towards a theory of pasta

I don’t know if anyone has done any serious research into the dilation of time experienced while waiting for pasta to boil; I find it likely that no-one ever will. Whether there is something in the quality of 00 flour which, on contact with briskly boiling water, causes an effect not unlike that of certain hallucinogenic drugs whereby the nine minutes it takes for dried fusilli to cook seems to take twice or three times that long or whether, as seems more likely, I am naturally impatient and become more so when hungry, will probably never be known. In any case, I often think that the vast majority of dressings for pasta were devised simply to give you something to do while you wait for the main event, which is after all better off adorned as little as possible. The best sauces, to my mind, are the ones whose main liquid component is the pasta cooking water, seasoned with pecorino and pepper, or garlic and chilli, or brought together by a friendly egg. There is something beautiful in just the words ‘buttered noodles’, let alone their shining yellow glory, and it is a shame you have to mess around making a coq au vin or a stroganoff if you want to eat them in a socially acceptable fashion. (As a side note, while I find the habit that self-appointed intellectuals have of disparaging the American dialect of English tedious in the extreme, the use of ‘noodles’ to mean any shape of pasta always throws me. The word so clearly and naturally means wiggly lengths.) Although many-ingrediented and long-cooked ragus of course have their place the best ones are those braised down into a homogenous mass to become a seasoning for the pasta and its thickening water – the confusingly named Neapolitan dish Ragu Genovese, a sticky mush of aubergine, or a proper spag bol – and they do, having been made preferably a day in advance, leave you with the problem we began with, leaving you nothing to do while your cavatelli cooks except sink a glass of something fizzy, chat to your guests, or articulate a theory of pasta.

rites of spring

I don’t want to eat sweet asparagus, manicured from the piled earth; give me a tangled pot of wild greens, coarse and curled and bitter, to make spring feel less polite. There is something altogether too tennis-and-cucumber about much of an English spring, and a certain tendency among some writers to subscribe to these cut-price Bridesheadisms, as if all anyone wanted to do was sip gin amongst the aspidistras.

Personally, the first onset of hot weather combines with the latening nights to instil in me a desire to drink cold wine in an unrestrained and unrelenting torrent, as different from the furtive debauchery of winter drinking as it is from the full, lazy decadence of a good summer drunk. Spring is the right time for wild abandon. Skin a rabbit and braise it with alexanders; catch a mackerel and eat it raw.

Or maybe not, I don’t know. Wildness is such a luxury now, more so than white linen and pink gin, and spring is the right time to do as you like. Steam a trout and flake it off the bone alongside some hollandaise;  manicure piles of asparagus from the sweet earth, and dip their boiled tips into butter, hot and liquid in the cool shade.

A little lump

I often think that a dumpling is an underrated thing. Not the wrapped sort, of course, which travel a direct line from China and through the various -stans to reach possibly their greatest iteration in the broth-filled khinkali of Georgia, spreading and mutating into manti, pierogi, varenyky, tortellini and the like; the boiled dough giving way to fillings of chopped or minced meat, scrambled or still-flowing egg or chickpeas or ricotta or anything at all is one of the finest sensations available to the mouth, and everybody knows it. I’m talking about the other, naked kind, the little lumps of dough or breadcrumbs which usually exist more as an accompaniment than as the main event. (To differentiate between these and a wrapped dumpling I suggest we rename the naked form a lumpling).

I last ate a suet lumpling in the depths of our recent second winter, nestling in the hollows of a stew of three kinds of sausage and numerous beans, the whole thing enriched by the liver pate melted through it, which was exactly as heavy as it sounds. You might think the lumpling appropriate only to this sort of heavy cold weather cuisine, rib-stickers designed to line the body against harsh north winds; if you have eaten, though, a plateful of the ricotta-based gnudi then you know how shockingly light a lumpling can be. It would be nice, I think, on a cold April evening, to make a dough with ricotta and shredded wild garlic, and to poach the little lumps in a white ragu of spring rabbit, pale and sweet and green.

Aches and Kale

What’s a food writer to do in the face of such ridiculous weather? I was almost ready to write about little boiled artichokes and loose green mayonnaise, poached fish, fricassees of rabbit and peas – about spring, in other words, and beyond it the faint potential for wine and roses; then along came the snow. I suppose it’s fortunate given these circumstances that I’ve already written an entire book about the possibilities of spring eating, or I would find myself quite frustrated. As it is, I’ve quite enjoyed the opportunity to reembrace thick soups, dark with brassicas and bitter herbs and dense with beans, black bread with tooth-marked butter, problematic Anglo-Saxon drinking, and all the other fond habits of winter.

