There is perhaps no pasta dish that teases and titillates a vegan cook’s imagination as maddeningly as Pasta Puttanesca. Brazen and vibrant, this Italian classic, which literally translates to whore’s pasta, appears at once attainable (all but one ingredient is vegan) and forbidding (darn those anchovies!).
Italian lore has it that Pasta Puttanesca was thus named because it was invented by prostitutes hoping to lure customers in with its rich aroma. Other versions attribute the sauce to the prostitutes’ uber-busy lifestyles: they didn’t have time to go shop for fresh ingredients, so they just threw together what was in the pantry.
In my pre-vegan days it was one of the pasta dishes I cooked the most, but after going fish-free I didn’t dare try it because it seemed close to impossible to find a vegan replacement for the anchovies. While it is easy enough to swap out fishy stuff in most dishes, the reason why it just seems that much harder with Pasta Puttanesca is that the anchovies and their peculiar saltiness melt into the sauce, forming a strong flavor base that ties together the rest of the ingredients, like the tomatoes, olives and garlic. Without the anchovies, in other words, you’d just be eating pasta in a tomato sauce with olives. And while that can be tasty enough, what’s the big deal about it?
I tried researching replacements for anchovies and came up with suggestions ranging from vegetarian Worcestershire sauce to capers, but neither seemed like they would replicate that oceany flavor and rich saltiness of the anchovies. Besides, puttanesca sauce recipes usually already contain capers.
Then, last weekend, homebound by Hurricane Irene, I had a small brainwave that sent me rushing to my pantry. I used two ingredients to replace the anchovies: seaweed, which brought to the sauce that fresh-ocean flavor, and tamari, which added a rich, deep, sweet saltiness.
My Vegan Slut’s Spaghetti (the saucy sobriquet is stolen adapted from Nigella Lawson) did not miss a flavor beat. Tossed with some whole-wheat pasta it was even incredibly wholesome, although you’d just as likely call it decadent.
This is one to fall in love with. Enjoy, all!
- 1 pound whole-wheat or regular spaghetti
- 2 tbsp powdered seaweed (I crumpled up Nori sheets, put them in my blender, and processed them to a fine powder. A spice grinder might work even better.)
- 1 tbsp Tamari (use soy sauce if you don't have this)
- 6 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cup pitted, oil-cured olives, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 3 tbsp capers
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente
- While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the garlic and red pepper and toss until the garlic turns lightly golden.
- Add the powdered seaweed and stir for another minute.
- Add the tomatoes, olives, oregano, parsley, and capers. Cook over medium heat until the tomatoes release their juices and the juices start to thicken.
- Add the tamari and more salt, if needed. Season with ground black pepper.
- Add the pasta to the sauce, toss to coat, and turn off the heat. Garnish with more parsley if you like, and serve hot.
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