Biancomangiare, fit for a Norman

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British people find this a daunting thing.  It’s best not to tell them what’s in it, lest entrenched prejudices and fears are (justifiably) roused.  Just present it, a fait accompli, raising ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’

However, people from the Mediterranean; Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, rhapsodise over this, tear up at the thought of their island’s version of it. It is memory of a dish. It is a pudding of almonds, pistachios and rosewater. A jelly with no gelatine. Virginal white, like the travertine of Ortigia.  There is wobble, sensuality, opera even.  Am I getting carried away?  Perhaps.  It is, after all just a blancmange.

And with that single word, I can hear the klaxons sounding on five continents.

Images of lurid, set-foam pink frightening the horses.

Stick with me.

Imagine the summer heat of Sicily, the almond harvest has hit the markets, and you are weighed down by their velvety abundance.  What to do?  What to make?

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One of the most refreshing things you can do is to make almond milk (as ever, this is a very, very distant cousin of the stuff you buy in cartons).  You can mix just a few bitter almonds into the mix to intensify the flavour from their added cyanide kick  (not essential, especially if you’re of a nervous disposition).  And then the sun of Sicily, sitting on the same latitude of North Africa, has already ripened those almonds to perfection, imbibing them with a depth of flavour you will seldom encounter anywhere else.

The milk is easy to make in the UK too, take at least 250g of dried almonds and blanche them in hot water.  The word makes it sound fancier than it is. The hot water loosens the brown papery skin around the almonds, so you can pop them out, all creamy white sweetness.  It is not a chore if you do it in front of the TV, or whilst chatting to friends with a cup of tea.  Then blitz the denuded nuts, and soak them in cold water for 24 hours with a teaspoon of almond extract to compensate for any flavour lost in transit.

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Strain the steeping wonderfulness through a clean cloth, muslin if you have it.  The nuts will have lost most of their flavour, but you can still use them in baking, once they’ve dried out. 

The bone china drink you get out is essence of almond.  It is perfumed, and when sweetened and chilled, can transport you to an imagined world of sultans, of Cleopatra, legendary cities and wild adventures.  It smells and tastes like decadence distilled.  And its ability to refresh and restore in the leaden heat of Palermo in August, only adds to its magic.

Can it be improved?  Well yes.  It can be made into a pudding, for sculpting and moulding.  For adding theatre and silliness to a meal.

Take your litre of fresh almond milk, and use a little of it to mix up 70g of cornflour.  To the rest, add 100-200g caster sugar.  This is a sliding scale of Sicilian.  The more Sicilian you are, the more sugar you’ll add.  Grate the zest of a lemon into the sugar and milk and gently warm through to dissolve the sugar.

As soon as this has happened, add the mixed flour and remaining almond milk.  Turn up the temperature, and stir continuously.

Very quickly, it will sputter and bubble, and the milk will thicken to a set custard consistency.

Before you started, you could have had a rummage around the back of the cupboard, pulling out any odd little cake tins or jelly moulds you may have inherited, or bought from Ikea on a whim.  You can lightly grease them with almond oil.  If you don’t own any frivolous cake tins, small glasses will do.

Turn the heat off, and with not a moment to lose, fill your chosen molds with the now scalding milk., which will rapidly become sullenly viscous as the temperature drops.

Once it’s cooled to room temeprature, chill until you’re ready to serve.

Turn it out and decorate as you see fit; chopped green pistachios work, I make a praline with the leftover ground almonds and sugar (then blitz it to a powder). There is a Cypriot version of this that uses rosewater – so the dried rose petals I can get in my local Iranian deli work really well for that.

As a pudding, it’s easy to make, (24 hours of soaking aside), and it’s even easier to make it look special, camp, grand.  But so delicate to taste, a one hit flavour and a smooth, becalming texture.  This is not the blancmange of post war Britain, sucking the joy off the table, but a Blancmange of William the Good and his legendary Norman court.  Something otherworldy.  Something mythical.