It rarely gets cold enough in this country to properly appreciate, for example, potatoes covered thickly in oozy stinking cheese, or at least to do so entirely without guilt. We so often look to the Mediterranean for inspiration that it is quite refreshing to settle into the cushioning carbs of northern Europe. I have spent most of the last week with a powerful craving for dumplings of the Russian or Polish or Georgian varieties, which has yet to be sated, largely due to my own laziness. Although spring seems to be attempting a reboot, I’m hoping it might still be cold enough over the next few days to enjoy a dumpling or two. Whether free-standing and dough-wrapped or nakedly bobbing in stew or soup or sage butter, dumplings must be one of the great universal comforters, little pillows of softness in a cold hard world.

To Build A Fire

The first little brightnesses of winter are beginning to appear after the long mulch of autumn and December; the low sun is in a clear blue sky and soon restaurant plates everywhere will be lit up with flashes of Sicilian blood orange, dark-grown Yorkshire rhubarb, and pale green leaves speckled with mahogany. Everything will be bitter leaves and cured fish, as if January had no more need for comfort. These flavours are welcome, of course, as welcome as a walk around the sunny park when for a week the sky has been a uniform lead grey, like living in one of the grimmer Jack London stories; eating uncooked fish and sour-sweet fruit is almost always welcome, and it feels like you are being good to yourself in a very particular way, the way of brisk walks and bitter cordials and melancholy non-fiction. Sometimes that is the self-care you need, to feel fresh and clean or at least alive in the face of leaden greyness; sometimes you need to take the opposite path, and sit in your warm pyjamas drinking a deep amber wine, eating anchovies on hot buttered toast, half listening to the radio, and half writing this.

 

Pulse of Life

I have long appreciated the Italian habit of eating lentils on the last evening in December, the little coin-shaped pulses, we are told, guaranteeing prosperity in the twelve months to come. The joke, of course, is that if you feasted on lentils every day prosperity would be almost guaranteed. This combination of superstition with practicality strikes me as very Italian or perhaps very Catholic, the flipside of the Feast Of The Seven Fishes, that blowout fast, observed in Provence as well as parts of Italy, where diners gorge themselves on the few ingredients allowed them by their religious dietary calendar. As well as the titular seafood, an array of no less than thirteen desserts is offered; to be fair, though, most of them are fruit. Still, after such extravagant frugality, you can forgive the Italians for confining themselves to lentils for the next big event.

Sausages, of course, are the proper accompaniment, and I have had a hankering for this particular preparation of the two; for a variety of reasons, though, not least the general availability of cotechino on a Sunday in Norwich, I’m not making it today. Instead I am reading back into my own family traditions for this lentil ragu, a constant in my childhood and still much-requested whenever I or my brothers visit home. In fact, as my mother told me when I asked her for the recipe, we once had it as the main course on Christmas Day, piled (as is traditional) on top of a mound of spaghetti; I say ‘we’ but this was, by my mother’s account, six years before I was born. I think, anyway, that New Year’s Eve is a more appropriate place for it – you need something to line the stomach, after all.

My mother claims to have found this recipe in a women’s magazine some time around 1980; be that as it may, the use of sweet spices in a tomato sauce for pasta strikes me as rather Venetian and so this evening we will be preceding it with sardines agrodolce and some little crostini of smoked eel, a little touch of luxury before our frugal feast. This is what she sent me –

The recipe as I always cook it:

4oz red lentils
1 small can (140gm) tomato puree
4 small cans (ie the empty tomato puree can) of water
1 tsp grd cinnamon
1 tsp grd coriander
2 cloves garlic, crushed
olive oil

Lightly cook spices and garlic in olive oil in a pressure cooker.
Add lentils, tomato puree and water.
Bring to the boil, stirring all the time, then cook at pressure for 30 minutes.
Salt to taste.

The above quantities and timings give a rich thick sauce – the only thing that has ever gone wrong is that it sometimes burns a little on the base – but stirring carefully until it boils prevents that. I have never cooked it in an ordinary pan, and am not sure whether it’s the pressure cooking that gives it its particularly rich quality.

The pressure cooking certainly fits with the dates my mother gave, and I think she is right to attribute the sauce’s particular richness to that technique. Heston Blumenthal says that pressure cooking allows liquid to boil at a temperature high enough for Maillard reactions to take place, those complex caramelisations of sugar and protein which give well-browned meat its irresistible savour, which is why he always cooks stock in a pressure cooker; this being the case, the sweet tomato puree and savoury lentils must be undergoing the same process in the method above.

Half an hour at pressure, furthermore, roughly equates to (I think) around one and a half hours of regular simmering, much longer than you would usually give red lentils. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, as I’m sure most people don’t, then fry the tomato puree in the oil after the garlic has coloured a little, so it cooks out and begins to darken; then, when everything is added, simmer slowly for one hour and one half (you might need more water) until the lentils collapse into absolute submission. If their particular rich quality does not guarantee your own richness, you will, at least, be well-fed.

