1:33 PM March 10, 2022
At this in-between time of year, sometimes mild, sometimes chilly, I find it difficult to decide what to cook. I want comforting, satisfying heft, but my inclination tends towards lighter, colorful food; bright herbs, vegetables, and greens.
Pasta is the answer. Linguine bathed in unctuous pesto, glossy with extra virgin olive oil, bright green with fresh basil and slightly grainy from the Parmesan and pecorino was my first taste of Italy, in a small restaurant near the market in San Remo.
After that first hesitant foray into the glories of Italian gastronomy, our travels took us all over. East as far as Trieste, south through Rome and Naples, across Sicily, and up and down the Appenines. Not a little of those travels was spent hunting out local pasta dishes; pasta con le sarde in Sicily, tagliatelle con ragu in Bologna, bigoli in salsa in Venice.
Pasta became, like for so many others, a favorite food. I buy dried pasta in preference to fresh, because I find it more versatile. When I can find it, I buy La Molisana, or Lidl’s Deluxe range. Whilst I love traditional Italian pasta dishes, I try not to be a purist. Pasta is a marvelous base on which to build delicious sauces, limited only by your imagination or store cupboard.
A couple of garlic cloves, a can of anchovies, some extra virgin olive oil and a little fresh parsley is all you need to turn a packet of into a fine tasty pasta dish. An egg and a couple of rashers of bacon will produce that classic Roman dish, spaghetti alla carbonara. Shredded radicchio and some crumbled gorgonzola stirred with a splash of extra virgin olive into hot spaghetti is a wondrous dish, creamy, piquant and slightly bitter.
However, pasta is emphatically not a vehicle for using up a collection of soggy leftovers. That is not to say that a careful look through your refrigerator might not produce the makings of an excellent sauce. Whenever I cook hare or rabbit I always make sure that there will be enough meat left over to shred and heat up to stir into some freshly cooked pasta.
The remains of a ham on the bone which has reached the “too-difficult-to-carve” stage can be picked off and heated with cream and petits pois to make a quick, easy sauce for tagliatelle. For now, I am cooking pasta with herbs and vegetables. On the whole I feel that life is too short to skin tomatoes, but I’m prepared to do that for this recipe.
Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Mascarpone (Serves 2)
2 or 3 good-size tomatoes
Sea salt – to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
150 – 200 g dried pasta
2 – 3 tablespoons mascarpone
Fresh basil leaves – torn or shredded
Put the tomatoes in a deep bowl and pour boiling water over them. Leave for a minute – not much longer because you don’t want them to cook – and then tip them into a colander. Skin them when cool enough to handle. Set a sieve over a jug. One at a time cut the top off the tomatoes and squeeze the seeds and jelly into the sieve. Cut the tomato flesh into strips or pieces, season lightly and put to one side. Rub as much juice as possible through the sieve and discard the residue.
Meanwhile cook your chosen pasta in salted water- a not-too-thick spaghetti works best – for one minute less than stated on the package. Drain it and return to the sauce pan with the tomato liquid. Toss it well and let it continue on the heat to absorb the tomato water. Stir the mascarpone, again, tossing well, then add the tomato and basil, making sure all is well mixed before serving immediately. Parmesan or pecorino can be served alongside for grating.
Orecchiette with Turnip Tops (serves 4)
1 large bunch turnip tops
400 g orecchiette
extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small red pepper, seeded, and not too hot, or
1/4 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1/2 can anchovies – or more to taste
Pecorino – optional
Trim the leaves, discarding any damaged or coarse outer leaves, as well as the thickest stalks. Slice the stalks and leaves in neat, even pieces and rinse well. Put the orecchiette in boiling salted water, and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes. Drop in the turnip tops and cook for a further 4 to 5 minutes. Drain, toss in oil, and transfer to a hot bowl. Meanwhile, crush the garlic, chilli and anchovies in a mortar, and work in about 75 ml olive oil. Stir this into the pasta, and serve with flakes of pecorino on top.
Cook’s note: if you cannot find turnip tops – and you are more likely to find them in a greengrocer – you can substitute chicory, water cress, rocket or other bitter leaves.
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