Merven’s Mediterranean Macaroni with Tuna

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Almost five months without a new recipe, and no complaints? Hmmm. Well, to remedy the situation, presuming you actually noticed, here’s a favourite of mine when time is short and trips to the supermarket are out of the question. All the ingredients are constantly present in my cupboard – though naturally they are rotated reasonably frequently.

This is, I think, the first fish-based recipe on the blog so you can keep it in mind if you have any observant Catholics over for dinner on Good Friday, or that friend of your wife’s who swears she’s a vegetarian but is quite happy to eat fish.

Tuna – whether you pronounce it “chew-na” or “two-na” (I’m happy to go with the former) – is the king of edible fish. It comes in different shapes, sizes and colours but on the plate is always magnificent. It’s a cousin of the humble mackerel, just a good bit beefier (Atlantic bluefins can be over 10 feet long) and a good bit faster (Southern bluefins can reach 75 kph!). Bluefins can also live to the ripe old age of about 50, though with aggressive fishing tactics these days, I can’t imagine there’s too many of these lads around.

The Japanese, of course, love tuna (though I suspect they would eat anything which has been steeped in sea-water for long enough…) and produce wonderful dishes with it. They call it maguro, literally “black-eye”, and often don’t get around tocooking it, being as it is one of the most popular elements of sashimi. But Southern Europeans, too, have a long tradition of eating tuna – one of life’s greatest pleasures is tucking into a lightly pan-seared tuna steak with a touch of balsamic vinegar and black pepper, accompanied by an asparagus, olive and tomato salad. Aaaaaaaah.

Now then, where was I. Ah yes, tuna. Today’s recipe is an absolute doddle, something to get the kids involved in or something you, be you totally inept in the kitchen or just a lazy sod, can rustle up in the time it takes to boil a large pot of water and a few hundred grammes of pasta.

So with no further ado, here’s Merven’s Mediterranean Macaroni with Tuna. Have fun!

Penne with Tuna.

Penne with Tuna.

Ingredients:

  • 160g tin of tuna (in brine or olive oil, it will be drained anyway)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • a handful of capers
  • finely chopped fresh parsley, lots
  • 200g pennette (or penne)
  • freshly-ground black pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil

Method:

First, put your large pot of water for the pasta on to boil. Everything else can be done in the time it takes this to boil. Well it should…

Now open your tin of tuna and drain off the brine or olive oil. If your capers are in salt, now would be a good time to put them in a glass with a water/vinegar mix, to cleanse them of the salt. If you don’t do this, your tongue will shrivel to the size of a bat’s willy and you will drink gallons of water for the next 24 hours. So do it. If your capers are in brine, leave them where they are. They’re probably very happy and won’t thank you for taking them out.

Next, take your chopping board and sharp knife and get to work on the garlic cloves. These need to be cut into tiny pieces. What I usually do is julienne them and then cut them again. Or, you can just chop away like merry with a meat cleaver, singing an air from Le Nozze di Figaro as you go. I’ll leave it up to you.

When you’ve decimated your garlic, put it in a small frying pan. Add plenty of olive oil (cover the bottomn of the pan, about 6 tablespoons should do. Sweat the garlic and when it begins to soften, add the tuna, breaking it up as much as you can while mixing it in with the garlic. Add a pinch of pepper and allow it to bubble away. Add the capers after a couple of minutes.

When the pasta water has come to the boil, bung in a large handful of sea salt and the pasta and cook for one minute less than the packet says. When the time’s up, drain it, splash some cold water through it (remember, you’re not giving it a cold shower!) and bung it back into the pot. Empty the contents of the frying pan into the pot and give it a good mix up, throwing the parsley into the fray while you’re at it.

Finally, serve with a smile, a hearty sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper and a crisp white wine (a Sauvignon Blanc or even a Muscadet would be good). Now wasn’t that easy.

Penne with Tuna, after the meal.

Penne with Tuna, after the meal.

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Pasta e fagioli – a culinary cement mixer

cannellini

Something’s missing… ah, the pasta!! Don’t forget the pasta!