Ingredients

  • 250g whole almonds (if you want a stronger flavour, use more, up to 500g if youre especially decadent).  And if you can get fresh, you’re laughing.
  • 1 litre of water
  • 70g cornflour
  • 1 lemon
  • 100-200g caster sugar

Chicory Risotto

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We’re in the gap; when all those root vegetables and brassicas of winter have finally run their course, but there’s precious little on the allotment to take their place.  This is the time of the larder and the freezer; lots of pulses, frozen beans, jars of last summer’s passata.  But, there is fresh vegetable relief in the form of chicory.  Surely one of the easiest crops on the allotment (apartment from their final couple of weeks of molly coddling)?  Even the pigeons leave it alone; sow it in late autumn, and it just grows, shrugs off the winter and sits, waiting to be harvested whilst all around is a blasted heath.

I say chicory; but that’s a word that encompasses a whole raft of salads; leafy greens of varying degrees of bitterness.  I wrote about puntarelle a few weeks ago; very Italian and virtually unknown in the UK.  Italy loves chicory, just as it loves bitterness – think Campari, Cynar and Aperol; in the UK, the embrace is less demonstrative, and we, ever in need of justification, have to make it more fancy than it needs to be, and less bitter than it should be.  So, we torture it, starving it of daylight whilst forcing it into growth, to create tight, pale shoots that are sweeter, tender and more delicate than they would be if allowed to take their own time in the growing.

And then you can make a fancy but anaemic salad, perhaps with some citrus or a raspberry vinegar dressing. It will be terribly UnBritish.  It’ll feel healthy, nobody will really enjoy it, and you will long for the spring famine to finish so that you can eat peas raw from the pod and buttered radishes.

Or you can embrace the Latin, celebrate the bitter, accept that it is only March, and that the peas and radishes will have to wait.  Make a risotto, a risotto that is breathtakingly good, with a punch of flavours that belies its simplicity.

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For Two

  • Two chicory heads
  • Stick of celery
  • One medium onion
  • One medium tomato
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • Butter
  • 50g risotto rice
  • Dry white vermouth
  • Vegetable Stock
  • Pecorino
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Salt & Pepper

Take your chicory heads, slice them in half and simmer it in salted water for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery, tomato and garlic very finely and then fry until soft (but not brown) in an indulgent amount of butter.

Drain the chicory and slice it into thin strips (about 1cm across).

Turn up the heat and add these, and the rice to the onions and celery

Then add a slug of the vermouth and let it boil off (Vermouth is better than white wine in this recipe as it gives a herby tang that complements the chicory).

Now add vegetable stock, about 50ml at a time, you don’t need to obsessively hover over the pan, but check it every two or three minutes to make sure the rice isn’t sticking and to add more stock if it needs it.  After about ten minutes, taste the rice.  I like a bit of bite, some people prefer more of a rice pudding texture.  Go with what you prefer.

Finally, add salt and pepper as you see fit, then dish it out with a generous topping of fresh chopped parsley and grated pecorino.  It’ll be piping hot and salty, the chicory will impart a very gentle mustiness, like the smell of cooked cabbage, but beyond delicious.  

So, there, chicory risotto.  Infinitely better than any ill-conceived salad for a blustery March day.

Sweet & Sour Pumpkin

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In a blog that is mainly about Italian food, this is going to sound very dumb, but this is a  recipe that is really very, very Italian.  And I mean that in a culturally alien, lost in translation way.  I don’t say this to discourage you, but I think it stems from the fact that we only really grow pumpkins to carve in the UK.  Other than that, and Covent Garden soups, we don’t really know what to do with them, they’ve just never quite caught on here.  Then there is the weather against us.  Winter squashes are, by definition, at their best, in the winter.  Their flavour deepens with storage and they store well after their autumn harvest  So the best time to be eating them is in the post Christmas lull, which is not perhaps the best time to be eating cold starchy salads in dingy Britain.  Also, who has fresh mint growing in the garden in February?  Finally, the mint, the vinegar, the sugar.  What the hell?  I just didn’t have enough life-experience to grasp what was happening the first time I tried this. 

Perhaps I should try selling this better.  For a start, there is deep frying involved and anything deep fried is, it goes without saying, good.

