Pasta alla Trapanese

IMG_6035

Summer is struggling.  There are rumours that it will make a break for it later this week and hit 30 degrees.  But today is ‘muggy’ (try saying that with a Brummie accent, the Sicilian finds it comedy gold), windy, cloudy.  A good day to dry your washing, but definitely not a day that could pass for Mediterranean.  That said, it is good enough to eat outside.  Later we are cooking rabbit, marinated in herbs, wine and oil for six hours before the barbecue. But lunch is simpler, as little cooking as possible.  I leave him to it whilst I take the spaniels out.  

Although it’s nearly August, the allotment tomatoes are slow this year, still green and embryonic but the basil is going great guns.  So this is a mix of bought (tomatoes, almonds, parmesan, olive oil) and homegrown (albeit a small contribution from the basil and some garlic). 

This isn’t a pesto, bashed and tormented to destruction, but the ingredients that you would use to make pesto Trapanese (named after its supposed home town of Trapani, on Sicily’s west coast); the flavours are all there, but more distinct and less gritty.  It is not as overwhelming as the jars of basil pesto most of us are more familiar with in the UK, I prefer it.  This is the favourite summer dish of Giovanna, Ale’s cousin, who’s pleas to Eat! Eat! give this blog its name.  He has memories of her making this continuously throughout the Sicilian summer.  So, what for me was a first encounter, was for him a summer norm, familial, so we’re back to that dichotomy of Sicily in Brum again.

We ate this for Sunday lunch with a cold beer and a watchful, expectant audience of spaniels, apparently uncaring that it was vegetarian.  That it is good enough to fool the spaniels indicates just how exceptional it is.  Definitely a summer meal, imagine what it’ll be like when the homegrown tomatoes are ready!

Pasta alla Trapanse

Amounts aren’t set in stone, change them as you prefer – for oiliness, strength of basil or saltiness from the parmesan.

For 4

50g flaked almonds

4 very ripe tomatoes 

1 clove of garlic

50g parmesan (grated)

25g fresh basil

Black pepper

4 tbsps Olive oil

400g dried penne or rigatoni

Put a large pan of water on to boil, and once it is, added enough salt to make it taste briney.

Whilst you’re waiting for this, chop your tomatoes into small 20p size chunks, mix with the olive oil, crushed garlic and a generous pinch of salt in bowl.  Leave them be for a while, as you get everything else ready, the oil and salt will do something to the tomatoes, making them taste stronger, richer, more of summer.

Dry fry your chopped almonds in a heavy frying pan until they are the brown of a Sicilian who has spent the day on the beach, but keep a beady eye on them, as this is perilously close to burning them.  Take them out of the pan as soon as they are done, to stop them cooking any further.

Roughly tear up your basil leaves

Once the water is ready and salted, add you pasta, and cook it for 6-7 minutes.  Check the packet, don’t pay too much attention to it though if it’s telling you 12 minutes.  Although we used Penne today, the Sicilian thinks Rigatoni is better, as it’s larger, and hides more of the ‘not pesto’ chunks inside to surprise and delight.

Once cooked, drain the pasta, then stir through the parmesan, oily tomatoes and basil, along with black pepper.  Serve with a generous crunch  of the toasted almonds over the top.

What starts as a steaming, mouth-scalding dish of pasta in sauce shifts to become a cooling pasta salad as you eat and chat and fend off spaniels,  like some sort of Willy Wonker meal that transforms as you chew.  Textures and flavours dance around each other and alter, the pasta stiffens, the oil is less strident, sweet tomatoes and crunchy almonds come to dominate after the first blast of hot fruity garlic.  If that hasn’t sold it to you, then the spaniels will have your plate.

Ever-so-slightly gothic Pasta.

IMG_4434

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.  

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

IMG_4364

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.

Hare ragu – how to cook your way back from disaster, helped by Anna del Conte

IMG_4182

Until last week I’d never cooked a hare, never eaten one, and only ever seen one darting off through a watercress bed in Hampshire.  And then I get hold of four legs, and set about planning. And almost as soon as I get my hare, I read that their numbers are collapsing, possibly catastrophically.  So with the knowledge that I’m about the serve up an unfortunate statistic in this collapse, my conscience demands that I do the beast justice.

I think I’ve found a recipe that sounds perfect.  The weather has turned autumnal, it’s stormy and the rain is flattening what’s left of the veg plot.  This calls for something part broiled/part roasted, something nutty (toasted hazelnuts in this case), root veg and herby.  Throw in a slug of something red and it’s going to be great,  I double check the cooking times, cover the whole thing in a space-age foil wrap to keep in the moisture and the flavour, and wait.  Kale is prepped ready for a short steam and a fry off in butter.  Table is laid. Fire is lit.

I ballsed it up.

