Monthly Archives: October 2008

Spaghetti alle vongole or spaghetti with clams

It has taken a few days, but I think I am back to normal both physically and mentally after the extraordinary consumption antics at the wedding double bill last weekend. My dinosaur appetite has certainly come roaring back this morning after a previously unheard of few days of post wedding moderation. The box of good intention meusli was ignored this morning and I began the day in my favorite bar with another double, this time of the cornetto and cappucino type (cornetto as in italian for croissant not the nasty freezer compartment variety) yes double, two of each.

Back from teaching my little ones- well, I say teaching, if you can call doing frog impressions or frantically gesturing to the classic song The wheels on the bus teaching- and I am ravenous. Despite my double this morning, my body is demanding I make up for lost time and Vincenzo is showing signs of cronic pasta deprivation. So, I have bought a big bag of beautiful mottled pebble like vongole veraci (verace clams) which are soaking in the sink at this very moment waiting to be steamed open, then tossed with with oil, garlic, parsely, a touch of pepperoncino and garofolo spaghetti – lots of it.

I have a weakness for spaghetti alle vongole and up until now, an unfailing habit of getting over excited at the mere thought of it. It has been years now, since it first became my new favorite thing. Other favorites have arrived, been overindulged in, then quietly forgotten, while it has remained top of my pops with fluorescent lighting ever since. I just don’t seem to tire of it. Even bad platefuls have failed to put me off, they are just left barely touched and I am rendered even more determined to find a delicious plateful asap. When it is good, which means the clams are good and stompingly fresh, it is one of the most delicious plates of food I care to imagine, the intense, flavoursome sea salty liquor the clams release and the meaty little morsels of flesh send my tastebuds somewhere quite special.

If you will excuse me, I will pause here while I go to prepare the aforemensioned plateful, give the Sicilian his pasta, take a photo and return to tell you all about it.

1 hour later.

Voilà, lunch, well its all gone now and I even washed up.

It goes without saying you need to get yours hands on some mighty fine, spankingly fresh clams, in general the slightly larger varace variety are tastier in my opinion, I am sure you know your clams – get the best. Other than the clams you need some great spaghetti or linguine, good olive oil, a nice plump clove of garlic, a spig of vibrantly fresh parsley, some chopped pepperoncino and a good slug of white wine or vermouth.

The recipe is pretty simple really, careful draining of the cooked clams through a very fine sieve or muslin is vital if you want to avoid sand in every mouthful, but thats the only fiddly bit, the rest is easy peasy

Spaghetti alle vongole or spaghetti with clams

serves 2

500g small clams in their shells, a small glass of white wine or vermouth, 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 plump clove of garlic peeled and very finely sliced, 1 small pepperoncino or chilli very finely chopped,, a small handful of finely chopped parsley. 250g spaghetti or linguine.

Scrub and clean the clams, discarding any that are chipped or open, then soak them in plenty of fresh cold water for an hour or so to wash away some of the sandy grit.

Put a large pan of well salted water on for the pasta.

Drain the clams and rinse under running water. Put a large wide pan which will accommodate the clams comfortably and spaciously over a moderate flame. Tip in the clams and pour over the wine or vermouth. Cover the pan tightly and shake it very gently for a couple of minutes. After two minutes check on the clams progress, they should be starting to open, if most are open, then turn off the heat, otherwise recover the pan and leave for another minute.

Once the clams are open, turn off the flame and using a slotted spoon remove the clams from the liquor and then carefully filter the liquor through a fine sieve (lined with a piece of muslin if you want a super filter). Set the precious liquor aside.

Saving about 15 of the prettiest clams in their shells and set them aside too. Pick the rest of the clam meat out of the shells.

Put your pasta in the now fiercely boiling water, check cooking times, you want it to be perfectly tender but just a little nutty and al dente to the bite.

Wipe the pan you used to steam the clams and set it over a gentle flame, pour in the oil and add the garlic and pepperoncino which you want to soften and infuse the oil with their flavors, not brown. Add the clam cooking liquor to the pan, raise the heat slightly and let it bubble away for a couple of minutes.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and add it to the bubbling liquor and turn off heat, add the clam meat morsels, the clams still in their shells and the parsley and toss everything together.

Serve immediatly with a dribble of raw oil, some black pepper if you like and plenty of crusty bread to mop up the juices.