The first time I made this unsupervised, I made the stupid mistake of trying to shallow fry my squash, which just doesn’t cut the mustard.  They didn’t brown, they didn’t crisp up; they just soaked up the oil and turned to mush.  I gained new wisdom from the Sicilian: “basically, whenever I say ‘fry something’, I really mean ‘deep fry it’”

So assuming you have fried your squash in profligate depths of olive oil, you will have a plate of golden brown crescent moons of oily squash draining on kitchen paper.

Now, arrange them in a tray and douse with red wine vinegar, before adding chopped mint, salt, sugar and pepper.  It’s hard to give absolute quantities, as each squash, is different, absorbing more oil, needing less sugar, and the mintiness of mint can never be guaranteed if you’re buying it from a supermarket.  Keep tweeking, and don’t be concerned about sticking to hard and fast proportions.

Leave the sweet and sour and herbs to interact for a few hours, even 24 hours, and then eat as an antipasti, with bread (of course, as no Sicilian meal is complete without, at least, the option of bread) to soak up the juices.  It works well with other preserved or pickled vegetables.  I like it with artichoke hearts and cold, oily sweet peppers.

Maybe the first time you try this, you’ll be as perplexed as I was – a savoury dish that is sweet, but  tangy and minty.  But stick with it, work with the pairings, consider the bread to choose; have the patience to let it infuse for a day.  You’ll become extremely fond of this dish, it will become a thing you look forward to making in the dark depths of February,

And if, in February – this cold dish from a hot foreign island seems just too alien, warm it through in the oven – the heat makes it more northern, more acceptable to a Saxon taste.  There are versions that add chilli flakes for extra heat and another Sicilian version that is baked in the oven with onions. I have been known (when the Sicilian isn’t around) to add anchovies. All of these are good, and further justify the growing of rampant winter squashes if you have the inclination and the space.

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One winter squash, peeled, deseeded and sliced into crescents 1-2cm thick.

2-3 cloves of bruised garlic.

Enough olive oil to cover your sliced squash in a deep frying pan.

Fresh mint*

Red wine vinegar (50-100ml)*

Salt and pepper.

*quantities will vary according to the size and absorbency of the squash, and your own tastes.

First put the cold oil and garlic in your big, heavy, deep frying pan.

Turn the heat on, and brown the garlic, then remove it from the oil (hang onto it though).

Fry the squash slices, in batches, in the oil, growing on both sides.   Don’t put too many in at once, as this cools the oil, which stops the squash from browning and they’ll start to disintegrate.

As they cook, drain them on kitchen paper, then arrange them in a serving dish.  Sprinkle over the saved browned garlic, chopped mint, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Cover and leave to steep in the fridge for as long as you can.

Serve at room temperature or warm through – as you prefer.

Refrigerator cake, with bells on

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This is a short one – a stocking filler.

When I first heard of this, I thought ‘refrigerator cake’.  Which is exactly what it is.  But with Italian style.

It’s as easy as falling off a (yule) log – there is no cooking involved, and the simpler you keep the ingredients, the better.  It’s a visual joke, a thing for kids’ parties and Christmas, that will still impress and delight the grown ups.  Have it in the afternoon with a cup of strong coffee, or after dinner with a coffee killer to slice through its richness.

As you can see, this ‘cake’ looks suspiciously like a salame – it even has the white mould on the outside, and has been tied up with string.  But then you cut a slice of your salame, and wonder of wonders – it’s made of chocolate and nuts and biscuits and the ‘mould’ is icing sugar.  The ultimate vegetarian salame!  

I like this cake.  When we make a refrigerator cake in the UK, it’s a blocky, in the tray kind of thing.  It is symptomatic of Italy, that the ordinary is made extraordinary, that you can be funny and classy at the same time, and that you don’t compromise on flavour.

Here’s the Sicilian’s recipe – there are plenty of other versions, some with figs, some with almonds, some with amaretto.  But this is his.

2 egg yolks

100 g caster sugar

150g butter 

200g cocoa powder (unsweetened)

60g hazelnuts

200g digestive biscuits

A slug of rum (although not if your making it for a kids’ party)

Icing sugar

String

Toast your hazelnuts in the oven for ten minutes, then put them into a clean tea towel.  Fold this over and rub the nuts vigorously.  This will get most of the skins off the nuts, which makes them sweeter.  Leave to cool.