Soup Of The Evening

When you awake, perhaps a little hungover but in any case tired from a long week of work, to a quiet white blanket across roof and pavement and more coming down fast, the inevitable desire for pies, braises, broths and stews has to battle with the mundane reality of kicking through the slush to the shops. For some reason, while being out in the snow with no purpose is a great delight, running errands in it a soggy chore.

Some chefs and food writers have, I’m sure, a freezer full of old bones, scraggy pieces of meat and the like, stored for just this reason; many must have tupperware full of daubes and casseroles only needing a long defrost. As my freezer contains only two wholemeal flatbreads, badly freezer-burned, my dreams of soup remained just that. I could, come to think of it, have made a little broth of dried mushrooms and potatoes, but to tell the truth I couldn’t really be bothered; far easier to pound garlic, anchovies, capers and walnuts, loosen the mixture with some of the water from just-cooked pasta, toss together and eat with a glass of unambitious wine.

Ricotto

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Sometimes coming up with a recipe or (to put it another way) cooking dinner requires a long and hands-on process of tinkering, of adding salt here, acid there, a little cooked-out tomato puree because you didn’t use enough to begin with, constant top-ups with water or quick reductions; sometimes it just opens up like a flower. In the latter case, although it feels like you are cooking with rare grace and skill the apparent ease is usually just because you are using four or five ingredients and doing very little to them; it can require more craft and skill to fix something already broken than to make it properly in the first place. Some things – a scrambled custard, a stew made with an unsweated mirepoix – are beyond repair, while some things require not fixing but rather a little nudge to give them a new lease of life, like a cleanly diced broth of mushrooms and potatoes given a handful of pasta and a squeeze of lemon, and eaten as a late breakfast on a cold day.

Mostly plants

Strange though it might seem to the long-term reader of these pages, I don’t actually eat very much meat. I’ll eat it when I’m out, because that is a treat, and because I generally go to restaurants I trust to source well-raised and -slaughtered animals; the last time I bought any to cook at home was for my birthday in April when, unable to find any coq, I got a couple of the large, slow-grown Sutton Hoo chickens to braise au vin, with buttered fresh pasta on the side and radishes to start. I don’t shop at supermarkets and I can’t afford to buy meat from the butcher anything more than occasionally – and rightly so. By meat, I should say, I mean chunks of skeletal muscle. I eat a fair amount of other animal products.

When I lived in Suffolk, I ate a lot of eggs, because I knew the chickens. I don’t drink milk, in part because the dairy industry is a dreadful thing but largely because I prefer oat milk; I find it less intrusive in coffee and it obviously has a greater affinity with cereal and porridge than does the milk of cows or other ungulates. I choose oat milk over other plant-based alternatives because it is readily available unadulterated with sugar or with emulsifiers and because the alternatives are disastrous environmentally. To pick almond over cow’s milk is to weigh the ravages of the Californian drought against the mass death of newborn calves; ultimately, I suppose, everything we do is destructive to the face and the depths of the earth, and the puzzle is to find some sort of balance.

For me the answer lies in a sort of economics of death. How much can you wring from each animal, and do you need to? Fish sauce is brewed from entrails and bycatch, and a few drops transforms a meal; a chunk of salt pork enriches a whole mess of beans. If you’re going to eat something like a burger, sandwich ham or chicken nuggets, which bears little resemblance to its original form, I think you may as well eat seitan or Quorn or whatever. A cow might provide vast quantities of meat but the point is that it does so inefficiently and largely unnecessarily. Nobody needs to eat the amount of protein that huge steaks provide and in any case steaks are boring. Even a really good steak just tastes like a steak. To grill a rump or a porterhouse is to close it in on itself; the more economical cook allows meat to give itself up. Even so, I like to save it for moderately special occasions.

The cliche, of course, is that vegetarians and especially vegans are evangelical about their dietary choices, and will aggressively bore anyone nearby about, say, the exploitation of bees in the Chinese honey industry; while I have no doubt this is true of some, I find evangelical carnivores far worse. There is a certain type of person who takes the fact that you don’t eat very much meat, actually, as a personal affront not just to them but to their ancestors, their family, their beliefs; I’m not sure why this should be. The economic ability to consume meat, actual pieces of meat, three times a day has come very recently to most of Western society, and the vast majority of the world does not possess it. It is never presented as a hard-won privilege jealously guarded, though, more as a divine law flouted only by heretics and fools. The fact, as I say, that the vast majority of the human diet throughout its history has been composed of plants in various forms makes this all the stranger. I can only imagine how these people must react to actual self-declared vegans; luckily, I suppose, I like cheese too much to ever become one.

Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.