Pasta e fagioli is a popular dish in Italy, but usually consists of a fairly soupy-type dish, similar to my Pasta e ceci. The recipe I present here it different: it’s a dry pasta dish with a tomato-based sauce. I’m not sure where this recipe came from, but I suspect Calabria may have something to do with it.

There was a period in my life, not the happiest one of my life but it did have its ups too, when I would drop into my favourite pub on my way home from work of a Friday evening for a number of pints of the black stuff. Naturally this was on an empty stomach (particularly empty considering that I didn’t usually have lunch or breakfast in those days either). Now, they say about Guinness that there’s atin’ and dhrinkin’ on it. Bollocks. The result of the evening, apart from a certain unsteadiness on the feet, was invariably a ferocious appetite. So by the time I struggled home on the last train, I would have eaten the hind legs off a horse. Had there been one handy, of course.

But the long, ardous journey home was made bearable by the thought that in all probability, the long-suffering woman to whose care I was at the time entrusted had a large pot of pasta e fagioli (that’s pasta with beans to you lot) waiting for me to heat up and devour. And devour it I did, relishing the feeling as it slowly (well, not that slowly) filled up the bag and went to restoring me to some sort of normality.

So to cut a long story short, this dish is a filler, the product of some sort of culinary cement mixer that churns out absolutely delicious fodder. This is not haut cuisine. It is not even bas cuisine. It is get-something-into-you-before-you-keel-over cuisine. And it’s as simple as ABC, so you can get your non-cooking partner to work on it, or use it as a training method with your children. And when it’s all overand the pot is scraped clean, I bet you’ll be saying “Now that’s what I call filling!”.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tin of cannellini beans
  • 4 slices of onion, finely chopped
  • half a small dried chili pepper
  • 350g of tomato passato (half a bottle of sieved tomato)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 200g of pipe rigate/lumache or mezze maniche at a push

Method:

Put your finely chopped onion (onion afficionados can use up to half a medium onion if they like) in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan and add a few squirts of olive oil (about 3 or 4 tbsp) together with your chili, cut or shredded into pieces (heat maniacs can use a whole chili or even 2, but this is not supposed to be a spicy dish). Bring it to a bubble, lower the heat, cover and cook on the lowest possible heat for about 5 minutes, until the onion is nice and soft.

Now add the tomato together with a quarter of a glass of water and a healthy pinch of salt (healthy, not heavy-handed!). Stir it all up, bring to the bubble (it should look like boiling lava or mud pools), then lower to minimum, cover and allow to cook gently for about an hour, or even less if you have the munchies or are really in a hurry. Do stir it from time to time. Apart from giving you an excuse to taste it, it willhelp to stop the thing from sticking to the bottom of the pan (though if your pan really does have a thick bottom, it shouldn’t). If it looks a bit dry, feel free to add a spot of water. Whiskey works too.

While the tomato is cooking, feel free to get stuck into the crossword, do a bit of gardening, take the dog for a spin, etc. But make sure someone is on hand to stir the sauce every 5-10 mins or so!

Another thing you could occupy yourself with is the beans. Now tinned beans pretty much look after themselves, but they need rinsing. So, out with your colander, bung the beans in and rinse away all the gunge. Talking of beans, if you can’t get cannellini beans, I suppose at a pinch you could use baked beans, but do rinse the tomato sauce off them as it would alter the flavour of the finished dish completely. Also, I find that borlotti, butter beans and the whole range of exotic black, blue and greater-spotted beans available, just don’t produce the same result. So, do your best to find cannellini.

Back to business. When the tomato sauce is thoroughly cooked (neither runny, nor melted-chocolate thick), add the beans, stir through, cover and heat through.

At this stage, stick on your pot of water for the pasta. Cook as per descriptions elsewhere on this site and after you’ve drained it stick it back in the pot, throw in the bean sauce, stir it all up and serve. You can thank me later.

