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.

Eight Legs Better

 

 I’m fairly comfortable with my meat-eating, generally speaking. I don’t buy a huge amount, and when I do it’s often game, or odder cuts from well-reared animals; having been vegetarian for 10 years, I’m conscious of the ethical arguments, but feel that informed meat-eating is a better choice than the outright protest of vegetarianism, quite apart from the ecological ramifications of removing the entire meat industry (and I’m conscious there’s a counter-argument to that, thank you). We’re lucky in this country that animal farming is comparatively well-regulated, and that while the horrors of battery farming still continue, its products are easy enough to avoid; if we keep making informed decisions, perhaps it will wither away – although that may be a trifle optimistic.

Fish-eating, in comparison, is a bloody minefield. Although we have the MSC certifications and so forth, the actual state of fish stocks change so frequently and vary so much from sea to sea that the best of intentions often go astray. I get round this by almost never buying fish – something of a copout. At the restaurant we’re lucky in having a small fishmonger (his operation, I mean – he’s of average size) who deals only with dayboats and sustainable sources; he makes the informed choices so we don’t have to, which is good, and means we often use things we might not have otherwise tried, such as sand soles, cuttlefish, and fresh, British octopus.

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for the argument that we shouldn’t eat the more intelligent animals. The intelligence of dogs is, I think, highly overrated, and while I’d happily eat them I don’t think their meat would taste very nice. There’s a reason we don’t generally eat carnivorous mammals. Pigs, while smart, are also quite smart enough to up and leave if they aren’t happy with the situation; there’s a good argument that their ‘domestication’ was something of a reciprocal arrangement in the first place. At any rate, pigs are quite happy to eat their own young if the situation requires it, so I don’t think they’re squeamish about such things. So much for pigs.

The intelligence of the octopus seems of a quite other order. The more I read about them, the more chillingly intelligent they seem. When captured, they refuse to participate in research which could teach us more about them; they escape from their tanks in the dead of night through holes the size of their beak, walking on dry land if necessary to reach their goal; in the wild, they decorate their homes, they use tools, they communicate. They are an intelligent alien life form, and when they rise up out of the sea with their stolen weaponry, I fully expect to be held to account. The problem is, they’re just so tasty. 

Maybe it’s their intelligence that makes them so delicious. Just as pigs are, objectively speaking, the tastiest of animals, so the flesh of the octopus is nicer by far than that of their dumb, brutish cousins the squid and the cuttlefish, really rich and sweet, capable of standing up to the thick, beefy flavours of stifado as well as the subtle astringency of a celery and potato salad. If we don’t get them much here, I think it’s because people are rather afraid of cooking them. There’s all kinds of nonsense about how to tenderise their flesh – beat with a hammer, dry on a clothesline, add corks to the cooking liquor – but the best way to do it is just to stick them in the freezer as soon as you get them, and leave them at least overnight. The violent effect this has on their cells, undesirable in delicate white fish, tenderises them perfectly.

The next day, I normally braise them in oil, wine and herbs before chopping their tentacles and adding to salads, or leaving them whole and blackening on a hot grill; if you clean them properly (brains out, beak off) you can cook them directly in your tomato and purple olive ragu, and so much the better for everyone. Just be prepared for the day when the sea-spiders rise up and come seeking revenge.

 

Ragu a la Lear

There once was an onion from Spain
Chopped with and across of the grain
And softened in butter
It reduces and splutters
Adding flavour and depth to your main.

Now pour in a large glass of wine
Adding salt to make red, boozy brine
Boil the liquid away
And the flavour will stay –
You’ll thank me for this when you dine.

A tin of tomatoes goes in –
Paste too, if the juices seem thin –
When kept at a simmer
The colour grows dimmer –
The deep, bloody scarlet of sin.

Add portions of beef, minced and brown
Keep boiling your bolognaise down
In a couple of hours
The remarkable power
Of your cooking will win you renown.

When content with the state of your beef
Cook pasta – just ‘to the teef’ –
Grate Grana Padano /
Pecorino Romano –
Dinner’s ready! Now what a relief!

