Pining For a Proper Pasta Pile Up!

Here we are in the middle of glorious Summer sunshine, bright blue skies & toasty temperatures!  When it’s hot like this, the last thing anyone wants is to be cooking some long-winded dish in a hot kitchen.  Salads are great, but when you’ve had a long day, a more substantial supper is required to hit the spot.  Pasta is probably the most loved food in our house (well, apart from cake obviously).  We indulge in this versatile staple several times a week (that’s not including leftover lunches).  If I’m not making it, I’m thinking about making it & what I can put in it or on it.  I’ve even got a dedicated pasta shelf in the pantry!  We don’t live in a vast mansion (it’s more like a doll’s house), so a few years ago we put the cupboard space under the stairs to better use than a home for the hoover!  It’s now fully stacked & packed with all our staples – pasta, tins & jars of various sweet & savoury delights to whip up a wonderful plateful at a moment’s notice.  Obviously, that’s where all my sugar paste lives, because it’s cool & out of the way (the marzipan lives here too, but don’t tell my Husband or I’ll have none left!).

A couple of years ago, our Son was working in Naples, Italy & staying in the rather picturesque Pozzuoli (he took the lovely pictures of the sea I’ve shared here).  During one of our daily chats, he sent me a picture of him cooking Spaghetti alla Carbonara (he has the cooking bug too).  I was so proud that he was cooking proper Italian food actually in Italy – especially when he reminded me of how I used to cook the same dish when he was young.  Over the years, I adjusted the recipe & used a variety of different pasta (spaghetti is still the best), but I had forgotten just how beautiful the original recipe is.  It also made me realise how much of an impact my cooking has had on our Son & his approach to food.  It’s kind of big when you think that the simplest of things, like preparing food for our children, is something they carry with them into adulthood.  Obviously, as soon as I put the phone down, I headed off to the kitchen to make a pile of pasta!

One of our favourite pasta dishes is “The One With The Pine Nuts” (as it is fondly known in our house).  It’s colourful, cheesy & quick to make – what’s not to love?!  It’s great for using up vegetables in your fridge that are starting to look a bit tired & all those little leftover bags of pasta in the pantry that everyone has.  If you don’t like bacon, you could leave it out altogether & maybe add courgette slices, or swap it for thin strips of chicken instead – it’s your choice.  This is one of those great last minute dishes too, so if you suddenly have a houseful you can feed everyone easily (I get 4 huge portions out of this).  Hungry?  Hands washed & aprons on!

What you need:

Approx 250g dried Pasta (Fusilli, Farfalle, Penne, Conchiglie – whatever you like)
200g Gorgonzola Dolce
8-10 rashers of Bacon (smoked or unsmoked)
2 Peppers (I’ve used 1 red & 1 yellow, but use whichever you like)
1 Red Onion
1 bag Fresh Baby Spinach (about 4 huge handfuls), washed
100g Pine Nuts
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Sea Salt (for your pasta water)

What to do:

Firstly, we need to toast the pine nuts, so gently heat up a large skillet or frying pan & add the nuts to the dry pan.  On a low heat, keep moving the pine nuts around the pan so they don’t burn.

Once they have turned a golden colour, turn off the heat & tip into a bowl to cool – don’t be tempted to eat them at this stage!

Next, prep all your veggies!  Top & tail the red onion, deseed the peppers & chop everything into chunks (don’t worry about them being perfect, just get chopping).  Set aside.

Trim & cut the bacon into roughly one inch pieces, removing any fat (I like to use scissors for this, as it’s much easier than chasing a slippery bit of bacon around the chopping board!).

Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in the skillet, add the bacon pieces & stir fry on a medium/low heat.

While the bacon is cooking, get the kettle on & boil some water for your pasta (quicker than waiting for it to boil on the stove!).

Add roughly 1 teaspoon of sea salt to a large, deep saucepan, carefully pour in boiling water (about half way) & put on the heat until you get a rolling boil.

Add your pasta to the water, stir with a wooden spoon & cook according to the instructions (usually dried shapes take about 10 minutes max, giving us time to cook everything else).

The bacon should now be going a bit crispy, so add the vegetables & stir fry for a few moments until they are slightly softened, but still firm.  Turn off the heat.

