Thursday, 31 March 2011

Pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat...

We have all been in the situation of being on the verge of starvation, looking in the fridge and despairing at the meager content. 
At the same time we have a craving for something really satisfying and good...

Cavatini Primavera
Durum wheat pasta & Spring vegetables

Imagine my desperation on discovering that all I had in my fridge was a couple of baby carrots, a last remnant of celery, a handful of chopped bacon and a small chunk of grana cheese. My idea had been to maybe make some fresh pasta and a simple sauce - but I didn‘t even have an egg in the house!

To me, part of the fun in cooking is the challenge of having to improvise and make the best of what I have. I decided to try making one of the most basic, old pasta types that I had loved as a kid, when I would help my mother pinching off little chunks of dough and rolling them with my thumb into little cavatini”...

I made the dough out of durum wheat flour and water. My mom would kill me, but I just put a 1/2 cup of durum wheat flour and a 1/2 of regular plain flour into a bowl, stirred in about 1/3 cup of water and got out my electric whisk. I like to start my dough off this way, as you can clearly see when the machine picks up any excess flour from your bowl, that you have the right consistency. I start out with a soft dough and sprinkle flour into the mix until it is nice and firm. I add a little olive oil, a pinch of salt- and a lot of „elbow grease“ when I start kneading it- this should really be done by hand! Some people will tell you that the dough needs to stand for anything from a 1/2 hr to an hour or so. Rubbish. My mom doesn‘t do it and neither do I... This is going to be pasta- not bread!

It is important to keep working the dough until it becomes smooth and pliable. Keep kneading and rotating, folding the dough and adding flour or water as required. Roll out the dough to the thickness of your finger, and then either pinch, or cut off small pieces. Then press down on these little bits of dough with your thumb to flatten them and roll them off your work surface. It‘s a good idea to flour your surface too so that they don‘t stick. It takes a little practice, but as soon as you have the knack, you will be doing it with your eyes closed. You can also press them onto a fork and roll them along it to give you a riffled pattern.

These are great noodles to make with friends and children- it really is simple and a lot of fun. And don‘t fuss about trying to get them all the same size and shape... remember these are hand-made and you want your friends to see that! Sprinkle with flour to keep them from sticking. You can let them dry out or cook them straight away in boiling, well salted water as usual. There really is no big difference and I tend to enjoy the texture more when they go straight into the saucepan. They are basically ok when they float to the surface- but I give them a minute or two more than regular pasta as they are a little more dense.

 I started this dish in the same way that most Italian sauces are made, with the „Holy Trinity“ of onion, carrot and celery. The combination of these three basic ingredients will give you a robust flavor base that you can adapt in any number of ways. I prefer to use the celery leaves wherever possible as they have a more intense flavour than the stalks. Stirring constantly, I heated these basic ingredients, along with a little chopped bacon, a chopped clove of garlic and some sun-dried tomatoes. Oh, those sun-dried tomatoes... we all have them at home and we all wonder where to use them. They are great for adding a little tangy saltiness to a meal, which will tickle the taste-buds in just the right way. Another ingredient we always have in the freezer is frozen peas. These give us the sweetness we need to counterpoint the tangy bacon and tomatoes. It's all about getting the balance right.

Once everything was nicely browned, I added the peas and then de-glazed the pan with a splash of white wine, which took up all of the good flavors. There is enough fat in the bacon that you don't need any extra oil- plus it brings out the best of the onion and garlic. Then I added the cavatini and brought them back up to temperature.

I let this simmer for a couple of minutes and then added a good splash of milk. I don‘t think you always need to use cream in most pasta dishes- what I wanted to do was take away the tang from the wine and the sun-dried tomatoes and to make the flavors blend down to something milder. I have experimented with a number of dishes and find there is enough starch in the pasta itself to thicken that milk to a creamy consistency. Your waistline will love you for it and your taste-buds won't tell the difference. Then I grated some fresh nutmeg into the mix, to give it a bechamel-like flavor... it was the missing link and the finishing touch that I needed to bring this baby together...

All I had to do now was to serve up and garnish. I went easy on adding additional salt whilst preparing this dish, preferring to use the „salty“ sun-dried tomatoes, bacon... and also my final ingredient, which was to be grana cheese. I love the milder saltiness that grana has, compared to parmesan... plus, that was all I had in the fridge! Try to work with the natural flavours of your ingredients when making pasta dishes like this. Keep it simple. 

So along with a few freshly-ground chili flakes, a few shavings of grana, and a drizzle of good olive oil, my magic trick was almost complete. I garnished with a simple basil leaf and a few threads of shredded chili. And there you have it: dinner on a shoestring, in around 3/4 of an hour...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Thought for Food...

Look, first things first... I am not a chef. 

Hell, I am not even a cook... I am just a dude, ok? A dude who enjoys his food. Plain and simple.

So why should you even care about a thing I say or cook? Well... maybe you are a dude (or dude-ette), who likes to cook too. And you might just dig some of my experiments and ideas. You might even be interested in where  some of my ideas come from. 

Or do you want to look up a nice macaroni cheese recipe somewhere? Some nice, safe, traditional recipes maybe? Oh please... don‘t you have enough of those already?
Don't worry- I am not going to freak you out with fancy and elaborate dishes, or blow your mind with outrageous and outlandish concoctions. Do you think that's what I want to be eating? Hell no!
I just want to excercise my tastebuds now and again, to enjoy the things that I know and love in ways that make them interesting and new. I am constantly looking for fresh ideas and ways to make things a little easier... or better... or both.

And sure- I tend to be a little opinionated at times when it comes to food. Oh- you don't like that? Well I think you should have an opinion about the foods you choose to eat! And you are never going to read a book, an article or a recipe, that has been written by someone who didn't have their own opinion. Why on earth would they sit down and write about it otherwise? And what would be the point of you reading it?

It's not about preaching- it's about sharing.
It's not about saying "that thing is bad", but about saying "hey- do you know how good this is?".

Trust me and follow my lead and you will enjoy some pretty good eats.
When it comes to food especially, it IS all a matter of taste...
So I hope that you agree that my sense of taste ain't that bad!

Francesco Strazzanti
International Gastronaut