Creamy Pepper Pennette

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2013 has been, meteorologically speaking, something of a strange year pretty much all over. I can’t recall ever seeing so much rain here in (or rather, near) Rome in the 24 years I’ve been here, rain which only stopped about half-way through June. We didn’t have a cold winter this year, it was just the interminable rain. Now, being Irish I can cope with rain. Love the stuff even. But of course my Italian family, friends, neighbours and in general the great Italian unwashed (or should I say slavati) spent the period from about October 2012 to June 2013 complaining non-stop about the weather. Indeed so great was their preoccupation with the weather that I had visions of there being some sort of mass conferral of British nationality on the inhabitants of The Boot.

But summer did eventually arrive and of course, as you can by now imagine, it arrived with a vengeance, we had a week or two at about 30° just to get acclimatized and then – zac! – 40° in the shade for the next 2 months. And of course everyone starts whinging about the heat and the mozzies and the humidity… Now, I’m no fan of excessive heat: my pathetic Irish skin can’t take massive doses of sun (and here I envy my son Caoimhan whose half-Calabrian side produced a skin which protects him magnificently from all sorts of rays). But feck it, humankind became what it is today thanks to its adaptability, so if you can’t stand a bit of sweltering weather for a few weeks once a year, it’s a sorry show. Naturally, you need to change your shirt 3 times a day in order to avoid all sorts of unpleasantness. And an extra shower or 2 a day will do you no harm. And you’ll have to up your water intake and lower your alcohol intake, too. But they’re sacrifices anyone should be able to make. Just think of the poor sods who live in northern climes. Like you, dear reader.

However, these sorts of temperatures do require some sort of adjustment in your diet. Of course, certain fruits and vegetables become available in summer, making certain dishes possible, but it’s also a matter of what you should be putting into your body. You need to reduce fats but keep carbs and above all increase vitamins and minerals, so fruit and vegetables play a huge role in the summer diet.

You may at this stage be thinking that this introduction is leading up to some terribly healthy summer dish. It is not. It is leading up to an unbelievably scrumptious, lip-licking (even plate-licking if that’s your thing), whizzer featuring the king of summer vegetables, the bell pepper, and the queen of unhealthiness – cream! It is my Creamy Pepper Pennette. As easy as falling out of a tree (something I am a past master of) but as delicious as a delicious thing.

Pennette wit creamy red pepper sauce.

Pennette wit creamy red pepper sauce.

Ingredients:

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 1 clove garlic
  • white wine or chicken/vegetable stock
  • 200 g pennette (or penne if unavailable)
  • 300 ml double cream
  • Freshly-ground black pepper

Method:

The first thing you need to do is prepare your peppers for surgery. Give them a good wash, not forgeting behind the ears. Then take a pepper, slice it vertically through the middle. Take each half and cut around the green bit at the top to remove the lumpy bit with the seeds attached. Carefully whittle out any other white bits from inside the half pepper, leaving only red matter. Cut these half peppers horizontally, producing more or less squarish chunks on pepper.

No go to work on each chunk, slicing first vertically into 1 cm strips, then crosswise into 1 cm strips but thereby producing little cubes. Place the product of your labours onto a handy plate and continue with the next chunk of pepper until it’s all done. Stand back and admire your work. Applaud yourself. Call the family in and have them applaud you. The neighbours too, dammit.

Next, skin your clove of garlic, cut it into 2 or 3 pieces and bung it into your good old J-Lo Pan, the one (all together now) with the heavy bottom. Drown your garlic with a good splatter of extra virgin olive oil (about 4 tbsp). Turn on the heat (medium-low) and let the garlic sweat for about 3-5 minutes. Standing in front of the cooker, you should be beginning to sweat too, so now’s a good time to get some of that nice Sauvignon Blanc you keep in the fridge.

Once the garlic has repented its sins (beware lest it turn brown!!), ceremoniously add the diced peppers to the pan and stir it up, little baby. Turn up the heat a bit maybe and stir every now and then just to remind them who’s boss. Once they frittering away nicely, cover and reduce the heat to the minimum. They’re good now for about 10 minutes.