The pasta should be done now, so take a piece out & taste it – it should be al dente (“cooked to the tooth”, meaning to your personal preference, your individual tooth).  Strain the pasta & set aside for a moment.

Sprinkle handfuls of spinach onto the bacon & vegetables in the skillet.  Now tip the pasta carefully all over the top – this wilts the spinach nicely, so it softens slightly.

Add the Gorgonzola now – break it up with your fingertips or cut into small pieces & dot all around the pan.

Sprinkle about three-quarters of the toasted pine nuts over the top, then get a couple of wooden spoons & gently toss everything together, until fully combined.

That’s it!  Dinner’s ready to dish up – a huge skillet full of crispy, smoked bacon pieces with gorgeously glossy, jewel-like vegetables & vibrant emerald-green spinach leaves.  Generous chunks of Gorgonzola melt into the warm swirls of pasta, giving it an oozy smoothness that attracts all the other ingredients together, followed by a substantial showering of the toasted pine nuts, adding an almost popcorn-like flavour to everything.

Grab a few bowls or pasta plates & dig in!  Just before heaping a huge helping into a bowl, I sprinkle on a few more pine nuts, followed by a couple of twists of freshly ground black pepper (maybe a dusting of Grana Padana too).  On sultry Summer evenings, this goes well with a couple of glasses of good wine & maybe some fresh, warm slices of baguette to scoop up any gooey, cheesy remnants that attempt to escape – in Italy, this is known as “fare la scarpetta”, which means to “make the little shoe” with the bread to mop up any sauce (now that’s a shoe I do love!)

If there is any left, once cooled divide it into plastic tubs with lids & stick them in the fridge – that’s tomorrow’s lunches sorted!

Next time you’re pining for a proper pasta pile up, why not give this a twirl!  Stay hungry!  😉 A x

 

Having a Ball!

After a rather hectic week, the weekend should be a relaxing affair with good friends, good food & a few good rays of sunshine!  Last week was no exception & seeing as my Husband was working over the weekend, it was nice to cook a simple Sunday dinner of rush-free, rustic fayre instead of a roast.  Sundays are perfect for making slow-cooked, sumptuous food & one of the best ways to get the whole family involved is a recipe that you can all make together.

Meatballs are perfect for this kind of lazy day & my Meatballs Casalinga (Polpette alla Casalinga) recipe is one I’ve been making for a long time, sharing various versions over the years with friends & family.  I’ve also made them in some unusual places (at the side of a riverbank while fishing & cooking them on a barbeque, next to foil-wrapped trout).  This recipe first began over thirty seven years ago when I was at school & evolved into the one I make today.  It is something I suspect would be considered as “cucina povera”, as it is quite a hearty dish made from a few simple ingredients, doesn’t cost much to make & will feed quite a few people easily!  They freeze well too & are great on baguettes for lunches (that’s if there are any leftovers – good luck with that!).

What I love most about making meatballs is they are really easy, you can’t mess up the recipe (there are three ingredients) & everyone can get involved.  When my guys are all home, we enjoy cooking together & it’s a nice chance to catch up on each other’s news while we’re standing around the mixing bowl, making meatballs & usually a mess (it also means they are done in less time than it would take me to make them on my own).  Because they are baked, it means you only have the pasta & sauce pans to watch too.

Sometimes I’ll use dried spaghetti as a swirly, silky cushion of plump pasta for the meatballs to sit on & sometimes I’ll make my own fresh (making your own pasta can be addictive, so be warned!).  Fresh pasta takes five minutes to knead & then needs half an hour to rest in the fridge, before rolling & cutting into shapes.  Before you start to panic about making your own pasta, it’s really easy & I’ve written a whole blog on this – here’s the link:  https://hopeyourehungry.co.uk/pasta-parcels/ .  Pasta machines have their own spaghetti cutters that slot into place at the front of the roller, so all the cutting is done for you at the turn of a handle!  Any extra pasta can be dried & stored for future use.  Even if you don’t have a pasta machine, you can roll it out thinly & cut into strips – make your own tagliatelle or papparadelle ribbons!  Get creative with your pasta & make whatever shapes you prefer.

