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Asparagus and Blue Cheese Pasta Salad

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I make this salad every year when the asparagus is at its most plentiful. It makes a large batch, but it doesn’t last long. Asparagus and blue cheese are really made for each other – the salty tang of the cheese perfectly counterbalancing the fresh green crunch of the young shoots. This is an ideal and very simple early summer salad.

Ingredients:

500g mezze penne or penne pasta

3 bunches slender asparagus (about 750g), cut in segments the same length as the pasta

1 small red onion, diced

150g Danish blue cheese, crumbled

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste

Optional: 1 small bunch chives, thinly sliced, and/or 1 small bunch parsley, chopped

Method:

Cook pasta in a large pot of well-salted water. When the pasta is nearly al dente (about 9 mins depending upon the brand of pasta), add the asparagus to the same pot, and cook 3-4 minutes until just done. Drain the whole lot in a colander and cool quickly under running cold water so that it doesn’t cook further. I then transfer the whole lot back to the pot to mix it all up. Add the remaining ingredients and stir together.

Served fresh, the flavours are sprightly and the onions strong. The onions will mellow on the next day, as will the lemon flavour. From the salad’s second day of life, serve it up with a wedge of lemon to restore its bright citrus character.

Prawn and Ricotta Conchiglione

Prawn and ricotta conchiglione baked in a lemon béchamel sauce. To make a lemon béchamel, slowly whisk the juice and zest of a lemon into the sauce. It’s tricky, as the lemon will easily curdle the sauce if poured too quickly.

This is a filling for conchiglione – large shells – that is very simple but very tasty. Often when I’m cooking I’m just riffing, and it never ends up on my blog. This, though, is worth registering because it was so satisfying.

Ingredients:

500g ricotta

500g prawns, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 small bunch basil, chopped

a dash each of white pepper and nutmeg

olive oil

Method:

Saute the garlic in olive oil until lightly brown. Add the prawns, white pepper, and nutmeg and cook only just until done. Set aside and allow to cool.

Mix the ricotta with the chopped basil, then add the prawns. Stuff or pipe the mixture into cooked conchiglione and bake, covered, and at 190C with marinara, bechamel or pesto. It should only take about 15 minutes to heat through.

We had it tonight with the rough walnut and parsley pesto listed below, and the squidginess of the prawns and the crunch of the nuts was a superb combination.

Penne Pasta with White Beans and Tomatoes

This simple vegetarian dish is so fragrant with basil that it strongly piques the appetite. It makes an excellent primi piatti before a secondo of fried fish. Either red or white wine to accompany is appropriate. We drank a 2007 Jaboulet Côtes du Rhône, and ate the pasta simply with a side dish of watercress.

Ingredients

500g penne or tortiglione pasta

Olive oil

1 400g tin of cannellini or flageolet beans, drained and rinsed

1 large garlic clove, finely minced

500g ripe tomatoes, diced

a handful of pitted Kalamata olives, quartered lengthwise

1 small bunch fresh basil, julienned

salt and pepper

dry white wine

Method

This is a very quick sauce, so start it only a few minutes before your pasta is al dente. Heat a dash of olive oil in a large skillet. Add garlic and beans and, stirring, heat them through, adding a dash of white wine at the last. Add the tomatoes, olives, basil, salt and pepper, and leave the flame on only just long enough for the tomatoes to be lightly heated. Pour the sauce over the pasta, drizzle lightly with extra-virgin olive oil, and top with grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

Serves four.

Rocket and Toasted Brazil Nut Pesto

Pesto made the time-honoured way in a mortar and pestle. Both ‘pesto’ and ‘pestle’ come from the Latin pestare “to pound, to crush.” The best method is all in the name.

We’re having this tonight with tortellini, but it could just as well be brushed onto crostini and served with some fresh chopped tomato. This is a very nutty pesto that gets the best out of a Brazil nut. I decided to experiment with them in pesto after I made a simple salad with toasted Brazil nuts. Usually they’re not my favourite nut – bland and a bit starchy and oily – but sliced in four lengthwise, toasted, cooled and sprinkled on a salad, they have an excellent crunch to them. I toast the nuts in a small skillet, watching them constantly and tossing them until they are just browned. Next time you have a pile of them left over from your mixed nuts at a party, use them up on salad or in this pesto.

This pesto may be made traditionally in a mortar and pestle, or with a blender, but don’t overblend, because bruising the leaves is key to pesto’s flavour and appeal.

Ingredients:

2 cloves garlic, chopped

sea salt to taste

3 big fistfuls of rocket (arugula)

1 fistful toasted Brazil nuts

1 fistful grated Parmesan

enough extra-virgin olive oil to lubricate the whole, but not so much that it makes the mixture slack and oily.

Method:

Start by pounding or whizzing the garlic, then add the nuts and a bit of the cheese. Then add the rest of the Parmesan and rocket bit by bit until it’s all smashed up nicely.

Pasta with Tuna and Capers

This is a quick dish that I use in emergencies or when I’m exhausted. It’s a very easy dish that’s hard to mess up if you’re very tired, and the lemon and capers have a refreshing effect.

Ingredients:

Pasta (any will do, though this is nice on linguine)

2 tins good quality tuna steak in either oil or water

2 T capers, with a tiny bit of brine

Juice of a lemon

Extra virgin olive oil

Grated Parmesan

Fresh grated black pepper

Method:

Cook the pasta in plenty of well salted water. Oil needs never to be included in pasta water and may even be detrimental.

Mix the tuna, capers, lemon, and a glug of olive oil in a bowl, taking care not to break up the tuna too much. Spoon this mixture over the top of the pasta (no, it doesn’t need to be heated) and sprinkle with Parmesan and pepper.

I often add fresh diced tomatoes and/or fresh chopped parsley to this.

Semolina Porridge

Semolina porridge with homemade strawberry jam

Hard durum wheat is too tough a customer to show up in breads and pastries, but provides us with that essential food, pasta. One other great comfort food from durum wheat is semolina porridge, which is eaten all over Europe. Semolina’s poor cousin farina is also consumed as porridge, primarily in the United States, as ‘Cream of Wheat’. Semolina porridge is the perfect start to the day, especially on a Sunday if there is to be a large roast lunch consumed at midday. Within a couple of hours of consumption, semolina porridge provokes a fierce appetite that is just the spice that’s needed for a big midday meal. I usually serve semolina porridge with a dollop of strawberry jam or with raspberries and sugar. This recipe serves two.

Ingredients:

2 1/2 cups milk

1/3 cup semolina

Method:

Mix milk and semolina with a small whip in a saucepan over medium heat. When boiling reduce the heat to low. Continue to cook, stirring consistently, for about fifteen minutes until thick. Serve forth and soak the pan immediately. As my partner says, ‘It sticks to the pan better than it sticks to the ribs’.

Orecchiette Pasta with Tomato and Tuna Sauce

This is a delicious and very quick pasta dish that I tried out last night. Its inspiration was a recipe by Marcella Hazan.

It serves 4 and takes only the time needed to heat the water and cook the pasta.

Ingredients:

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 400g cans chopped tomatoes (only buy the best)

2 200g cans tuna, partially drained

a knob of butter

500g bag of orecchiette pasta

2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley (optional)

fresh cracked pepper

Method:

Get the oil hot and sauté the garlic until it just begins to brown. Add the tomatoes and simmer until the pasta is cooked. Turn off the heat.

Mix the tuna and the butter evenly into the tomato sauce and season with the pepper and parsley.

Toss with the pasta and serve. Parmesan cheese does nothing to enhance this dish – serve it with nothing but a tiny sprinkle of parsley.