Seared Ahi Tuna Pasta Puttanesca with a Fresh Tomato & Caper Sauce


All Photos © Christine Elise McCarthy 2013

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I am not a super giant fan of traditional puttanesca.  I find the Kalamata olives overpowering & the sauce rather heavy.  I prefer lighter pasta toppers.  But this version I threw together is clean & light.  I used canned black olives – for color more than anything – and because they are less powerfully flavored.  I also used a bit from a tube of anchovy paste – mainly because that is traditional – but I didn’t use much, couldn’t taste it in the final dish & you can certainly eliminate it if “mustaches of the sea” do not appeal to you – or if you are vegetarian.

Puttanesca has lots of legends around its origin.  Here is something I found online:

Puttanesca translates as “in the style of the whore.” The name derives from the Italian word puttana which means whore.  Puttana in turn arises from the Latin word putida which means stinking.

Now I’ll bet your wondering how this tasty dish became associated with such sordid content.  As is often the case when sifting through culinary history, there are multiple explanations.  The first interpretation is that the intense aroma, (harking back to the “stinking” Latin definition), would lure men from the street into the local house of ill repute.  Thus, the Napolese harlots were characterized as the sirens of the culinary world.  Three additional accounts all hinge on the fact that Puttanesca sauce is easy and quick to make.  The first is that the prostitutes made it for themselves to keep the interruption of their business to a minimum.  The second is that they made it for the men awaiting their turn at the brothel.  And the final version is that it was a favorite of married women who wished to limit their time in the kitchen so that they may visit their paramour.  

First of all – uhm – yuck.  The word for whore derives from the word for stinking???  Think about that.  Oof!  That makes my entire olfactory system recoil.  And then to name a pasta after it?   This sauce has two ingredients derived from the sea – the anchovies & the tuna.  I don’t want to be eating those things & thinking about dirty whores.   No, mam!  So let’s move on, shall we?

As I said – this isn’t a traditional sauce using crushed tomatoes.  It isn’t a sauce you can ladle.  It is one you toss with the pasta in the pan you prepared it in.  If you like heavier sauces (as my boyfriend, Miles, does) – add a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes – with or without the cherry tomatoes.  This can easily be made vegan by omitting the anchovies & tuna. They are not critical to this already flavorful dish.

Also – I seared fresh ahi – but a can or two of white tuna is actually more authentic.  This is a very simple dish to prepare – so – give it a try!

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Seared Ahi Tuna Pasta Puttanesca with a Fresh Tomato & Caper Sauce


(to feed two well)

1 lb ahi tuna steak (or 1-2 cans of chunk white tuna)

1/2 lb of your favorite pasta (I almost always use whole wheat – and this time it was whole wheat spaghetti)

3 garlic cloves – chopped

20 cherry tomatoes – quartered (or a 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes)

1 tsp crushed red pepper

2 TBS capers

5-8 Kalamata olives (or other black olives) – chopped

1 tsp anchovy paste

Chopped parsley

Olive oil


(I garnished with caper berries & parsley)

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Heat a grill or grill pan on high heat.  Press the tuna into some ground pepper.

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Depending on the thickness of the fish – grill it between 1-3 minutes per side or until the outside is grilled but the center is still raw.

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The tuna will keep cooking once you have it off the heat & you do not want that.  Cut it into the size pieces you want to serve immediately – so the heat dissipates.

In a large saute pan, add a glug or two of olive oil (1-2 TBS) & add the anchovy paste (if using).  Sizzle that a bit & then add the crushed red pepper, tomatoes, capers, olives & garlic.  Add some chopped parsley.  If you are using canned tuna and/or canned tomatoes – add that here, too.  When it is just heated through & the tomatoes are soft – set it aside on low heat.

Cook your pasta.  Drain & add to the pan with the tomato caper sauce.  Increase the heat to medium & mix it all up.

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Arrange tuna chunks on top & garnish with parsley & maybe more capers or olives.  Or basil.  Eat it up like the puttana you are!

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3 thoughts on “Seared Ahi Tuna Pasta Puttanesca with a Fresh Tomato & Caper Sauce

  1. My Italian relatives gave me yet another explanation. Puttana means whore, yes but the suffix esca means little one. Pasta=cheap, fish=cheap (italy is like 80% seacoast) So this is a good meal even the local whore can feed her kids.


  2. Oh good, In my house it has everything to do with all my years in grad school ; ) So how much does it cost to have a CEM catered dinner? You’d be amazing at so many intimate (er..whore or nor), events…. I know if I was in LA right now, I’d be begging for you to do a show and tell meal at my house!


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