Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Kitchen Equipment

Unlike knives, you don't have to spend "big money" on other bits and pieces, you just have to know what you are looking for.

Pot's, pans, baking trays, and stuff like that:

Large non-stick frying pan. About 12-14" in diameter and about 3" high. Get the heaviest based pan you can... at least a cm. Mine is an M+S one that I've had for years and I cook all my sauces in it apart from bolognese (which is huge and I have to use either a wok or a large pot). If you get one with a metal handle you can also use it in the oven and under the grill.

Set of stainless steel saucepans with heavy bases... again about a centimetre thick at the base. The diameters  should range from about 7" to about 10".

If you can afford it... a La Crueset non-stick casserole pot. I don't have one but I wish I did. They are made of cast iron and you can use both in the oven and on the hob. Perfect for curries, goulash and casseroles! Larger the better with this one as long as it fits your oven.

Large non-stick wok. Not just for chinese food but for cooking large quantities of sauce like bolognese or chilli.

Griddle pan. We are not all blessed with a proper grill for steaks. Putting steaks under the home grill will not produce great results from my experience. Also handy for other stuff and leaves those lovely grill marks on whatever you are cooking. Health and safety be damned... turn the smoke alarm off while you're cooking and open the windows while using for a more peaceful cooking experience (but remember to turn the alarm on again afterwards).

Colander. My wife insisted on a "pretty" green one which is a pain in the arse to clean (day old rice is particularly painful to wash up). Get a non stick one or a stainless steel one. Bigger the better as long as it fit's your sink.

Sieve. Fine as you can get and worth buying a small one and a large one for different applications/containers. Get metal ones though, plastic sieves don't last long, they melt and discolour.

Pyrex dishes. Large round casserole with a lid and a long rectangular lasagne style dish.

Shallow, non-stick baking trays. As wide and long as your oven can fit.

Non-stick loaf tin for making bread. Just under the same size as ... erm... a loaf of bread.

Non stick cake tin with removable bottom. About 10" in diameter and 6" tall.

Fairy cake/muffin tray. Non stick is preferable and at least 6 cake bits.

Other bits:

Tongs. Absolute must! Small 8" pair and large 12" pair.

Wooden spoons. Try and get long ones as they'll keep you a nice distance from the pan.

Metal spoons. Slotted spoon, non-slotted spoon, ladle. At least a foot long.

Fish slice. No idea why it's called a fish slice as you absolutely do not slice fish with it. Slotted is probably preferable.

Potato masher.

Speed peeler. Those daft ones that are vaguely knife shaped are pants with a capital P. Make sure it's nice and sharp. Oxo do one called a "Good Grip" and it's awesome. Handy for more than peeling duties...

Tin opener. Mine is a MagiCan and has lasted ages. Think I've bought 2 in ten years.

Garlic crusher. Save SOOO much time and effort. Chef's might sneer at this little gadget but they can sod off.

Egg timer. Not just for timing eggs oddly enough... you can sit back and relax during downtime and this handy gadget will remember for you.

Food processor. And not one with a celebrity chef's name on it. Magimix or another well know brand. Spend as much money as you can on it. Mine is RUBBISH!! A supermarket's own brand and has fallen apart within 6 months of owning it but we still use it... Hand blenders are useful too but have a really short lifespan from my experience.

Chopping boards:

Get a good thick sturdy wooden one for veg and fruit. I use what's called a butcher's block for my veg.

Plastic boards for meat and fish. Ugly but sensible. If you get one that's not white, they'll last longer before you have to throw it away because it looks repulsive. Has to be plastic for meat though folks... blood etc can seep into the pores of a wooden one.

I think that's the necessities... I'll put more on the list if it comes to me... You've probably got most of it already but I thought I'd list the bare essentials.

Kitchen Knives

It is perhaps the chef's most valued tool and even when cooking at home, a decent one is an absolute must!

I share the same opinion of most chef's that there are three core knives that it's worth spending a bit of money on. A blunt cheap knife will cause more cuts and also invariably need replacing more often so it's worth the investment.

The three knives that I believe to be essential are the following:

8" Chef Knife.

This is your "go-to" knife for pretty much anything you need to chop or slice. You can use it for purposes it shouldn't technically be used for (you can even slice bread with it at a push as long as it's sharp enough), and it will become part of your hand when preparing anything! I couldn't live without mine. 6-8" long and about 1 and a half-2" tall is an absolute minimum though for safe chopping... trying to cut through butternut squash or turnips with a vegetable knife is going to lead to a really long and painstaking process at best and missing fingers at worst! You should also make sure that the blade is rigid and not flexible, you should not be able to bend your chef's knife at all.

3-4" Vegetable, Utility or Paring Knife.

When you need to get up close and personal to what you're preparing or if the peeler has gone walkies, absolutely essential! You'll find that you can often use this knife in place of similarly sized knives like filleting knives, just make sure that you wash it as thoroughly as you can (like all kitchen equipment) between different applications. Like I said above, make sure the blade is rigid!

Bread knife.

You can use other knives to slice bread but it isn't easy... I find it incredibly difficult even with the sharpest blade to get nice thin slices. If you buy sliced pre-packaged bread all the time and don't need to buy a bread knife... erm... well.... nuff said.

Those are the essential ones but there are other knives you may wish to consider:

10" Ham/Salmon knife.

Thin blade and perfect for slicing smoked salmon or cooked meats like a joint of ham (duh!). Also a good knife to use when cutting delicate things like soft cheeses, pate and terrine.

