive oil until hot and add the mushrooms, saute until they are toasty, about 8 minutes.
If you only have a small amount of dried porcini, powder them in a grinder and add two tablespoons to the mushrooms and stir.
Now add the bell peppers, olives, sun dried tomatoes, red chili seeds, garlic and capers. Heat till married and bubbling.
Add the shrimp and cook until plump and almost done, and coated with a patina of oils. Add the marinara sauce, balsamic vinegar, anchovy, lemon zest and basil. Simmer till married, about five minutes.
Serve each dish separately, first adding the pasta into the bowl and then the Puttanesca with shrimp on top, mixing together. It should taste and smell intense and wildly sexy, like the Sicilian sun at dusk.