At this stage we need to add some vegetable stock. Obviously the real McCoy is best, but failing that you can use powdered stock in a little water or even just some dry white wine. Whatever it is, chuck in enough to make the peppers seem like they’re under threat of being flooded out of their house and home, but not actually swimming. Err on the side of dryness. Otherwise you’ll have to cook them for longer to vapourize all that liquid. And overcooked peppers have a habit of dissolving into mush. So, just a healthy dash of liquid. Bring it back up to bubbling point, reduce heat, partially cover and off you go for a cigarette.

Now put your past pot on to boil with ample water. When it boils, chuck in a good handful of sea salt followed by your pennette and cook as per usual (see https://mervensrecipes.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/pasta-and-how-to-treat-it/).

Once you’ve plunged your pasta into the boiling water, return your attentions to the peppers. Raising the heat a little, add the cream and stir it in. Keep it going, stirring frequently, until you’ve produced a creamy mixture, neither too watery nor too dry (in this case you can add a little warm milk to compensate).

By the time the creamy pepper sauce is redy, your past should be too so drain it and then fire it into the peppers, making sure you coat it well all over. It will thank you for this. And, boys and girls, that’s it! Serve with a healthy sprinkle of freshly-ground black pepper and a large glass of Sauvignon Blanc to cries of “Long live summer!”.

Moorish Stuffed Aubergines

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Aubergines (or eggplant, if you swing that way) are one of a number of fruit and vegetables that have a piss-poor reputation, mostly owing to their perceived lack of flavour. Now I will grant you that aubergines are not the zappiest of vegetables when it comes to it, but then neither are potatoes and yet everyone raves about them. The real benefit of our poor old aubergine lies not in its flavour, but in its texture, in what it can add to a dish in terms of colour and consistency. But above all, you need to know what to do with the damn things, which means knowing a few aubergines-friendly recipes, which are obviously outside the standard range of northern European cuisine. Look south, my friends, to the Mediterranean lands and all will become clear! The mistreated, ill-considered aubergine rises to near-glorious heights in the sunny south!

Today we’re going to leave Italy for a while. This is a Spanish recipe (hence the appearance of the Moors in the title), though variants of it exist throughout the Med, all the way across to the Middle East. I love it because it’s bursting with fabulous rich, smoky flavours and it contains my favourite meat of all – lamb. The lamb can be substituted with beef if you can’t get it, though I would suggest you seriously consider changing your butcher if he can’t come up with a few scraps of lamb… Mind you, having said that, lamb and mutton can be extraordinarily difficult to find here in Italy. The Italians are not great sheep-eaters in much the same way as the Irish are not great horse-eaters – they have better uses for the fleecy buggers. The only exception made is Easter, when they eat they eat the poor little blighters at about 1 month old, as distinct from Irish lamb which is about – or just under – a year old. Anyway, lamb’s your man for this dish. Or goat (kid), if you can get it, but that’s maybe pushing it.

Now, I have written before about aubergines but for this recipe you will need quite decent-sized ones of the traditional long pear-shaped variety. The dish doesn’t work as well if they’re the round variety and the deep purple ones are better than the white.

You’ll also need a few particular spices for this one, spice which are clearly Moorish (North African) in origin and which lend their particular flavours to the overall effect of the dish. They are, however, fairly common on most kitchen shelves – paprika, which should be very deep red in colour (if it’s orange, get yourself some proper paprika and throw that one out) and remember that paprika is not “hot”; cinnamon, preferably still in twig form; nutmeg, which is best grated on the spot and not the already-ground version; cumin, again preferably in seed form rather than powdered, and if possible toasted quickly in a heavy-bottomed pan.

Once you’ve gathered together your ingredients and assured yourself half an hour or so of silence by burying your mobile under the sofa cushions and locking the cat in the hot press, we’re ready to begin our Moorish Stuffed Courgettes.