Pallet Knife.

So you've rolled your pastry and cut it out into shapes.... how ARE you going to get it off the work surface without butchering it with a fish-slice or ruining the shape with your fingers??? Mr Pallet Knife will prevent fingers from getting over involved. Pallet knives come in handy all over the place so it's worth buying one and the great thing about them is that they need not be expensive or sharp. Find one that's got a broad, thin blade and you're laughing.


I'm going to spend the next few posts talking about some basic skills and equipment that you'll need to cook well at home.

I realise that I should of probably done this at the outset but I'm not the most organised chap and wanted to dive in at the deep end with my Italian recipes (I'll get back to Italy soon but my blog just looks like an Italian cookbook at the moment so I'm trying to diversify).

It really is worth taking the time to perfect things like culinary knife cuts; and also worth investing a little money on some half-decent equipment. It will make your dinner parties seem much more "restauranty" and you may even save a bit of money (more on that later).

Friday, 16 September 2011

Fool-Proof Baked Salmon Fillets

There is nothing worse than over-cooked fish. You want fish really to be "just done" and it's a bit of a nightmare when you're trying to grill or pan fry fillets of salmon which are different thicknesses. Pan-frying fish is lovely, but the fish has to be pretty even in terms of thickness to ensure that it is cooked through.

The easiest way I have found to get perfect results is to use a combination of pan frying and baking in the oven.

This method applies to almost any fish but the cooking time varies depending on how thick the fillet is. the reason I call this method "fool-proof" is because it's quite forgiving in terms of cooking times and it's very difficult to end up with dry rubbery fish as long as you check it and give it your full attention.

You can use whatever seasoning and flavouring you want and serve with whatever you feel like but as a general rule of thumb, fish love the following: basil, chilli, garlic, dill, parsley, fennel, tarragon, lime.

I didn't put lemon in that list because it is an absolute MUST when cooking salmon or any fish this way, good olive oil is also very important (although clarified butter works well too).

The picture above is salmon with chilli, garlic and tarragon, served with rice on a roasted red pepper with roasted cherry tomatoes.

You will need:

Salmon fillets (preferably skin-on) 1 per person
Olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon per fillet
Salt and pepper
Tin foil

Preheat the oven to 180 C. Add a splash of olive oil to a pan and allow to get really hot on the hob.

Using the tin foil, create a sort of tray with a lid that is big enough to hold your salmon fillets. It needs to be water-tight to retain the liquid at the bottom and the top needs to cover the fish completely.

Pour a generous glug of olive oil and the lemon juice into the foil tray to make a bath for the salmon to sit in. At this point you would also add whatever else you are flavouring the fish with... chilli, tarragon etc. Season this well with salt and a little pepper and set aside on a baking tray.

Put the fillets into the hot pan skin side down and fry for a couple of minutes or until the skin (or visible side when serving) has colour. Take it off the heat and carefully transfer to the foil tray that you prepared earlier. Cover with the foil lid and put in the oven for about 7-10 minutes.

Check that the salmon is done by gently cutting into the thickest part of the fillet and making sure it has turned pink and is lovely and flaky. If it's still a little raw, leave for another 5 mins and check again.

Serve immediately with whatever you feel like!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Ed's English Beef Curry

A break from Italy for this one.

I started making curry because my wife and I moved to an area where all the local curry houses weren't up to scratch and we can't live without curry!

Unlike Italian food, I haven't yet started to prepare traditional Indian food. I'm currently reading "Gordon's Great Escape" and will probably get into it soon. This is as far from traditional Indian food as I'm sure it can get! For one, it uses beef rather than lamb; secondly... the cooking method is kind of screwy in terms of the way Indian people cook.

The reason for the cooking method is that the only way I could achieve the melt in the mouth meat that good curry houses plate up is by using similar methods that I use when making a stew or goulash. This is a dish that will take up quite a bit of time! Making my curry is a bit like "George's Marvellous Medicine" because it feels like you're just emptying the contents of your spice cupboard, but trust me it tastes great!

My curry is pretty much like a very hot rogan josh/vindaloo from what I can gather from the various recipes I've found on the internet. You can obviously take the number of chillies down if you prefer your curry milder and you can substitute lamb or chicken if you want.

Serves 4-6

750g Stewing steak cut into inch cubes
25g Butter
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
5 Cloves garlic, crushed
10 Red chillies, roughly chopped
1 Large onion, roughly diced
1 Red pepper, cut into strips
1 Green pepper, cut into strips
3 Tomatoes, cut into quarters
1 Tube tomato paste
2" Square of ginger, grated
Handful of fresh coriander, chopped roughly (save a few whole leaves for serving)
Heaped tablespoon of cumin
Heaped tablespoon of turmeric
Heaped tablespoon of garam masala
Heaped tablespoon of paprika
Heaped teaspoon of fenugreek
Teaspoon of cinnamon
Teaspoon of black mustard seeds
Teaspoon of hot curry powder
2 Bay leaves
Cider vinegar (enough to marinade and also a teaspoon for the curry, see below)
Balsamic vinegar to marinade
Plain yoghurt (enough for a teaspoon or so in the curry and to serve)
Juice of one lime
4 cloves, crushed
3 Teaspoons of tamarind paste
Large pinch of sugar
Salt and pepper

You need to marinade the beef for about 6 hours before you use it. To do this put the beef in a bowl and cover with the cider vinegar and balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt. The acid starts to break down the fibres in the beef and will give you a more tender end product.

