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macaroni and three cheeses

2 Nov

macaroni cheese, candles

Maybe you had a bad day. Maybe you came home tired and needed to take off your shoes and your smile. Maybe your day was fine, right up until someone asked, really asked, how was your day? and instead of saying, yes, fine, you cry unapologetically for an hour. Maybe you just wept while they reassured you, feeling selfish to be sad, but without the energy to protest. Maybe because you didn’t resist, their words washed over you and into you and made you cry again, but in relief.

By this time it is probably nearly ten o’clock, and you are tired and your cheeks are tight with salt tears, the opposite of a day at the beach. But something they said stuck with you, take care of yourself first. Make your own bed, serve yourself something you would cook for two.

If you are hungry now, or at least curious for food, you boil the kettle, heat a pot with water, salt. Stare at the water blankly. Then you look through the cupboards for something to eat – rice, potatoes, bulgur wheat. Is there any pasta? Please be pasta. Tip some elbow things, macaroni, into the boiling water, enough for one, two. Serve yourself something as nicely as if it were for someone else as well. There is just a tablespoon of butter, enough for a roux with a tablespoon of flour. Cook, stirring, in a small saucepan until nutty, then whisk in a cup of milk a little at a time. Maybe you spill some of the milk, but you don’t cry again.

There are odds and ends of cheese in the fridge from different adventures: stinky Epoisses, smoked Idiazabal, Cashel blue. You spend a minute grateful for your wanderings. Crumble or grate the cheese, and toast a few walnuts in the oven. By now the pasta is cooked, the béchamel thick, speckled with nutmeg and pepper. A bit lumpy, you don’t care. It all goes into a little baking dish – macaroni, cheese, sauce, walnuts – more grated cheese on top and into the still hot oven. You may still be tired, eyelids at half-mast, but your curiosity and appetite have been piqued. You might have made something truly delicious.

There is exactly one glass of red wine left from the night before. The pasta takes seven minutes to brown on top, which is all you need. Lettuce, dressing. By ten thirty you have dinner. Eat straight out of the baking dish, candles lit. Comfort food for company, for one.

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pasta e ceci, from rachel roddy’s “five quarters”

28 Sep

broccoli pasta

This rainy week in September, all I want to eat is pasta. Spaghetti, rigatoni, penne, macaroni. At first I thought it was early hibernation, resentment for the horizontal rain that struck me halfway home. Or a sense of habitual wanderlust: for four years during university, I spent each September in Italy, on language courses and then visiting friends. Rome, Florence, Perugia, Bari.

But the real reason I have been eating only pasta for a week is because I fell headfirst into the recipe book by my bed, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. It has everything I love from the original blog, rachel eatsclean, elegant writing, natural photos and a perfectly seasoned mix of stories from England and Italy.

Rachel Roddy’s recipes take me right back to those Italian kitchens I visited, waiting for the water to boil and snacking on scraps of parmesan if we ate late in the evening. People would drop by with wine, stories, chestnuts in the autumn, and there would always be enough for everyone, another handful of pasta. There, I mostly watched, chopped vegetables, set the table. I let the Italians salt the water, test the spaghetti to see if it was al dente.

The descriptions in Five Quarters perfectly capture that outsider’s gaze: an English woman in Rome for ten years, first starry-eyed, on holiday, and then, when she stayed, determined to master the peculiarities of Roman cooking.

Since each recipe, in true Italian style, only has a few ingredients, you know they have to be of good quality. When I picked up my burrata last week, I bought good spaghetti, pancetta and pecorino romano to start with the classic, spaghetti alla carbonara. Which, up until now, I had never actually made at home, intimidated by my Italian flatmate’s scorn at the French use of 1) cheap supermarket pasta 2) crème fraîche and lardons, instead of the proper egg and fatty pancetta or guanciale. The creamy sauce is all alchemy, no cream at all, just eggs whisked with finely grated cheese, tossed with the pasta and a little of the cooking water. If it gets too hot, it scrambles. Too cool or too much water, egg soup. I followed the instructions, and it worked, più o meno, more or less. There is always room for improvement. Italian food, Roman food, as Rachel explains, is all about la pratica, practice. I thoroughly appreciated her careful details, for steps as simple as how much water? how much salt?