Out of the cosseted roasting tin emerge four rigour-mortised, dirty pink admonitions to my cooking pride. You can’t even cut them, they’re so tough you could make a pair of shoes.  My hare died for no purpose, and it’s my fault.

So, here I am, enabler of the hare’s decline, with three choices: bin, dogs, or an intervention from St Lorenzo – patron saint of cooks

Bin would be criminal; dogs, best chums of mine they may be, do not get fed good (if badly cooked) game.  So prayer it is!

I had an idea to try an bring some life back to my hare by making them into a ragu – the Italian meat sauce, not the tomato ketchup sauce out of jars.  This rescue mission needed time, so I started off using the legs, the veg and the nuts to make a stock, cooking them on the lowest of simmers for several hours, and then leaving it overnight to infuse while cooling.

The next day, I scooped out the legs and the nuts, to strip the meat from the bones, which flaked and shredded as I did so.  By the time I’d finished cleaning them, I’d garnered an overflowing bowl of dark, dark leg meat that was no longer shoe leather, and was on its way to being a different, but better dish than the one I’d originally planned.

Then I finely chopped up onion, celery and garlic and sautéed them off slowly, until soft, but without colouring them.  Note, there are no carrots. I’d run out. The Sicilian hit the roof when he discovered me making ragù without carrots. My defence; “I had no carrots’, was met with ‘then don’t make ragù!’ I carried on regardless and added a jar of the allotment passata (see last week’s post about the tomato glut), another glass of red and a bay leaf and cooked this down further for ten minutes.  And then I added in the hare meat and a splash of red wine vinegar for added sharpness (a trick the Sicilian taught me), checked the seasoning and let it gently carry on cooking whilst I got the pasta ready.

Pappardelle is my favourite – I could lie and write prosaically about starchiness and generosity, but the truth is that it’s the one pasta that forgives my non-Italianess, that doesn’t make me look like a toddler with a fork trying .  To over egg my pasta, I cooked it in the stock that had been created by poaching the hare’s legs for all those hours.  Once sauce and pasta were combined I stirred in some crumbled hazelnuts.

Hare ragu and pappardelle with crumbled hazelnuts – it was outstanding, a proper snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.  It’s gamey of course, and I want to say it’s ironey, but not in a grilled liver kind of a way.  And whilst I may not treat my dogs to good game, I did let them lick the plates (don’t judge me). Cooking pride restored.

And then the next day, I’m flicking through Anna del Conte – and there it is.  A better, and authentic version of my recipe.  Including the pappardelle and the red wine, but without the tomato sauce.  Whilst it would be wonderful to think that this home cook had independently come up with a similar recipe as his food hero, I think the reality is that things stick, especially when written well.  The more you cook and the more you read; the better you become.  And whilst I may never be Italian and may never master the art of eating spaghetti neatly, it turns out I’ve learnt enough along the way to rescue, at least, a cremated hare.

So, thank you Anna del Conte for giving me the wherewithal to rescue my hare from my own incompetence, once again, you have saved the day in my kitchen.  Her recipe is in her Italian Kitchen book, my half remembered version of it is here.

Anna del Conte inspired Pappardelle with Hare.  

50g butter

50g streaky bacon (smoked)

1 onion (finely chopped)

1 carrot (finely chopped, and appeasing resident strict Sicilians)

1 stick of celery (finely chopped)

Clove of crushed garlic

Bay leaf

300ml passata

200ml good stock (chicken or vegetable)

4 hare legs

Glass of red wine

Splash of red wine vinegar.

400g dried pappardelle

Salt and pepper

50g Toasted hazelnuts 

I’ve omitted the section on nearly ruining your hare legs (that bit is entirely optional)

Melt the butter and fry the chopped bacon until it begins to colour.

Add the chopped onion, celery and garlic, and lower the heat.

Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not coloured and then add the hare legs, browning them on both sides.

Turn up the heat and throw in the red wine to deglaze the pan.

Add the bayleaf and the passata and some of the stock, and simmer, covered, for 50 minutes to an hour. Keep an eye on it and if it starts getting to thick and at risk of drying out, add a ladle of stock.

When the meat falls easily for the bone, remove the legs and strip them, before returning the meat to the tomato sauce (chopping up any larger pieces).  Add your vinegar and seasoning and cook for five minutes longer.  You’re aiming for a thick, dark sauce that won’t turn your pappardelle watery.

When you’re ready, cook your pasta in ferociously salted water in the biggest pan you have, for 5-6 minutes.  No longer, as it’ll keep cooking when you mix it with the ragu.  

Drain, and return to the pan, stirring in your hare ragu until the pappardelle is evenly coated.

Sprinkle over the hazelnuts (you can rub the skins off them by rolling them in a tea towel when they’re still hot from a five minute roasting in the oven)

Serve immediately and eat quickly if you’re expecting competition for seconds