When the beef has marinaded for 6 hours you need to construct the curry paste.

Put all of the dry ingredients in a suitable mixing bowl and add everything apart from the oil, butter, onion, peppers, bay leaves, beef, yoghurt and tomatoes. Mix this together until you have a rough paste.

Fry your onion in the butter and oil until soft and then add the peppers (you need a big pot which has a lid). Continue cooking until the peppers are beginning to soften. Add your paste to the onions and peppers and cook for about 2 minutes stirring continuously so it doesn't burn (this is my favourite part as all the spices give off a terrific aroma!). It's now time to add the beef cubes so rinse the vinegar marinade off and add them to the pot. Let the beef cook for about five minutes in the thick sauce. It's important to keep stirring as the sauce will burn if you're not careful. You now need to add about a pint of boiling water, stir it in, add the bay leaves and let it reduce on high heat. Put the oven on at 160 to heat up while it is reducing.

Once the curry has reduced to the point where it has quite a thick sauce, take it off the heat, put the lid on  and put it in the oven for about an hour and a half. At this point, take it out of the oven and add the tomatoes. Put it back in the oven for another hour or until the meat is "falling apart" tender.

Once the meat is tender, take the curry out of the oven and leave to rest for five minutes. Once rested, stir in about a tablespoon of yoghurt and serve with the rest of the yoghurt (for people to cool it down if it's too hot) and some whole coriander leaves (and of course a cold beer!).

From my experience it tastes LOADS better the day after so if you can resist eating it the day you cook it and reheat in the oven the following day, you'll enjoy it more (although remember you can only reheat it once).

A quick note on rice:

Rice cooks quicker and is more fluffy if you soak it for an hour first. I usually soak mine with a couple of cloves, a pinch of cinnamon and turmeric and a cardamon pod for flavour.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Risotto Con Piselli E Menta

This is a classic dish and as usual the marriage of peas and mint works like a charm.

Although it's not vegetarian, you could substitute the chicken stock for vegetable stock and adjust the seasoning to compensate for the pancetta.

Serves 2

50g of butter
Splash of olive oil
1 onion chopped very finely
2 cloves of garlic crushed
100g pancetta roughly chopped
Small glass of crisp white wine (about 100ml)
500ml of hot chicken stock (you may not need it all)
175g risotto rice
Handful of mint roughly chopped
2 large handfuls frozen peas
Handful of  finely grated parmesan plus extra to serve
Salt and pepper

Melt the butter with a splash of olive oil and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the garlic and pancetta and continue cooking for a minute or so. Now add the rice and stir gently until all the grains are coated. Pour in the wine and stir until it has nearly all been absorbed by the rice.

Throw in the peas and turn the heat to low. Gradually add the stock until the rice is al dente stirring regularly to make sure none sticks to the bottom. It should take about 20 minutes to cook so at about the 15 minute mark, add the chopped mint and the parmesan. Once cooked, season to taste and serve immediately.

You're looking for an oozy loose consistency so add a little more butter or a little more stock if not.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Penne Al Pesto Genovese

Pesto is a handy sauce to have in the fridge for a quick meal. I used to buy the little jars but after learning how easy it was to make, I decided to make my own.

It's name comes from the Italian for "pounded" and is a reference to the way it is traditionally made in a pestle and mortar.

There are many different sorts of pesto with different flavours but the one most people consider the classic green pesto is pesto genovese. My version is as follows...

You will need:

Large handful of basil (or two of the supermarket sized packets)
Handful of pine nuts
1 clove of garlic
Handful of grated parmesan
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Teaspoon of white wine vinegar
Dried penne

Mash up the pine nuts, garlic, basil stalks (not the leaves yet) and parmesan until you have a smooth paste (use a blender or a pestle and mortar). Chop the basil leaves until they are about 2mm squared (I do this so you can see the leaves... ). Add this to the mixture with the oil and vinegar and stir until the ingredients have combined and season to taste.

You can use it immediately but I like to leave it in the fridge for an hour so it sort of marinades itself.

Cook your pasta, drain, return to the pan and stir in enough pesto to coat it. Any left over will keep for about 3-4 days in a jar or covered container.

Serve immediately.

Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese

This is an easy one for me as the sauce is exactly the same as my lasagne recipe.

Italians NEVER serve bolognese with spaghetti as thicker cuts of pasta hold the sauce better. Also, the bolognese shouldn't be piled on top, it should be put through the pasta.

To make it, simply follow the meat sauce recipe from my lasagne recipe, cook the tagliatelle to al dente texture in salted boiling water, drain (retaining a small amount of pasta water), return the pasta to the pan and spoon in enough of the sauce to coat the pasta (you'll probably have some left over which you can leave to cool and freeze). Serve immediately with grated parmesan to top.

Quick tip on serving long pasta... If you use tongs to serve and twist the pasta onto the middle of the plate, you get a nice vertical effect as pictured above.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Gnocchi Con Funghi E Salvia

This recipe was originally one of Jamie Oliver's from his fantastic book "Cook With Jamie" (well worth a purchase as it's more a proper cookbook than trying to teach the masses how to cook). I've kind of bastardised it to suit my palate but I think it works rather well. It's not a healthy dish because of the butter and cream but it tastes yummy.