So I practiced: I tried the pasta e ceci, a thick chickpea soup fragrant with rosemary, a fat anchovy for a kick of salt. I appreciated that there were two versions, for it is one of my favourite dishes. And a soup that is even better the next day. One lunchtime I spent a meditative hour boiling broccoli, then cooking it again with garlic, oil and chilli until it collapsed into a kind of pesto. That reminded me of waiting impatiently, in a Perugian kitchen, for a friend to do the same with a cauliflower. Nothing but time, oil and garlic, and again, that pasta water, to reduce it to its essence.

peperonata

Ever since I read about it on her blog, the red pepper stew or peperonata has been a staple in our house. I couldn’t resist making it again from the book.It goes with everything – meat, fish, piled on bread – hot or cold. Breakfast today was a fried egg on toast, rocket and a tangle of silky strands of peppers and onion. It is the tail end of the peach season, so I tried the recipe for pesche ripiene, baked in halves with a cap of buttery almond paste. (Equally good with large plums.) Could barely save one for breakfast the next day.

So much of Five Quarters has me fall down a rabbit hole of memories, that it feels like a kindred spirit: the pinzimonio di ceci I also tried at the River Café on my 25th birthday; the description of figs sandwiched with pizza bianca and prosciutto that just conjures Rome for me, figs so sweet they might have been dipped in honey. The caramelised oranges remind me of my granny.

It is one for quiet days at home, for simple, flavourful cooking with carefully chosen ingredients. Like the pasta e broccoli, the end result is greater than the sum of its parts. I have a mental list of the recipes I need to try: fettucine with butter and anchovies, a proper puttanesca,  and now that it is quince season again, cotogna in composta. And a growing list of places to visit and things to eat when I do go back to Rome – the restaurants, the market in Testaccio – to soak up that incredible atmosphere the book captures so well.

pasta jar, pencils

Pasta e ceci

adapted from Five Quarters  by Rachel Roddy. I hesitated at which recipe to write about, and since each one is beautifully detailed, I didn’t want to simplify or paraphrase. When I made the pasta e ceci, I used the ingredients from the first recipe and the method from the second, using tinned chickpeas and blending half because I like it thick. Hopefully it is up to scratch. Roddy recommends a “short tubular pasta, tubetti, ditalini or broken tagliatelle”. I used small penne – either way, it will be eaten with a spoon so choose accordingly!

serves 4

4 tbs olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled

2 sprigs rosemary

2 large anchovies, in oil

2 tins chickpeas (400g each), drained

200g plum tomatoes (ripe, fresh ones, or good-quality tinned), chopped

200g pasta (see note above)

salt and pepper

In a large saucepan on a medium heat, heat the olive oil and gently cook the garlic cloves (crushed with the back of a knife), the whole sprigs of rosemary and the anchovies. When the garlic starts to go golden, remove it and the rosemary from the oil (or the garlic risks burning and the rosemary will fall apart leaving uncomfortable spines in your soup). By now the anchovies should have dissolved. Add the tomatoes and squash them gently. Cook for a few minutes, add chickpeas. Boil a kettle and pour 1 litre hot water into the pan. Bring to a boil.

[At this point I should have let the soup simmer for a while to thicken and deepen the flavours. But I was very hungry. And it was still good. At your discretion.]

Carefully remove about half the soup and blend. (Or blend roughly with a stick blender, careful not to splash the hot liquid, leaving plenty of chickpeas whole.) If you prefer a more brothy soup, like a minestrone, skip this step. Stir it all together again, with a generous pinch of salt, allow to boil and add the pasta. Stir every now and then. Taste to check the pasta is done at least two minutes before the packet says it will be. Keep tasting until al dente. Adjust seasoning. Serve warm. Add a little parsley if you like a bit of colour.

Excellent reheated the next day.

roquefort and artichoke crostini and/or tagliatelle

10 Jun

What could possess me to invite seven Italians over and serve them pasta?

I should know better: I always cede the pasta cooking to the charming Italian flatmate. I make soup and muffins and quiche, but stand back for the all-important question of al dente.

But I really wanted to learn how make pasta like a nonna. And I openly want to be a member of their loud ebulliant tribe. So I weighed the flour and counted the eggs, put the water on to boil. Made some crostini in case the pasta took ages.