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Filed under fish, food, pasta and rice, recipes, Shell fish

A hearty squash and cabbage soup stew

I know, this is my third soup stew post in a row, what can I say, its that time of year, I have got thick tights on and I am most definitely in a hearty soup frame of mind. Also this morning my stomach was crying out for something simple and nourishing after the riotous consumption and extraordinary over indulgence we enjoyed at two Italian weddings this weekend, yes two, I have one burst zip and a rather stretched dress to prove it.

So soup it is, again.

This time may I please introduce you to ‘hearty squash and cabbage soup stew’, he is a robust type, you could describe him as a rough and ready, a no nonsense sort of bowlful which will nourish, sustain and delight you in the most reassuringly straightforward way, I think this is the kind of soup my grandma would have approved of in her ‘eat your greens‘ and ‘this will put hairs on your chest‘  kind of way….umm, yes I know, we like hairs on our heads, but you get the jist I hope.

This soup depends on really good seasonal produce, slow cooking and allowing it to have nice long rest before you reheat and serve it, so all the flavours mingle, settle and come together deliciously. This is the kind of panful which makes me want to do something energetic outside, work up an appetite in the knowledge of the steaming bowlfuls which await my return.

It is beautifully simple to make, onion is gently sauteed in butter and olive oil, carrot, garlic and squash are added to the meltingly tender onions and allowed to soften. Tomatoes lend colour and flavour to the soup, water or stock volume and a parmesan rind, a bay leaf and just a little rosemary add their magical and aromatic touches. All this is left to bubble and simmer gently for about and hour and a half. Finally beans and cabbage are added, everything is given another lively simmer to produce a thick, rich and fortifying soup stew.

I use speckled borlotti beans, again, for this recipe, their earthy, nutty depth enriches and gives body and starchy thickness to the soup, but you could use cranberry beans, white cannelini, pinto or Fava beans. Fresh beans are superlative for this recipe but dried (which need soaking and precooking) or tinned work very well indeed. For the greens, I prefer to use meaty, flavoursome, black green cavolo nero or the dark green crinkled leaves of savoy cabbage.

This recipe is very much inspired and really an adaption of Nigel Slaters recipe printed in the Observer magazine, it also also borrows heavily from (as do most of my soup recipes) Lindsey Barehams recipe for caldo verde in her brilliant book ‘A celebration of soup

A hearty squash and cabbage soup stew.

Serves 6

A thick slice of butter, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 large white onion very finely sliced, 2 plump cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced, 2 carrots, scrubbed and diced roughly, 400g squash flesh cut in rough chunks, 300g tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and chopped, 1 litre of water or stock, parmesan rind, bay leaf, small sprig of fresh rosemary, 400g beans (cooked weight), 3 handfuls of roughly sliced cavolo nero or savoy cabbage, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

If you are using dried beans you will need about 250g and you need to soak them overnight and then precook them at a lively simmer for about 2 hours in plenty of fresh water with a bay leaf until they are tender and cooked through. Fresh beans only need about 30mins at a lively simmer and tinned ones simply need draining and rinsing. Set the beans aside for now.

Warm the butter and oil in a heavy based soup pan and add the onion, over a gentle flame saute until it is soft and translucent. Add the carrot garlic and squash, stir well to coat each chunk and then leave to soften, stirring occasionally for about 10 mins.

Add the tomatoes, bay leaf and rosemary to the pan, stir well and allow to bubble gently for a couple of minutes before adding the water or stock and the parmesan rind.

Turn up the heat and bring the pan to a gentle boil, cover the pan, putting the lid ajar so steam can escape, lower the heat and leave the pan at a gentle simmer for about 1 and a half hours, stirring every now and then.

Once cooked the soup should be dense, thick and robust looking. Add the beans and the cavolo nero or cabbage, stir very well and put the pan back over a lively but gentle flame for another 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and leave it to rest for at least one hour.

Once you are ready to serve reheat the soup as briefly as possible, you don’t want it too hot as the flavours are more pronounced when it is served warm but not boiling.

Serve with plenty of freshly grated parmesan and good crusty bread

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Filed under Beans and pulses, food, recipes, soup

Pancotto or bread soup

Pancotto literally translated means bread cooked, now in my book that kind of translates as toast, of the butter and marmalade kind, so lets use the accepted translation of bread soup.