Serves 2

Gnocchi (see previous post)
2 cloves of garlic
6-8 fresh sage leaves, stalks removed, roughly chopped
about half a supermarket sized pack of chestnut mushrooms
Fifth of a pack of butter
olive oil
Half a cup of chicken stock (about 125ml)
Tablespoon of double cream
Juice of half a lemon
Teaspoon of white wine vinegar (may or may not be necessary)
Salt and pepper
Grated parmesan to serve

Make your gnocchi as per the previous post and bung them in the fridge to set.

Remove the stalks from the mushrooms, wash and dice into thin 2cm pieces. Add a small glug of olive oil to a hot pan and add the butter. When the butter begins to foam, add the mushrooms and fry for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic and sage and fry for a further few minutes until the mushrooms are soft. Add the stock and leave to reduce for about 2 minutes. Stir in the double cream and the lemon juice and season to taste. If the lemon juice is not enough to lift the stocky flavour, add a splash of white wine vinegar (or another half lemon if you prefer, I prefer the vinegar so it doesn't become too citrus). The consistency you are aiming for is kind of like a slightly thick broth and should retain some transparency. If it is too thick, add a bit of water, if it's too thin, let it reduce.

Cook your gnocchi, drain and very gently stir them into the sauce. Serve immediately with parmesan to top.

PS- Jamie's recipe also uses finely diced red chilli. It does taste great but I don't do so all the time as the dish is powerful anyway due to the sage. The picture above is from an occasion where I've opted for the chilli so that's the red bits you can see.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Homemade Gnocchi

There's nothing like homemade gnocchi. Gnocchi literally means "lumps" in Italian and they're kind of like little dumplings that you can use instead of pasta. The gnocchi you can buy in the supermarkets are very "doughy" and don't represent what I personally prefer in terms of consistency. I like my gnocchi to be fluffy and light and the following recipe shows you how to do it that way. The secret to good gnocchi is making sure that the potato is as dry as possible before you add the egg and flour. That's why I bake my potatoes rather than boil them. Personally, I find gnocchi is far easier to make than pasta once you get the hang of it and a good "cheat" if you want to impress at dinner parties with Italian food!

Serves 2-3

2-3 baking potatoes (depending on size, 2 if they're huge, 3 if not)
1 egg yolk (although I retain a very small amount of white because I think it makes it fluffier)
Handful and a half of tipo 00 flour (you may not need all of it)
Semolina flour to dust

The easiest way to bake your potatoes is to stick them in the microwave. You don't need a crispy skin because you will be discarding it so my advice is to put them in the microwave on full for 10-15 minutes (remember to prick the skin multiple times so they don't explode!) or until soft inside. You can of course do them in the oven but it will take considerably longer. Once cooked, set aside until cool.

Halve the potatoes and scoop out the middle into a bowl. Mash them thoroughly until you have an extremely smooth mash (I start with a masher and then spend a bit of time with a fork). Add an egg yolk to the mash and whisk it in (as previously stated, I retain a little tiny bit of the white). Add a little finely grated nutmeg and then start slowly adding the tipo 00 flour to the mash until you start to get a dough. The dough should be slightly sticky and you just want enough flour to bind it together. If you add too much flour, your gnocchi will start getting more like the stuff you buy in supermarkets which is what we're trying to avoid. You don't need to knead gnocchi dough for very long, just a minute at most so everything is combined properly.

Once you've done the above, dust a work surface and a tray with semolina flour and roll out the dough with your hands into long sausage shapes just over half an inch in diameter. Cut the long sausage shapes into inch long pieces and put on the floured tray. If you were being really fancy you can score each gnocchi piece with a fork but I generally can't be arsed. Pop the tray into the fridge for half an hour to set.

Cooking the gnocchi is pretty much the same as cooking fresh pasta. Boil a pan of salted water and then drop the gnocchi into it. The gnocchi will be cooked about thirty seconds after they rise to the surface of the pan, mine usually take about 2-3 minutes to cook. Serve with the sauce of your choice immediately.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Ravioli Con Salsa Di Pomodoro

Sun-dried tomato, basil and mozzarella ravioli with simple tomato and basil dressing.

This is quite tricky to make but tastes light and fresh like all good Italian dishes do. It's another one of mine so I'm not sure how traditional it is but wifey loves it! I have always loved the traditional mozzarella salad and thought that nothing could be better than having a tiny version contained within ravioli.

You will need:

Homemade pasta (see my previous post)
2 balls of mozzarella
Large handful of basil
Jar of sun-dried tomatoes (you won't need all of it... about a third)
5 ripe tomatoes
3 cloves garlic (finely chopped or crushed)
knob of butter (about a tablespoon)
Juice of 1 lemon
Olive oil
Handful of black kalamata olives
Salt and pepper
Parmesan to serve

Make the pasta dough as per my previous post. Once you've got to the point where it's in the fridge start making the sauce.

Chop the tomatoes into quarters and remove the seeds and watery bits. Dice them roughly and set to one side. Chop half the basil (including the stems) finely and set aside ready for cooking.

Melt the butter in a pan with about a tablespoon of olive oil and gently fry the garlic. Add the tomatoes and basil and season with a little salt and pepper. Add the juice from the lemon and the olives and simmer for just a couple of minutes. You should end up with something that is more like a dressing than a sauce. Once you've achieved this, take it off the heat until you're ready to cook the pasta.

Chop the sun-dried tomatoes into roughly half inch squares and tear the mozzarella into inch size pieces.