When they arrived, poor things, they were hustled into the kitchen a few at a time to prod the dough, add a little water, catch the pasta sheets as they rolled through the machine. And I learned a few things after last time: that the ball of dough should be firm enough not to stick to the counter, that it should rest a little before rolling. That you can sprinkle the tagliatelle with flour and stack them without worrying about sticking, you don’t have to hang them over all the cupboard doors as my mum used to.

We had made an olive and tomato sauce that was used up on the first go-round. Still hungry but more skilled, we rolled some extra pasta. In place of a sauce, we used the leftover crostini topping: mashed roquefort, a spoonful of mascarpone, a tin of artichoke hearts, diced, and a squeeze of lemon. Keep a bowl of it in the fridge for dips, for sandwiches and crostini. And if you feel like pasta, just loosen the mix with a splash of pasta water. Extra pepper, parmesan for sprinkling and that’s it.

The more you learn about Italian food, the more you learn that there is no recipe. No weight, only handfuls, pinches. (It should be a good fistful of salt in the pasta water, by the way!) No “knead for exactly 6 minutes”, only until it’s smooth.

Practice, practice, practice. Plus a large troop of Italians and a bowl of roast chickpeas to stop them from going hungry while they cut infinite strands of tagliatelle.

fresh tagliatelle with butter, pepper and parmesan

7 Mar

Is there a foodie version of the Gap Yah boy? You know, an incredibly annoying toff that loves to enthuse about jamon iberico, will only eat Pierre Herme macarons, insists that pesto should be made from scratch, darling, right down to having your hunky Italian gardener crush the basil leaves for you.

I think I am that guy.

Darlings, you absolutely must rush out and buy a pasta machine. Seriously. Yah.

No, but…

Fresh pasta. Long squiggly noodles tangling themselves around your fork, laughably long. Eased with butter, hiding pockets of parmesan in their knotty depths. That beautiful stretchy silky quality, the yellow that only comes from real egg yolks.

Fresh. Pasta. (I’m fighting the urge to capitalise all of these letters, so much do I want to impress its genius upon you.) In twenty minutes, seriously, from egg and flour and boiling water to bowl of buttery filaments. Less time than it would take to walk anywhere and buy anything delicious. (Unless you live next door to the falafel place, I’ll allow you that.) In the time it takes to boil a large pan of water.

Simple maths. One egg, one hundred grams of flour per person. Mix, knead, crank it through the pasta machine (like playing with a plasticine maker! or a torture device). Drop the pasta straight in boiling water.

The flatmate laughed at me as I manically wound pasta sheets. I am a better Italian than she is, so ridiculously delighted by the idea of such simple food. She shut up when she tried them. Stamp of approval.

Be amazed. Or not. I don’t care, I like my elitist food bubble. As long I have eggs, flour and butter I may never bother to buy normal food again.

Fresh tagliatelle with butter, pepper and parmesan

serves two, just about

200g flour, type ’00’ (or bread flour would do)

2 large eggs

(a little extra water / flour just in case)

hunk of butter

bigger of hunk of parmesan, grated

pepper

salt for the pasta water

Put on a large pot of water to boil. Salt generously.

Make a well in the flour, crack the eggs in it. Mix, knead. Add a drop of water or a touch of flour until it forms a smooth golden ball that won’t stick to your hands. Flatten. Leave to rest for a little while, covered in clingfilm.

Winding the handle (or pressing the button, if you have an electric one) push the pasta through the machine on its widest setting. Fold in half, turn a quarter turn and roll it out again. Repeat. (This activates the gluten, makes it stretchy.) Now roll it through several times, decreasing the thickness each time. You might need a helper to catch the pasta sheet coming out the other side. Or cut in half and carry on. If it sticks, flour the rollers slightly.

When you get to 5 or 6 out of 7, stop. (The finest setting is for the very delicate angel’s hair.) If you haven’t already, cut the sheet into 3 or 4 parts. Attach the cutting device (not sure what it’s called) and push through the fat tagliatelle setting. Make sure to catch the noodles as they come out. Drape them over an open cupboard door or the back of a chair until you are ready to cook, nicely separated or they will stick.

Drop pasta into madly boiling water and cook for 5 minutes, maximum. Drain (reserve a little pasta water) then toss with lots of butter, cheese, pepper. Add a splash of the water if it looks too dry.

Eat straightaway. Really actually.

P.S. Pasta machines only cost about 30 quid on Amazon…

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