Mix the yolks and butter (leave it out of the fridge to soften) and then add the sugar, mixing until you have a smooth cream.

Add in the cocoa powder and mix very slowly (if you’re using an electric mixer, put it on the slowest speed, otherwise you’ll end up with a brown cloud that’ll coat everything nearby with chocolate.

Break up the biscuits into small pieces and add them and the nuts to the chocolate mixture.  Fold them in gently (best with a wooden spoon or your hands, as you don’t want to break the biscuits up any more).

Then, place the mixture on a rectangle of greaseproof paper, and form into a rough cylinder about 10cm in diameter. 

Wrap the paper around the cylinder and roll it to get a smooth sausage.  Don’t let it get much thinner though – a real salame is a thick and hefty thing.

Finally twist the paper tightly at both ends (like a boiled sweet) and refrigerate your sausage for 24 hours.

To serve, work quickly, and roll the chilled sausage in sieved icing sugar, and then tie it up with string, you can watch charcuterie videos on YouTube and do it like a professional butcher, or just wing it, as I did.

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Then, with the sharpest of knives, cut your sausage into slices and enjoy the joke.  The nuts and biscuits look like the globules of fat in a real sausage, with the chocolate/butter cream acting as the meat.  

It’s very rich, so you’ll not want much, unless you’re a seven year old, and then you’ll want a whole one to yourself.  It freezes well.

Ever-so-slightly gothic Pasta.

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OK, so this is a slightly curveball dish, certainly for most of us who don’t have access to really good fish sellers.  On the whole, I’m pretty well served in Birmingham – we’re a big, diverse city, and our fish market accommodates that – we can even get cuttlefish.  The problem is they sell them precleaned – and they don’t keep the ink sac.  That will make a passable pasta senza nero di sepia, but the nero is really what this meal should be all about.

There is a perfectly good reason that they don’t keep the ink sacs, it’s because they are an armed and volatile liability to have lying around – especially in a domestic setting.  The ink is part of the cuttlefish’s defence mechanism – if danger threatens, then a small release of this into the water creates an instant pea-souper, giving our hero the cover to make a fast exit.  

Take the fish out of water, and the ink out of the fish (it’s in a hard to miss silvery, iridescent pouch), and you’ll find a small ball of black paste.  So far, so innocuous.  However, a little of this ink can go a long, long way. One slip, and you’ll be scrubbing for weeks.  There are more 21st century ways of sourcing your ink – you can sometimes find it presealed into little plastic pouches (like the ones attached to cut flowers), allowing for some containment of the pigmentary danger.  But the real thing will be fresher, stronger and certainly give you a better dish at the end.

So, if you can find intact cuttlefish, ask the fishmonger to clean them for you by all means – but ask them to keep the squid sac for you.  Be brave!  And keep a scrubbing brush close to hand, just in case.

This is one of those ‘scare the horses’ dishes that people will either love, hate, or be too terrified to try.  There’s no doubt that different food cultures are often mutually appalled and repelled by each other’s idiosyncrasies.  British tastes have gone soft of late, so that many of us are challenged by meals based on offal, or when asked to suck the brains from a prawn (but, please, try it – it’s the best bit).  And, well, jet black ink from a creepily intelligent chameleon of the sea…it’s just a bit left field of roast beef and apple crumble.  To be fair, I think the Sicilian responded in much the same way when I first introduced him to Heinz tinned spaghetti.

Assuming you’re feeling adventurous though, and that you can find your cuttlefish, give this dish a go.  It’s such a rich, sweet, BLACK meal.  You can play around with the seasoning to make it hotter or more herby – but at the heart of this dish is the unique ink depth of flavour.  It’s like nothing else – the only comparable depth of I can think of is sea urchins, but this lacks that divisive, love it/hate it iodine whack.  

Pasta col nero di seppia (serves 4)

3 or 4 small, cleaned Cuttlefish, cut into small chunks (size of a 20p piece).