Roll the pasta as described in the last post to about setting 8 (or the next to last setting on your machine).

You now need to assemble the ravioli so make sure you have dusted a surface with semolina flour and have a floured tray to hand. I make mine five at a time on a rectangular sheet of pasta that measures about 10" by 6".  Place a piece of mozzarella, a bit of sun-dried tomato and half a basil leaf on top of each other at equal intervals on one side of the pasta. Using a brush, wash the areas that do not contain the filling with a little water. Fold the sheet over and push the pasta together around the fillings (try and push all of the air out). Cut the pasta using a knife or pasta cutter into squares and repeat until you've got about 6-8 ravioli's per person (if you have any pasta left you can freeze it and use it later). Put the ravioli on a floured tray (semolina flour works best here!).

Boil a pan of salted water and cook the ravioli for about a minute. Drain and add the ravioli to the tomato dressing. Toss gently over a low heat until the pasta is coated evenly and serve immediately with grated parmesan.

Homemade Pasta

So this is how I make my own pasta. I tend to only do it when I want control over it. I think things like ravioli and tortellini really require the extra effort because I want to prepare the filling myself but long stuff like pappardelle I just use dried unless I want to colour it with squid ink (or something else fancypants that again requires control).

Ok. First of all, unless you've got a three foot long rolling pin and a huge workspace... you need a pasta machine. You simply can't get the pasta thin enough in a small area. Make sure you buy a decent one. Mine is crap so it requires a lot of effort and cursing to get the pasta rolled correctly. Buy a really good one with nice heavy rollers. Buy a pasta cutter too... they cost bugger-all (£3 for mine) and make all the difference presentation-wise with ravioli.

There are loads of different recipes for pasta. Some are as simple as water and semolina flour, others call for eggs and tipo 00 flour, some call for all the above!.... like all things Italian, there are so many variations that there isn't a definitive recipe.

Here's mine:

Serves 2-3

75g semolina flour
125g tipo 00 flour
1 whole egg
2-3 egg yolks (depending on the size of the egg)
Tablespoon of olive oil
Semolina flour to dust (semolina flour is absolutely essential in my opinion when making pasta)

First of all, get a large mixing bowl. Some people do it on the work surface but it can get quite messy. Put your flour and semolina flour in the bowl and make a well in the middle.

In a separate bowl or jug, whisk together your egg, egg yolks and olive oil. Pour the egg mixture into the well in the flour and start pulling the flour into the egg with a fork. Once it gets a bit tough for the fork, get your hands in there and bring it together. If it's too sticky, add a little 00 flour; if it's too hard and dry, add a little olive oil or water.

Once you have the right consistency (roughly the same as bread but without the elasticity), knead for 5-10 mins, roll into a ball, wrap it in cling-film and put it in the fridge for at least half an hour.

Once it's been in fridge for half an hour, chop it into 3 or 4 pieces ready for rolling.

Dust your work surface with semolina flour and have more on hand for when you need it.

Roll out a piece of dough with a rolling pin so it resembles a pitta bread. You then need to start putting the pasta through the machine.

The settings on the machine usually go from 1 (thickest) to 9 (thinnest) so make sure the machine is on 1 before you start. Put the pasta through the lowest setting a couple of times and then progress up the settings until you get the desired thickness. I would say that you want about 7 for tagliatelle, linguine or pappardelle; and 8 or 9 for ravioli or tortellini (I personally find 9 a little too thin). Flour the pasta with semolina flour periodically to make sure it doesn't stick together. You may have to cut the sheets in half  as they get rather long and hard to manage.

Once you have the pasta at the required thickness, cut it to the desired shape and place on a tray which has been dusted with semolina flour. If you are making long pasta like linguine be very careful that it doesn't end up being tangled up and stuck together. Again, I cannot stress the importance of semolina flour when making pasta, it makes life so much easier and prevents it sticking together beautifully.

So your done! Fresh homemade pasta! Boil a pan of salted water and it's ready to cook.

Your pasta will only take a minute or so to cook so be careful, it can go extremely soggy even if over cooked for a few seconds!

Friday, 29 July 2011

Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca

Without doubt, my favourite pasta dish is Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca which literally means "whore's style spaghetti" (yes I know the picture has linguine in it but I didn't have any spag in the cupboard). It's a dish packed full of flavours but once you get a taste for it, it will be your sauce of choice whenever you make pasta. It originates from the south of Italy and was first created in the 1950's by a man called Sandro Petti who owned a restaurant on the southern Italian island of Ischia near Naples.

As with any Italian dish there is no "correct" way of making it but this is the way I make mine.

Serves 2

Olive oil
3 cloves garlic chopped finely or crushed
handful of chopped parsley
4 anchovy fillets
3 red chili's chopped finely seed removed
3 teaspoons of small capers
generous handful of kalamata black olives
tin of chopped tomatoes
heaped teaspoon of tomato paste
Handful of cherry tomatoes
Jar of tuna (optional... worth adding if you can get a posh jar of Albacore in olive oil. Tins won't cut it).
Good quality dried spaghetti (or linguine)

Chop the garlic, chilli and parsley finely ready for cooking.

Boil a pan of salted water and start cooking your spaghetti. The sauce will take about ten minutes.