Well, I thought it was pancotto or bread soup until Vincenzo arrived home and peered in the pan, ‘l’acquacotta‘ he declared (‘cooked water.’) I was momentarily confused, was he referring to the soup, was it disapproval, was the reference to cooked water akin to that of ‘acquasporca‘ (dirty water) something he hisses at bad coffee. He scooped out a large spoonful and smiled in quiet approval, the way he often does when faced with his idea of a divine trio, bread, oil and tomatoes. His face revealed it wasn’t a criticism. I was confused none the less, ‘cooked water.’

A long discussion ensued, the kind Italians excel at, about the correct name for the contents of the pan, a rather comforting mushy looking concoction of oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes, bread and water. Was it pancotto or acquacotto or to confuse things further was it in fact pappa al pomodoro. I showed him the recipe I had followed from il cucchiaio d’argento and pointed firmly at the printed title. Loving the opportunity to be contrary, he simply shrugged his shoulders, insisted it was aqcuacotto and pointed firmly to the title of recipe 1095 in the heavyweight volume Le ricette regionale d’italia. Many volumes and much pointing later we concluded it could well be any of the three and decided supper was long overdue.

This is the kind of dish which helps me better understand the brilliance of simple Italian cooking, the most startlingly economic, basic ingredients united to create humbly, delicious cooking alchemy. This is ingenious and thrifty (using up old bread) cooking.

An onion and clove of garlic are sauteed in some oil, some chopped tomatoes are added and left to bubble and plop plop away gently for a few minutes. Bread is added (thats where the pancotto bit comes in) then fresh water (and, bing, that will be the acquacotta) the pot is left again to simmer and soup thicken before allowing it to rest. The soup is finally enriched with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan and a dribble of raw oil.

Nothing fancy you see, the ingredients, and there aren’t alot of them (like so much good Italian food), are no frills, in fact, lets face it they are downright basic, so they need to be pretty top notch. I generally use San marzano or Roma tomatoes.

This is what I call comfort food, this is the kind of bowlful that’s its right up there with mashed potato topped with a fried egg, chicken soup or a soft boiled egg with marmite soldiers, but comfort food I would be proud to serve to anyone.

So whatever you feel inclined to call it, this the recipe I followed, it is adapted from il cucchiaio d’argento.

Tuscan unsalted bread is superlative for this recipe as is Altamura.

serves 4

4 tbsp good olive oil, 1 small white onion finely chopped, 1 whole garlic clove peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife, 3 large or 6 smaller ripe red tasty tomatoes peeled, de-seeded and roughly chopped, 250g day old bread, crusts removed and diced, 1 litre water (plus 250ml extra boiling water), salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Plenty of freshly grated parmesan and good oil to sprinkle and dribble.

Heat the oil in a heavy based pan and add the onion and garlic, saute over a gentle flame for about 10 minutes or until the onion and garlic are soft and translucent.

Add the prepared tomatoes to the pan, stir well and leave over the gentle flame to bubble away for another 10 minutes.

Pour in the 250ml of boiling water add the bread, stir carefully but firmly.

Add the litre of water, stir again, season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn up the flame slightly and allow the soup to come to a gentle but lively simmer. Allow the soup to simmer for another 10 minutes or until it is fairly thick.

Remove from the heat and allow the soup to sit for at least 10 minutes so the flavours can settle and mingle – the soup is at its best when it has cooled a little.

Ladle into bowls and serve, allowing everyone to sprinkle over the parmesan and dribble the oil as they so wish.

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Filed under food, recipes, soup

Pear and pecorino

Vincenzo loves a proverb or saying, he delights, glint in his eye, in repeating them endlessly. The mere sight of a pear prompts one of his favourites which he recites in a rather deep voice and then is quickly reduced to infectious giggles, ‘Non fa sapere al contadino quant’é buona la pera con pecorino‘ (‘don’t let the farmer know how good a pear is with pecorino’,)

I think it may be too late, I think the farmer already knows the ravishingly simple and delicious combination that is salty piquant sheep’s milk pecorino with a perfectly ripe, sweet, fragrant pear, the joyous meeting of two temperaments, sweet and soft with hard and salty.

A handful of young fresh walnuts wouldn’t go amiss with this fine duo.

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Filed under cheese, food, Rachel's Diary