A medium onion, finely chopped

2-3 cloves of crushed or chopped garlic

3-4 tablespoons of tomato puree 

OR

1 tablespoon estratto di pomodoro ( super concentrated sun-dried tomato paste ).  It’s hard to find, but well worth it for added intensity and umami.  If you know anyone going to Sicily – ask them to bring you some back – you can buy it at any supermarket by the tub.  And I’m sure there will be somewhere in London that has it, but I’m still searching.

Water

White wine

Parsley, pepper, salt and tabaso (optional)

Pasta – it should be a ‘long pasta’ – usually linguine.  But we found that jumbo penne is just as good.  The chunks of meat slip inside the penne – like mini cannelloni.

In a wide, deep frying pan (a small wok is ideal) fry off your onion in some olive oil, and when it’s starting to brown, add your garlic.

Add the cuttlefish and after a couple of minutes add a slug of white wine, and the tomato puree or paste – varying the amounts accordingly.

Take the ink pellet from the sac and mix it up in a small glass of water to a liquid.  Don’t wear anything you want to keep for Sunday best.  If you get any of this sauce on you, it’s never coming out!

Add the ink mixture to your onions and cuttlefish and simmer gently for about 20 minutes.

Get the pasta water boiling and salted, and about 8 minutes before you’re ready to serve, part cooking the pasta,  when it’s just under al dente, take a cup of the pasta water and keep; drain and then stir in the pasta to the cuttlefish sauce.

Loosen it with some of the pasta water, the starch will combine everything and make for a smoother, better coating sauce.

Finally, season with parsley, pepper and tabasco for heat. And serve.

It’s black as pitch and shines like a dark pool in an unlit cave. It is both unsettling and hypnotising.  And, it’s totally delicious.  

New traditions

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December 2nd and the darkness continues to deepen.  In this light and (or absence of it) nothern European flavours and traditions are edging out the Sicilian.  When 4 o’clock feels like 10 o’clock, and the skies are relentlessly lead grey, you see the reason why we try to light our way out of the gloom, with the explosions of Bonfire Night rolling into the increasingly riotous gaudiness of the Christmas build up.

First though, there’s advent, which is supposed to be like Lent, all penance, contemplation and guilt.  I think it’s safe to say that that version of advent has been ditched by most people.  But I do get a real buzz out of a measured preparation for Christmas – annual rituals such as making sloe gin in October, allowing a restrained advent calendar as the only decoration until 13th, when the bling emerges from the Christmas Chest.

Mincemeat is an essential part of that preparation,  Everyone likes a mince pie, (well everyone I know).  But not everyone likes (or has the stomach capacity for) Christmas cake and pudding.  The pies have been around for at least 800 years, in one form or another, so, as you’d expect, there are more recipes floating around than you can begin to imagine.  There are various vague explanations of its origins, none of them definitive.  ‘Mince’ in French means ‘thin’ so perhaps we have the Normans to thank for their invention – perhaps there is a parallel version in France that has taken a different culinary pathway? You can go back to the ‘original’ and include actual meat (Hannah Glasse suggests beef tongue), use vegetarian suet instead of kidney fat, go light on the fat and sugar altogether, and go for more of a boozy compote type affair.  There are no rules, just traditions, and as every family and every home creates and evolves its own Christmas traditions – your mincemeat should be yours alone.

I decided to create a new tradition this afternoon, tweaking my recipe by adding quince and crystallised ginger, and in the gloom, I wanted the house to smell of spices and treacle sugar and hot rum. 

Everyone agrees that the foundations of your mincemeat are dried fruit and spices.  That’s where I started – and then started improvising.

250g sultanas

250g raisins

150g candied orange peel 

150g flaked almonds (crushed up)

150g crystallised ginger

2 eating apples (chopped)

1 quince (peeled and chopped)

A mix of cinnamon, allspice, cloves, mace and coriander – (around half a teaspoon of each but to fit your own taste) all ground together

200g vegetarian lard

Juice and rind of an unwaxed lemon

350g dark brown sugar.

2 tablespoons of brandy

2 tablespoons of dark rum ( I keep a flavoured bottle with a cinnamon stick, allspice and mace steeping) 

This recipe is unusual in that you then cook all the ingredients (bar the alcohol) on the lowest of heats for 1 – 2 hours.  This is mainly to cook the quince and apple (especially the quince), but it also melts the suet through the mixture and ensures that any dusty dryness is eased out of the spices.  Once cooked, stir through the booze and jar up the mincemeat.