Fry the garlic in about a tablespoon of olive oil (err on generous with the oil rather than trying to make it low fat) being careful not to burn it. Add the anchovies and chilli and fry on a low heat until the anchovies have melted. Add the tin of tomatoes and the tomato paste and bring to a simmer. Add the capers, cherry tomatoes, half the parsley and the olives and leave to simmer for about 6-7 minutes. Don't let the sauce get too thick and try and keep the cherry tomatoes and olives intact. You're aiming for something thick enough that it coats the pasta but remains slightly "brothy"(this is why Italians serve bread with everything, because they like to mop up the sauce).

Your pasta should probably be cooked by now (al dente please peeps!) so drain it, retaining a small amount of the water and add it to the pan of sauce (if you're using tuna, break it up into chunks and add it now). Gently fold the pasta into the sauce and heat gently for about a minute. Serve with the rest of the parsley scattered over the top.

What no parmesan????!!!?? Nope. You can of course have parmesan grated over the top (my wifey likes to do so and it's your dinner so you can do what you want), but it is absolutely frowned upon to top pasta sauces containing fish with cheese in Italy. So if you see puttanesca on the menu of your favourite Italian restaurant and you ask for parmesan, don't be alarmed if the waiter or waitress shoots you a funny look!

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Lasagne Al Forno

So this recipe is my own. It's my interpretation of a classic bolognese sauce and my version of a white sauce.

All the quantities are supermarket sized packs unless stated otherwise.

Serves 4-6

you will need:

Olive oil
A large carrot
A stick of celery
A large onion
3 cloves garlic
A large glass of red wine
A pack of pork mince
A pack of beef mince
A tablespoon of tomato paste
2 tins of peeled plum tomatoes
Sprig of fresh rosemary
2 or 3 bay leaves
Pinch of sugar
Salt and Pepper

Plain flour
Full fat milk
Gruyere cheese (grated)
Grated parmesan

Fresh lasagne sheets

Very finely dice onions, celery and carrots and fry in hot oil. Add the garlic and mince and brown the meat. Add a large glug of wine (enough to just about cover the meat) with some finely chopped rosemary and leave to reduce. Add the tinned tomatoes (without the juice), with a tbsp. of tomato paste. Reduce again until a little thicker. Season and put in oven with a couple of bay leaves (180C) until sauce has thickened and is a dark red (maroon).

Make a roux with the flour and butter (google this to make my life easier). Add warm milk until it becomes a smooth sauce. Add the gruyere gradually tasting until it becomes a smooth cheesy sauce and finely grate a pinch of nutmeg into it. Add a small handful of grated parmesan.

Layering: Meat sauce->Lasagne->Cheese Sauce->Meat Sauce->Lasagne (repeat). Finish with cheese sauce top with grated parmesan. Drizzle a little oil over the top and scatter some coarse black pepper over it.
In the oven 200C for about half an hour or until golden.

Rigatoni Con Porcini E Portobello

I'll start with this as it's really easy. This wasn't my recipe to begin with by the way, it belongs to Theo Randall. If you don't know who he is, look him up! He's a fantastic british chef who has embraced Italian cooking. I've bastardised it a little as all chefs do but his theory is still there and it's still really simple to make.

You will need:

Serves 2

Dried rigatoni (two and a half handfuls for each person)
Olive oil
Knob of butter
3 cloves garlic
30g Jar of dried Porcini mushrooms
3 or four large portobello mushrooms
Half a small glass of white wine (about 50ml)
Fresh thyme
Fresh parsley
Double cream
Salt and pepper
Parmesan to serve.

Soak the porcini in boiling water for twenty minutes, In the meantime, roughly chop the portobello mushrooms (I usually just squish them in my hands) and fry them in the butter with a little olive oil. When the mushrooms start to soften add the garlic (crushed) and the wine. When the portobellos have become soft, add the pasta to a pan of boiling salted water. By this time the porcini will have softened in the hot water. Drain them and add to the portobello mushrooms with a generous amount (about 3 sprigs) of thyme leaves and about a teaspoon full of chopped parsley. Add about 100ml of cream to the mushroom mixture (just enough to make it slightly saucy but still very chunky) and season with salt and pepper. Check your pasta to make sure it is al dente. If it is done, drain it (retaining a little of the water). Add the pasta to the mushrooms, stir, and heat gently for about a minute. Serve immediately with chopped parsley  and finely grated parmesan scattered over the top.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Pasta Sauces

Once you've decided on what pasta you're going to eat you need to think about the sauce.

A jar of Dolmio or Lloyd Grossman does not constitute what I would call a pasta sauce. As I've mentioned previously in this blog, the time and effort it takes to make your own sauce really does make these silly little jars seem pretty pointless.

From my experience and research, there is no "correct" way to make a pasta sauce. The recipe for a particular sauce varies from region to region in Italy and indeed household to household. The thing that you need to think about when making a pasta sauce is what flavours are there and are they broadly speaking going to give you something that would pass as a "traditional" Italian sauce. For example, my bolognese is  different to Antonio Carluccio's and his bolognese is different to Jamie Oliver's. Italians (and cooks like me who profess to know how to cook Italian food) argue constantly about what is and isn't correct.

However.... you can rely on the following three facts:

1. Not all sauces start with frying an onion. In fact, I have come across very few that do!
2. Italians usually only put one (or two maximum) herbs in their sauces. The idea of throwing basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, rosemary, bay etc etc all in the same pot is quite often why our English interpretations of Italian dishes fall flat. Get that packet of mixed herbs and throw it away! It serves no purpose whatsoever! Sauces are often flavoured with other things so it doesn't need drowning with a multitude of herbs.
3. Sauces are not overly thick and bunged on top of a pile of pasta. They are reasonably light and usually put "through" the pasta to coat it.