Rabbit, Rabbit

photo Apologies for the rather long break (I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks). I’ve just started a new job and have been rather busy testing dishes, writing menus, and pickling lots of things, so while I’ve had plenty of new recipes to share, I haven’t had the time to write anything about them. Even if I did, I’m not sure a lot of them would translate that well into the home-cooking format – like a lot of professional recipes they are broadly split between “take a lot of expensive and hard-to-source-ingredients and put them on a plate” and “subject cheap ingredients to a three-day process of dismemberment”. Still, I feel I’ve got to write about something, and putting things on a plate wouldn’t be very interesting, so dismemberment it is. This recipe uses one of my very favourite meats, and is one I’ve been working on – I don’t like to say refining, but certainly improving – for the last few years. Despite the increasing fashionability of game, rabbit is still pretty cheap to buy, and is a plentiful and guilt-free meat, the things being a pest in most of the country. Like most wild meat, though, it does need careful cooking, and can be a stringy and unpleasant eating experience if handled badly. This recipe is designed to minimise that possibility. People seem to treat the cooking of game as if it’s some great mystery, requiring an almost magical touch in the kitchen; basically, though, the meat is both hard-working – think how much a rabbit runs in its short life – and lean, and requires a healthy dose of moisture and fat to help it along. In this, as in so much, pigs are your friend. So. This is a lengthy process, but none of it is particularly hands-on, and is, I think, worth it. (I would say that though). To shorten things a little I’ve assumed that you’ll get the rabbit jointed, although as this is a satisfying procedure in its own right, I do suggest you give it a go sometime.

RABBIT RAGOUT

Happily serves four.

DAY ONE

All this can be done some time in advance.

TROTTER JELLY

3 pig feet (you’re not using the flesh for this, so don’t worry about shaving them)

2 onions

2 sticks of celery

2 fat carrots 2 leeks

1 head of garlic

A few cloves, peppercorns & juniper berries

Put the feet in a large pan, cover with water, and bring to a boil. Blanch for about 15 minutes, to drive off some of the scum. I’ve skipped this step before and ended up with a pan of sickly green, so please do it. Chop the veg into chunks, washing the leeks, and halve the garlic along its tummy. Drain the feet, rinse off any clinging scum, then put all in the pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to a bright simmer, and leave there for at least three hours, maybe more, until the trotters have completely collapsed, with bones poking all over the place. Drain the stock into jars or tubs, and discard the solids somewhere that won’t attract rats. Leave to cool, then refrigerate.

BRINE

300g fine sea salt (not table salt; it’s got stuff added to it)

200g granulated sugar

2 cloves of garlic, lightly squashed

A few cloves, juniper berries and peppercorns

Put everything in a pan, cover with two litres of water, and heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn up the heat and boil for a couple of minutes. Leave to cool, then refrigerate this too.

DAY TWO 2 wild rabbits, jointed

The brine

Put the rabbits in the brine, or the brine on the rabbit. Weigh down with a plate or something, and put in the fridge.

DAY THREE RABBIT Brined rabbit (you don’t need the saddles for this; they are much more tender and quick to cook than the legs, so save them for something else)

1 onion

1 fat carrot

1 stick of celery

1 leek

trotter jelly

chicken stock (if you have some)

Again, chunk the veg, and use them to make a rabbit bed in a suitable pan. Drain the rabbit, and rinse under running water for a good few minutes, then arrange the joints on their bed. Add enough trotter jelly to cover the rabbit once melted; it might need a top-up with stock or water. Cover and braise gently for a couple of hours, until the meat starts to fall off the bone.

SAUCE

1 large onion, finely diced

1 carrot, finely diced

1 stick of celery, finely diced

1 lemon, zest only

2 sprigs of thyme, stripped

2 tblspn tomato puree 100ml full-fat milk

50ml white balsamic or other nice vinegar

Extra virgin olive oil

Sweat the vegetables in a good slosh of oil until very soft, then stir in the zest and thyme leaves and cook for a minute until fragrant. Add the puree, increase the heat, and fry for a minute or two. Turn down again, add the milk, and let it bubble away to nothing, then do the same with the vinegar.

TO FINISH

rabbit sauce

a handful of chopped parsley Shred the rabbit meat of the bones and add to the sauce, then strain in enough of the braising liquid to just cover. Simmer until everyone seems happy together, then serve with something bright and green, and polenta or pasta.