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.