Follow these three rules, taste your sauces while you're making it (if it tastes delicious without adding another herb or spice, don't add it unless you know that it will taste even better!) and pasta sauces will become a doddle.


Thoughts On Pasta

A quick word about pasta.

When you go to the supermarket there are now many choices when it comes to pasta. All the different shapes and sizes, dried pasta, fresh pasta, filled pasta... the list is endless! You can now buy pasta machines for making your own quite cheaply so it gets a little confusing as to which is the best way to go when preparing pasta dishes.

Here's my advice on which pastas to use for your dishes.

For anything long or stringy (tagliatelle, spaghetti, linguine etc), or interestingly shaped (penne, fusilli, rigatoni, macaroni), buy dried pasta. The reason for this is because the fresh stuff is hard to get al dente and making your own is a bit of a chore unless you want something special like squid ink taglliarini. Don't buy quick cook dried pasta as it gets mushy very quickly, go for the stuff that takes about 12 minutes and cook it for a minute less than the instructions say (or dig in and try a bit).

For al forno (in the oven) dishes like lasagne, cannelloni etc. Buy "fresh" pasta or make your own if you can be bothered. I only buy the "fresh" pasta from the super market for the above dishes, simply because things like lasagne take a bit of time to prepare and I've found that it still provides great results!

Anything that is stuffed and sealed like ravioli or tortellini... make the pasta yourself! You have the control over the filling and they won't look "shop bought". I always think that with something like Tagliatelle Alla Bolognese (NOT SPAGHETTI!!! Most Italians are pretty disgusted by our english bastardisation of a beloved family dish) the sauce is the main event, a bit like with steak and chips... the steak is the main event. But with ravioli and tortellini, the pasta is the star of the show. Buying fresh lasagne sheets from the supermarket won't cut it I'm afraid as the sheets are too thick so if you want to start experimenting with stuffed pasta, buy a pasta machine and be prepared for a bit of trial and error. Once you get the hang of it, it's not that hard!

Homemade Pizza

I'm putting this one first as the dough recipe is almost exactly like the recipe for white bread with a few minor differences:

1. Use olive oil as your oil and put quite a good glug of it in there.
2. Cut the flour with semolina flour. I use about 50-100g of semolina flour and then make it up to 500g with strong white bread flour.
3. It only needs to rise once.

(You'll probably have too much dough unless you're feeding a large family but you can turn the remaining dough into bread).

Anyway... before doing the dough, I do the tomato sauce so it's ready to go when your dough is ready.

You will need:

Olive oil.
A tin of tomatoes per 12" pizza you're going to make.
A few cloves of garlic (to taste)
Tomato puree (just a little bit)
A good handful of fresh basil
A little bit of fresh oregano
Salt and pepper

Gently fry the garlic in a generous amount of olive oil until softened (don't burn garlic ever it makes things taste awful). Add the tinned tomatoes (with the juice) and bring the heat up until it's bubbling. Add a teaspoon of tomato puree and throw in the basil and oregano and a pinch of salt and pepper. Let this bubble for about 5 minutes until the herbs are wilted.

Pass the sauce through a sieve using a spoon to squeeze the pulp so you get all of the juice from the tomatoes.

You should be left with a thin tomato juice. Reduce this on a simmer until it is just a little thinner than the consistency of a tin of tomato soup (oddly enough it tastes a little bit like Heinz tomato soup too).

Now it's time to make your dough. Follow the recipe for bread with the changes I've highlighted above.

While the dough is rising, put the oven on as high as it will go. What you need now is a heavy tray to cook the pizza on. I use the grill pan turned upside down but you can buy pizza stones specially for the job. Put the tray or  stone in the oven to heat up. It is absolutely essential that the oven and the tray are screamingly hot so leave the oven on for as long as you can (I usually leave it on full whack for a whole hour... not very economical but it does the trick).

Make sure you have all your toppings ready to dress the pizza. Anything that needs to be chopped needs to be done in advance because you're going to have to work quickly.

Once the dough has risen (see bread recipe), knock it down and knead for about a minute. Chop it into fist size pieces according to the number of pizzas you are going to make (put the remainder into a loaf tin and leave it to prove... see bread recipe). Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it's about (nearly but not quite) as thick as two beer mats. Don't worry about the shape, it's just going in your gob and getting it perfectly round is a right pain. If you're concerned about presentation, roll it out and trim it to either a rectangle or a circle with a knife.

Take the tray or stone out of the oven and lay it flat. Place the rolled pizza dough onto it (you should hear it starting to cook). Use a spoon to add a thin layer of the tomato sauce to the top of the pizza. You should be able to see through the sauce to the dough, too much sauce will make it soggy. Get as near to the edges without it dripping, then add the rest of your toppings and a little olive oil.

Get it in the oven as quickly as possible. The aim here is that the tray or stone retains as much heat as possible.

Once in the oven, the pizza will take very little time to cook. Somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes. I just wait until the crust starts to go golden.

When you take it out you should be able to easily move the pizza to a plate and the underside should be reasonably firm. The crust should be golden and crunchy.

A quick note on toppings. You can put whatever you want on a pizza but you have to think about moisture and how it will affect the dough. Soggy things will make soggy pizza so just be careful!

