Welcome to “‘Noodles Made Me...” a series in which Milk Street’s Hannah Packman cooks her way through our latest cookbook, “Milk Street Noodles.” Throughout this series, she’s become a parsley pesto fan, cracked the code for making perfectly balanced Vietnamese-inspired noodle bowls, learned to make streamlined gnocchi from instant mashed potato flakes and gone meatless with an umami-rich mushroom ragù.

Puttanesca, while raunchy in literal translation—I’ll let you google it—is a dish known for big, bold, salty flavor. Seductive, even (and great for February 14th). In almost every rendition you see online or taste in a restaurant, the dish features one mainstay ingredient: anchovies. Favored for their salty, intense flavor, these little fish impart a significant amount of complexity to salads and sauces and of course, pastas. But one look at the recipe in Noodles revealed a surprising ingredients list that seemed fishy (no pun intended) to me: No anchovies required.

Lesson 5: Spaghetti Puttanesca

Guiding Rule: Anchovies aren’t the only secret weapon for briny depth.

The omission of anchovies left me dubious—after all, I was under the impression that puttanesca was a dish literally built around the small tinned fish. But anchovy-haters (I know you’re out there) can rejoice! A bit of research proved me wrong. Turns out, in Naples, where the dish originates, two varieties of briny olives and pungent capers, not anchovies, give the dish bold savoriness that balances the sweetness of the tomatoes. As for the rest of the ingredients in this vegetarian-friendly rendition? Just spaghetti, extra virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, garlic, parm and basil. The lack of protein and emphasis on briny olives and capers to develop bold flavor wasn’t entirely convincing. Especially when every other recipe on the internet I looked at did call for anchovies. It was time to put my faith in the people of Naples.

Step 1: Gather the ingredients

A short list of ingredients makes this dish a great weeknight pantry pasta. Requiring only spaghetti, capers, Kalamata and green olives, garlic, red pepper flakes and parmesan (or pecorino), this recipe barely required a trip to the grocery store. While I waited for my salty pasta water to boil, I smashed my garlic cloves and roughly chopped the briny trio of capers and olives.

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Step 2: Brown the Garlic

Once boiling, I added the spaghetti into the pot, heeding the recipe directions to only cook the noodles for five minutes; I’d finish cooking them in the sauce. I saved some extra pasta water before draining. (Pro-tip: Since that starchy pasta water is really like liquid gold—perfect to thicken sauces—consider actually saving at least a cup in the fridge for reheating any leftovers. Or you can freeze it in cubes!) Back on the stove, I heated the olive oil and browned my garlic cloves until golden to flavor the oil—about two minutes.

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Step 3: Add the Salty (and Spicy) Stuff

Before adding anything else, I removed and discarded the garlic—it had done its job. Leaving the cloves in would just overwhelm the other ingredients, and overcooked garlic can turn acrid real quick. Once removed, I added both types of chopped olives and all of the capers, along with the red pepper flakes, letting everything heat for a minute to extract more flavor.

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Step 4: Stir in the Tomatoes

When the capers were browned, in went the crushed tomatoes—sans reserved juices. Occasionally stirring, I let the tomatoes cook down for about five minutes until their liquid had evaporated. Next came the reserved tomato juice and pasta water, transforming the combination from a paste to a luscious sauce as it came to a simmer.

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Step 5: Add the Spaghetti and Toss

I finished cooking the pasta directly in the sauce, adding in more starchy pasta water to keep it from getting too thick, and help everything emulsify. When cooked to al dente, I removed the pot from the heat and covered to let the flavors finish melding. The finishing touch? A good handful of Parm, chopped basil and more extra virgin olive oil.

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Step 6: Plate

A bit more Parmesan and basil on top helped complete this dish. In all of twenty minutes, I had a stunning meal in front of me and only a small stack of dishes. An all around success!

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Love them or hate them, anchovies are a polarizing ingredient so impactful in flavor I was afraid a dish like puttanesca wouldn’t be the same without them. This puttanesca wasn’t missing a thing. Between the lightly sweet yet acidic tomatoes, delicate notes of garlic and the ultra-savory combination of herbal, briny capers and meaty olives, this dish delivered bold flavor. Not overly salty—a concern I had before cooking—the sauce was thick and glossy, brimming with a pleasant brininess that was subtly reminiscent of the ocean. The nutty parm, a bit of sweet-pepperiness from the basil. Perfection. I won’t say that I’m no longer a believer in anchovies, but I will say I fully believe there are other ingredients out there that can give them a run for their money. So if you’re in need of a saucy dish to impress your valentine—racy history included—look no further.

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