Now while the pasta is being prepped & before the balling begins, I like to start making a rich, jammy tomato sauce & I’ve usually got a huge pan of this blipping away in the background.  Forget shop-bought jars of sauce with unpronounceable ingredients, unless you are using a jar of Passata (sieved tomatoes), then this one will sort you out & it won’t take long to make.  It is probably one of the most versatile sauces you will ever make & goes with pretty much everything!  Although this isn’t our family recipe, it’s a close one & tastes just as jammy.  Here we go!

What you need for the Sauce:

4 tins of Italian Plum Tomatoes
Half a bulb of fresh Garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of Tomato Puree
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Basil (fresh or dried)
Freshly ground Black Pepper
Pinch of Sea Salt
2 teaspoons of Sugar

What to do:

Into a large saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil & add the garlic.  Gently fry for a few seconds, then slowly add the tomatoes & their juice, giving them a good stir around & breaking up any large pieces (or you can just squish them in your hands before you put them in the pan).

Add the tomato puree, the sugar & seasoning to taste (you won’t need much salt, so just a pinch will do).  Add a couple of teaspoons of dried Basil (or rip up about half a dozen leaves of fresh & chuck them in, don’t worry about chopping).  Give everything a good stir & reduce to a gentle simmer for about 25-30 minutes with a lid half on, stirring occasionally.

Once cooked, the sauce should have thickened & reduced slightly, so give it a stir & a quick taste.  Adjust the seasoning if you need to, taste again & when you’re happy turn off the heat & set aside, lid half on the pan (you don’t want the steam to add any more moisture to your sauce).  It should stay warm, but you can reheat it gently if you feel it needs it.

Time to get rolling the meatballs, so hands washed & aprons on!

What you need for the Meatballs:

500g Minced Beef (don’t go too lean, as a little fat will add flavour)
(traditionally you would use half Beef, half Pork, so use what meat you prefer)
1 large Onion (Red or Brown is fine), chopped finely or minced
6 slices Bread, whizzed into fine breadcrumbs
3oz Plain Flour
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

What to do:

Pre-heat the oven to 200*C.

In a shallow bowl (or casserole dish lid), tip the flour & spread it around the dish.

Grab a large plate & dust with flour – this is where your prepared meatballs will rest until you’re ready to cook them.

In a separate large mixing bowl, add the mince, breadcrumbs & onion.  If you’re wondering why I’m not adding any seasoning to them, it’s because there’s plenty in the sauce.

Get your hands in & squish everything together.  This is not a time to be squeamish & it will be cold, but you want to mix everything evenly into a huge ball of meat dough.  You may want to wash your hands again now, before the next stage.

Dust your hands in a little flour & scoop some of the meatball mixture up, about the size of a walnut.  Give it a roll in your hands, gently pressing the mixture together as you do so – don’t compact it though, otherwise you’ll end up with a tough meatball that won’t cook & will resemble a large marble!

Once you’re happy with your meatball shape, roll it in the flour dish then pick it up, give it a shake to remove excess flour & place on the plate you prepared earlier.  Repeat until all the mixture has been turned into meatballs & your plate is full.

In a large skillet or frying pan, heat a tablespoon of the olive oil.  Add a few meatballs at a time to the hot pan & roll around to coat them in the oil.  Brown for a few moments, about 30 seconds or so, moving them around so they don’t sit for too long (you want an even colouring).  Transfer to a ovenproof dish (a lasagne dish will do) & repeat until you have browned all the meatballs.

Place the dish in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, gently turning halfway (give them a little shake, but watch out for oil splashing).  Don’t worry too much about the fat, as it will render out during cooking into the bottom of the dish & leave your meatballs lovely & tender.

While your meatballs are baking nicely, towards the end of cooking them you should get your pasta going.  If it’s dried pasta, check the cooking times on the packet.

If you’re cooking fresh pasta, it takes about 2-3 minutes tops.  Get a large pan, boil the kettle & fill halfway up with boiling water.  Add a teaspoon of Sea Salt & bring to the boil.  Carefully add your pasta to the water & bring back to a rolling boil (that’s when the water rolls over from the edge of the pan to the centre).

