Pasta puttanesca: No need to get dressed or go out

"Whore's spaghetti" is called that because you can make it with things in the pantry, but it's also tart and salty

Published January 4, 2011 9:01PM (EST)

If you need advice on how to survive a snowstorm on the contents of your cupboards, ask someone who lives in the Sierras -- namely, the Eastern Sierra ski town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. A ski town is at the mercy of Mother Nature. No snow, no tourists, no business. Luckily, Mammoth Mountain's geography ensures no shortage of precipitation. It was not uncommon for a foot to fall overnight. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

A serious weather system could drop 4 to 5 feet of snow in a day, shutting down Highway 395, the only route in or out of the town -- and the only route for the delivery trucks carrying food from a Southern California warehouse to the only grocery store in Mammoth. On the evening before a big storm, the supermarket shelves would be bare. I don't mean "Oh no, they're out of canned pumpkin!" I mean looted -- as if Thanksgiving, Christmas, the Rodney King riots and the apocalypse were all rolled into one.

Luckily, the scarcity of grocery stores was balanced by an overabundance of restaurants. I happened to wait tables at one of them, a new Italian eatery owned by a well-known jazz musician. But sometimes, a large crowd coincided with a large snowfall, stranding lots of (hungry) people and depleting the restaurant's cold storage.

"Carpaccio? Sorry we're out of that."

"Veal? We ran out of that, too."

On a particularly busy night, the manager sent someone to the aforementioned grocery store to buy supplies, only to come back with about half of what was needed. A customer asked me for Parmesan cheese, and when I went to retrieve it from the kitchen, a frazzled cook thrust a ramekin of mozzarella in my hands.

Shouting over the kitchen din, I clarified, "Parmesan cheese!" The cook just shrugged.

There was one dish the restaurant never ran out of: pasta puttanesca. With a sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, anchovies, capers and olives, the recipe was rumored to have originated from Italian ladies of the night, who could prepare it easily from provisions in a typical cupboard.

Although the San Francisco Bay Area has not in recorded history been snowed under, I can still easily cook up a pot of spaghetti puttanesca from the items already in my cabinet.

Spaghetti Puttanesca


  • 1 28-ounce can of tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 fillets of anchovies (drained canned tuna can be substituted, but the sauce will take on a different character), cut in ½-inch pieces
  • 1 tablespoon capers, or to taste
  • ½ cup sliced olives
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, as needed
  • 1 pound dry spaghetti
  • chopped fresh parsley, if available, to taste


  1. Heat olive oil in a large skillet, add garlic. When garlic is golden and aromatic, add anchovies, then olives and capers.
  2. Add canned tomatoes, breaking up large pieces by squeezing them through your fingers, if necessary. Reduce heat to simmer.
  3. Meanwhile, boil spaghetti in plenty of salted water.
  4. Add cooked, drained spaghetti to the skillet and toss to coat. Garnish with parsley and serve.
  5. Be thankful that you have food to eat and a warm place to sleep.

By Grace Hwang Lynch

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