It now needs time to age – 2 weeks at least – but you can leave it sealed in the fridge for next year if you want some really fine mincemeat (all that sugar and alcohol make excellent preservatives).  Like sloe gin, the longer it’s left, the better it’ll be.

And there you are – all set to get baking your famous mince pies, the ones that everyone talks about, the ones people look forward to as the nights draw ever in and it becomes acceptable to mention the C word.

Or, if you like, you can make a tart. My own particular kitchen weakness  .  My mum would make an open tart, filled with a jar of humble Robinson’s mincemeat and topped with a lattice of pastry.  Served piping hot with custard, it was a special, rare treat.  It has no finesse or sophistication and its existence could probably tip a cardiologist into insanity, so keep it to yourself, as your own guilty pleasure.

A ‘what’s in the freezer tea’: Linguine with prawns and pistachio pesto or Linguine con gamberi e pesto di pistacchio

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This is a not-quite-thrown-together dinner – for a Sunday – when, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, the timing of your day goes to pot.  It’s a thing to make together – a deux, if you’re kitchen is big enough!

Sunday evenings can be the worst – the back-to-work itchiness of something not done, something lurking around the corner. So Sundays have strategies – an occupy yourself, don’t have idle hands, state of mind.  Chop wood, walk dogs, dig allotment, clean the house, go out – to the cinema – and in between all that – cook.

But this week, the dogs took longer than usual, the cleaning took forever and we decided to do some art (the Barber Institute – it’s great, go)  and, go see Susperia (also great, unless you don’t like over the top gory horror, in which case, don’t go).  This left an ever smaller window for a dinner, which, as we’d not been shopping, had to be entirely based on what was in the cupboards/freezer.  Not quite Ready Steady Cook, but a long way down that rabbit hole!

What’s in the freezer dinner:

Frozen shell-on raw prawns

Wrinkled tomatoes (last of the allotment’s)

Garlic

Linguine (we’re running low on pasta stores, which could spark an incident if not rectified soon)

Half a bottle of white wine

a lime (because we had no lemons)

Olive oil 

A bag of unsalted pistachios

Starting with the defrosted prawns – shell them, and squeeze the heads into the bowl (don’t be squeamish, the heads have all the flavour) with the meat, keep the shells and heads in another bowl.  Put your shelled prawns aside and transfer the shells/heads into a small saucepan with a just enough water to cover them.  Now bring this to boil and leave to simmer for 30 mins – giving everything a bash and a stir occasionally.  You’re trying to get as much flavour out of these as possible, concentrated down into as little liquid as possible – so watch that they don’t catch and burn.

Meanwhile – make your pesto.  Bought pesto is often just too damn basilly for me, .  But a simple, not so herby pesto can be just as good.  Especially if made with pistachios.  Pesto just means Bash!  So it doesn’t have to be basil and pine nuts, there are other options available.  Stick the pistachios into a pestle and mortar with some sea salt and get bashing.  You’re not looking for a paste, rather, something coarser and with some variations in texture.

Now back to the prawns. Olive oil and a crushed garlic go into your pan, warming gently from cold. If I haven’t explained this before, you start with cold oil as it gives more time for the garlic flavour to infuse the oil.  If you throw the garlic straight into hot oil, it just fries it, without allowing it to share the love.  

Throw in the chopped up wrinkly tomato, and then the prawns.  Cook through quickly, throw in a big glug of white wine, some lime zest, and then strain in the concentrated stock you made earlier from the shells.  Whack up the heat to reduce it by about half.

While you’re doing all of this, get the water for the pasta on.  As ever – the biggest pan you have and a stupid amount of salt.  As soon as it’s properly boiling, start cooking the pasta, and cook it for less time than the packet says.

Once, it’s done, save a mug of pasta water, then drain the linguine, and add your prawns, plus a splash of the water – which will work its starchy magic and bring the whole thing together.  All this in a saucepan with some heat under it.

Now eat it very quickly, because Suspiria starts in 45 minutes, and this is Birmingham. The traffic will be horrendous.