Once cooked, drain your spaghetti & serve immediately (pasta waits for no-one!), swirling into silky spoonfuls on pasta plates or bowls.

Add several meatballs – they are filling, so I would say about 8-10 is a good amount (you can always go back for seconds).

Spoon over a generous drenching of the tomato sauce, coating the meatballs & serve immediately!  If you like, dust with a little freshly grated Parmesan – leave a little dish on the table with a spoon for people to help themselves.  Or you could use a speed peeler to add a few strips of Parmesan on top instead, it’s your choice.

Leftover meatballs & sauce will keep too – freeze the meatballs in a little sauce, either in bags or plastic tubs.  Pour any leftover sauce into sterilised jars when cooled & store it in the fridge.  You can use it for pizza, lasagne, pasta or just for dipping veg in (I like it on my chips).  It’s great on burgers too!

One thing I would recommend is don’t wear a white shirt while swirling sauce-laden spaghetti!  If you do get tomato sauce on your clothes, try this little tip I learned: add a spot of neat washing up liquid (any brand works, although Lemon seems to be best) & chuck the shirt in the wash.  If you do it straightaway, it should come out fine.  This works on red wine too (you’re welcome!).

So next time you fancy a lazy lunch with the family, try something different & have a ball!  Stay hungry 😉  A x

 

 

A Kitchen Nightmare: Readymeals, Set, Go!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in writing my blog, as we are in the process of having a new kitchen fitted (week three, yay!).  As you’re probably aware, the kitchen is my sanctuary, my haven of foodliness & culinary creativity.  It’s one of my favourite places when life gets stressful, where I go to take my mind off things & create sweetness when there is none (or knead the crap out of some dough for a bit to de-stress).  When I can’t cook or bake, I tend to get a bit tetchy!  I started the first week like SpongeBob on his first day at the Krusty Krab (“I’m ready!”), but rapidly transformed into Donna Corleone by the end of the second.  It’s never straight-forward when you’re having building work done, even a small kitchen & no matter how organised you think you are, you’re not.  As I discovered, even the most perfectly planned projects can go a bit awry & bring out your inner DeNiro.

Growing up, I learned from my parents how to do a range of tasks around the home – building a fitted kitchen with my Mum, digging out footings & laying a wooden floor, building a conservatory, learning basic car & motorcycle mechanics from my Dad (plus how to remove oil with sugar & washing up liquid).  My ex was also rather fond of renovating houses, so I learned to plaster, install a bathroom (at 6 months pregnant, I was lugging a steel bath up a staircase with him) & build various furniture (he would come home with a stack of wood & say “I’m making a pine bed”).  So I was quite prepared for a modicum of mayhem during this project.

Until Friday morning of the second week, there was no working sink, no oven, no hob, no washing machine in place & no wine, which even for the most patient of people starts to get a bit much.  None of this was made easier by sharing our lounge with most of the large kitchen appliances (which was everything but the fridge), a dining table & six chairs, along with all the usual furniture one has in a lounge & everything the cat owns too (along with one rather disgruntled cat, who was having to share with “the staff”).  The kettle, microwave, toaster & slow cooker were all perched rather precariously on the dining table & washing machine, just across from the sofa.  It was very cosy!

Unfortunately, the kitchen supplier (a rather large, well-known company who shall remain nameless) & their kitchen designer let us down, causing a few headaches for us & the builders.  Cue a few trips to the store across town – we drove there on one occasion because I got bored of being on hold for half an hour & they answered just as we pulled up outside.  At last count, there have been 17 telephone calls (most of them with me in my best “I’m so disappointed” Mum voice), seven emails with almost a dozen photographs sent to the supplier, mostly asking what part of “like for like” didn’t they get & then there was the tile incident.  Trying to explain that a subway tile is not a floor tile was like Father Ted explaining the difference between the cows in the field & toy ones (“these cows are small, but those are FAR AWAY!”), until we met the fabulous Jas (who they should promote immediately, because she is brilliant!).  I’m pretty sure the Duty Manager has bought a one way ticket to a remote island somewhere with no wifi, just to escape me (I bet he’s got a kitchen that works though!).