One of the pizzas pictured here is simply topped with pesto (something I ripped off Strada) and is lovely with a little chilli oil. The other is my recreation of the now defunct Soho pizza from Pizza Express.

Speaking of those two chain restaurants... I haven't been to either in ages... well not since I started making my own pizza. If you're going to go to one or the other... go to Strada! A little dearer but well worth it in comparison...

But not a patch on homemade!!


It would be impossible for me to do a food blog without talking about Italy.

Italy is by far and away my favourite country. Not just because of it's beautiful architecture and it's wonderful scenery but because of the attitudes towards food and the way food and eating is so integrated into their culture and the Italian way of life.

It seems to me that unlike us Brits, there is still a strong emphasis on eating together as a family and mammas and nonnas still pass down their culinary skills from generation to generation.

Admittedly, this is changing as more women work and spend less time preparing meals but to give you an idea of the difference between the UK and Italy; they think it's "cheating" to buy pre-prepared fresh pasta, we would think that we had cooked properly if we rustled up a sauce and put it through a bag of "fresh" tagliatelle; when we're in a rush, we buy a sarnie from M+S or Boots, food on the go will be a lovely slice of freshly made pizza to the average Italian.

So you've probably guessed that my favourite type of food is Italian. But not the Italian that is generally prepared in the UK. I cannot STAND things like Dominos or Pizza Hut... the wet, soggy, sugary shite that they sell is as far from Italian pizza as you can possibly get. I have little time for "Italian" chain restaurants who used powdered sauces and pre-made frozen meals.

I also loathe pre-made sauces in jars. Why? Because whipping up a simple sauce for pasta is so easy and quick, that I fail to see the point in buying a jar which will not taste as good and probably be more expensive. Even by me listing the following without any instructions you could probably do it: Olive oil, garlic, tinned tomatoes, basil, salt + pepper. It will take you about 15 minutes in a pan, less time than nipping out for a jar of sauce!

So the next few recipes will be Italian (although I'm sure any Italian readers will have extremely varied opinions on whether they're anything like they had at home, but it's my take on Italian food)... Some of it takes a little practice but once you've got the knack of it, it's extremely rewarding and you'll be making it as part of your repertoire in no time!


Thursday, 7 July 2011

Homemade White Bread

Wheat Flour, Water, Yeast, Salt , Soya Flour, Vegetable Fat, Fermented Wheat Flour, Emulsifiers: E472e, E471, Flour Treatment Agent: Ascorbic Acid.

That's the ingredients label from a well known bread manufacturer. I say manufacturer rather than bakery because that's what we generally eat: "manufactured" bread. Whereas homemade bread requires about two and a half hours or more from start to finish, bread manufacturers have managed to reduce that time to just 20 minutes by including scientific processes and treatments.

Ingredients for bread should read something like this:

Strong white flour, water, yeast, a little oil, salt

That's about a third as long as the list at the top of this post.

Making your own bread actually requires very little of your time. True enough the bread itself needs time but you can leave it alone for long periods of time and the mixing and kneading required by you will only take about twenty minutes.

Here's the magic recipe:

500g Strong flour,
1 sachet dried yeast,
a pint jug of warm water (warmer than lukewarm but not "hot")
pinch of salt
teaspoon of oil (your choice here... I use olive oil)
(you can put a pinch of sugar in as well. Think I heard somewhere that the yeast likes it!)

Put your dry ingredients into a bowl and give it a little mix up.

Add the oil to the dry mix.

Using a fork to mix, slowly add the water into the dry ingredients. Do this in stages as you will probably not need all of the water (it's handy to have more warm water to hand in case things go wrong. Once the dough becomes too thick for the fork, it's time to get stuck in with your hands (take any rings off first mind you!).

The mixture should start coming together as a dough. Once it's smooth but not sticky it's ready to knead. If it is sticky, add a little flour. If it's too dry, add a little water.

Knead for about ten minutes by pulling it, folding it back on itself and stretching it again. Some people knead on a floured work surface but if your bowl is big enough so you can really give the dough a workout, you can use that to save on mess.

Shape the dough into a ball with your hands and rub a little oil over it to stop it drying out.

Put it at the bottom of a floured bowl that's big enough to hold twice the amount of dough that you currently have.

Cover with cling film and leave for about an hour in a warm place.

When you return to the dough, it will have doubled in size. Remove the cling film and punch it right in the middle. 

The dough will deflate and return to a smaller size. Knead again for one or two minutes and then put the dough into a loaf tin. Stretch and mould the dough to fit the tin. Cover it, put the oven on at about 200C to heat up, and leave it again for another 45 mins to an hour. Sometimes I just pull the bread into a vague loaf shape and put it on a lightly greased baking tray. You get some funny looking shapes but I think that just makes it look more "homemade".

Once the dough has rested (proved) for 45 minutes, put it in the oven for about 30-40 minutes. You'll know it's done if the crust appears golden, the bread has risen and when you turn it upside down it sounds hollow when you tap it.

If your bread is done, put it on a wire rack to cool (or something where the air can get to all parts of it, I normally just prop it on top of the loaf tin as I don't have a wire rack).

Ta Dah!!! Homemade bread!!

I know that the above sounds like a pain in the arse but it's really not and you can just let it do it's thing for most of the time.

The picture at the top of this post is my first attempt at making bread at home. I've done it better since but I wanted to show just how easy it really is and believe me... it tastes loads better than bought bread.

Works out much more economical as well as the ingredients work out at £0.24p (on Ocado) for each loaf.