As you can probably imagine, my tetchy-o-meter is now wacked right round into the red & like the smile I’m forcing, it’s not good.  As we are midway into week three, with various as yet unresolved issues (such as a gaping chasm in the ceiling where the old oven fan used to be, no hob as yet & a couple of minor head injuries from the low oven vent, which has a tea towel on to cover the blood), you can imagine that we’re getting rather vexed & I’m suffering from serious Spaghetti alla Carbonara deficiency.  Note to self: remember wine next time & double it, with a few whiskey chasers!

Before the chaos began, I prepared a few meals in advance & filled the freezer with lots of luscious treasures to keep us going.  Firstly, I made my staple Italian favourite: an enormous lasagne al forno.  This was baked using a rich, slow stewed meat ragu & my hand whipped cheese sauce (it’s all in the wrist!), then cut into eight portions & frozen individually.  It’s important to do this, because I guarantee that not everyone will want to eat what you do on the same day.

As I was making a cheese sauce for my lasagne, I decided to make double (two pints) & use up the cauliflower, broccoli & carrots in the fridge before they walked out in protest.  This really easy recipe is a favourite of ours & I used to make it for my son when he was a baby weaning onto solids (many moons ago!).  Cut the cauliflower & broccoli into chunky florets, slice the carrots & then steam them all until cooked but still firm – usually five or six minutes.  Spread the veg in a dish (a lasagne dish is good for this), pour the hot cheese sauce over & grate a couple of ounces of cheese on top – whatever cheese you have that needs using up!  I’ve mixed chunks of Gorgonzola with grated Grana Padana, a bit of Parmesan & Cheddar, which works really well.  To give it a crispy topping, roughly grate half a crust of bread over the top & spread liberally.  It can be chunky or fine, it really doesn’t matter.   Sprinkle a pinch of Oregano on top, some freshly ground black pepper & bake it in the middle of the oven at 200*C for about 20 – 25 minutes.  It will be crispy on top, the cheese will go golden & all that gooey cheese sauce will plump up the veg, infusing them with cheesiness.  Leave it to go cold, slice into portions & freeze in individual tubs.  This tastes amazing on it’s own too & is quite filling (we had it with chips from our local Chinese takeaway – gorgeous!).

The next day, I prepared a couple of fresh chickens by filleting, skinning & cutting them into portions.  This provides four chicken breasts, four legs & two carcasses with the wings on.  Have a read of my article “A Bird in the Hand is Worth Ten in a Dish” if you need help here.   The key is to take it slow,  at your own pace – there’s no rush.  The legs were used in a Cacciatore, fried with a bit of smoked bacon before baking, then frozen individually.  The carcasses went into the oven with some veg, herbs & water to make stock (which was also frozen for future risottos when we have a hob).  The chicken breasts were divided into two to make chicken pies & kievs, stuffed with homemade garlic & smokey bacon butter.

After seeing our national treasure Jamie Oliver (hi Jamie!) make this garlic butter on TV, I thought I’d try it & it’s really quite fabulous.  Once a month, I buy a big pack of smoked bacon, split it into 4 or 6 rasher batches & freeze them, so I’ve always got smoked bacon for risotto or cacciatore – now I have it for garlic butter too.  I have also used Proscuitto di Parma when I have leftover slices – it crisps up perfectly  when fried.  It makes more sense to make a large batch of the butter, rather than faffing around with piddling portions just for two kievs.  The measurements are general here, depending on how much garlic you like, so go easy if you’re unsure.

Use a regular sized 250g block of butter (salted or not), remove the wrapper,  & leave it in a bowl to soften slightly (cut it into chunks to speed the process up).  Fry four rashers of streaky smoked bacon in a dry pan – you want the fat to render out & make the bacon crispy.  Once it’s crispy, remove from the pan & lay on a chopping board to cool.  Chop the bacon into tiny fragments, then add to the butter mixture.

Snip some fresh Parsley into the butter, about a teaspoonful should be enough.  If you don’t like Parsley, try Oregano (it works well).  Chop or crush about half a bulb of garlic – about 7 or 8 cloves is sufficient.  Also, I prefer to chop garlic as I think it tastes better (plus I’ve crushed more than my fair share of garlic crushers!).  Tip this into the butter with the Parsley & bacon.  Mash everything together with a fork until everything is evenly distributed & have a little taste – be careful, raw garlic can be hot!  If you think the balance is right, then it’s ready to be rolled.

Place a sheet of greaseproof paper on the worktop, about the size of an A4 notepad.  Dollop the garlic butter into a sausage shape about an inch above the edge of the paper, leaving a couple of inches either side to twist together afterwards.  Roll away from you & keep it tight, smoothing the paper with your fingers to make a sausage of butter, tucking the edge of the paper underneath it.  Roll evenly until completely rolled up & twist the edges together.  Wrap in clingfilm & twist the edges again.  Pop it in the top freezer drawer & leave it to set for at least an hour.  This will become firm & easier to slice.  Once ready, cut a couple of slices & put to one side ready for stuffing, then put the rest in back in the freezer.  When you need to use it again, leave it out of the freezer for about ten minutes to soften slightly before slicing.

Next, prepare the breadcrumbs – you don’t need expensive, pre-made breadcrumbs.  It’s a doddle to make your own & use up those crusts that everyone says they like, but always end up on the bird table.  Leave a couple of crusts on a plate, unwrapped for an hour to dry slightly – any bread will do (I use whatever I’ve got – seeded, baguette, whatever needs using up).  Chuck them in the blender & whizz them up until fine.  Job done!  If you’re not going to use them straightaway, pop them in a bag, flatten to remove the air & freeze.  They’re always handy to have & there’s no waste.

Take two skinless chicken breasts & cut across the thickest part to make two equal sized portions.  They may look small, but once they’ve been stuffed & breadcrumbed, they will be a lot bigger!  Make a small incision (about an inch long) in the side & create a larger cavity inside to make a pocket.  Push a slice or two of the garlic & smokey bacon butter into the cavity, then close up the opening with your fingers.

This is the messy bit:  you need to panée the stuffed chicken to make them into proper kievs.  To panée is a French term meaning to breadcrumb – for example, de la poulet panée means breaded chicken.  However, you need to concentrate & keep one hand for the wet dip, one for the dry.  This sounds simple enough, although many times I have panéed my fingers because I forgot which hand went where!  You need three dishes: one with a beaten egg, one with a couple of tablespoons of plain flour & one with fine breadcrumbs in it (a shallow one or a plate will do).

Roll the stuffed chicken breast in the flour, making sure it is coated everywhere, then shake off the remaining flour.  Using your other hand, dip the chicken in the egg then drop it into the breadcrumbs.  Using the same hand you did for flouring, sprinkle & pat the breadcrumbs onto the chicken, ensuring it is thoroughly coated on all sides.  Shake off the excess & place in a plate (sprinkle a few breadcrumbs onto the plate before you do this).  Repeat this process for the other chicken kievs, then cover the dish with cling film & put in the bottom of the fridge for an hour or so – raw meat should not be next to cooked or be above anything else, so I always use the bottom shelf.

This is where I do things a bit differently, because I prefer not to fry the kievs.  Preheat the oven to 220*C.  Get a roasting tin & lightly drizzle some olive oil in the bottom, then place the kievs on top.  Drizzle the tops with a bit more olive oil, chuck in a sprig of fresh Rosemary & bake them in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes.  Halfway through cooking, grab some tongs & turn them over carefully, replacing them in the oven to finish cooking.   Once cooled, pop a couple in a tub & freeze (pour over any escaped butter & crispy bits from the tin too).  They reheat well once defrosted too – just put them in a dish in the oven at 200*C for 20 minutes or so.  Make sure they are piping hot before dishing up – stick a metal skewer in the centre & if it’s hot to the touch, they’re ready.  They go great with a huge salad & proper chunky chips.  If you’re not keen on bacon or garlic, try using different stuffings in your chicken – maybe some sundried tomatoes, a couple of slices of Mozzarella & some fresh Basil leaves, or shredded spinach, Ricotta & chopped pine nuts.

Have a go at making your own ready meals & even if you’re not having building work done, sometimes it nice to have a freezer full of pre-prepped dinners for when you’re working late or can’t be bothered to cook.  A x