Ingredients:

  • 2 largish aubergines (about 18-20 cm long)
  • 1 ripe red bell pepper
  • half an onion, finely chopped
  • 200g minced lamb
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds (half tsp powdered)
  • 1 heaped tsp paprika
  • 6 cm cinnamon stick, roughly broken up
  • nutmeg for grating (or quarter tsp powdered)
  • 1 small dried chili pepper
  • salt
  • 3-4 smallish tomatoes, diced
  • dry white wine
  • medium-hard sheeps’ cheese for grating

Method:

Having given them a cold bath and a good scrubbing to get the grime off the back of their necks, remove the top of the aubergines (the bit with the greenery attached) and slice your aubergines in half lengthwise. Now the trickiest part. Using a sharp knife and pretending you are Christiaan Barnard, make an incision just inside the skin going all the way round the inside of the aubergine. Take care not to dig too deep (tell yourself there are arteries down there!) or you’ll break through the skin. Having done that, repeat the operation making a grid pattern throughout the rest of the aubergine. Now do it again with the other 3 half-aubergines. With a bit of luck, at least 1 of these patients might live.

At this stage (sadistic bit) you have to rub a bit of salt into the wounds. Be generous with the salt. When that’s done dribble some extra virgin olive oil over the surface and rub it down into the slits together with the salt with your fingers. Now turn on your oven to about 200°C, set the aubergines on an oven dish (preferably one where they fit perfectly, leaving no space at the sides for them to wilt over), stick them in and leave them there to sweat a bit for about 30 minutes. Ignore them if they bang on the oven door. It’s for their own good. You can wash your hands now. And have a cigarette maybe. I would.

Now dice you pepper. Heat a frying pan with a dollop of extra virgin olive oil and fry off the pepper for a few minutes. Add your onion and garlic and mix through. Then bung in the lamb and stir baby stir, breaking up the pieces of lamb and making sure they all lose their pinkish colour.

Next, throw in your cumin, paprika, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili and salt. Keep stirring and mixing. Now add your tomato, mix it in and if, after a couple of minutes, the whole thing seems a bit on the dry side (which it probably will), bung in a dose of white wine. I’d bung it in even if the whole thing doesn’t look dry – you can never have too much wine. Have a glass for yourself while you’re at it.

At this stage the aubergines should be dead, so you can taken them out of the oven. You can turn off the oven but close the door as we’ll need it again in a few minutes and we don’t want to waste that expensive heat, now, do we?

Using a tablespoon, carefully scoop out the flesh from the aubergines and place it on a plate you will have thoughtfully provided yourself with. Don’t break the skins in your attempts to do this – the idea is to make room, not to remove every single trace that there was ever any aubergine flesh in there. Chop up the flesh on the plate (mind your fingers – it’s still hot!) and then bung the result into your pan with all the other ingredients, mixing it in as you go along.

Turn off your pan and start spooning the mixture into the empty aubergine shells (I told you it would be for their own good!). Anything left over can quite happily be eaten on the spot as a reward to the chef or kept by for tomorrow. I’d avoid giving it to the dog, though. He won’t appreciate it and the chili and spices will play havoc with his digestion, with unpleasant results.

Finally, grate some of that cheese you have over the stuffed aubergines, generously and as messily as you like, and put them back in the oven for about 10 minutes, not forgetting to switch the oven on again, naturally. 10 minutes later and you are ready to begin your by now traditional triumphal march through the house to the dining table with something resembling this:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my Stuffed Aubergine in the Moorish Style

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my Stuffed Aubergine in the Moorish Style

You can go mad with wine on this one: definitely a vigorous red from the southern coasts of Europe. Here are a few suggestions – French Corbières or Bandol, Spanish Garnacha or even a Chateau Musar or Kefraya Les Bretèches from Lebanon.

Mediterranean Summertime Chicken

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mediterraneanchickenTo take a break (and why not) from the pasta dishes, today’s recipe is a main course and a guaranteed pasta-free zone. Over the years I’ve eaten several variants of this dish, both in Italy and elsewhere, all of them exquisite and differing from each other mostly in the cut of chicken used (thigh, breast, whole…) or in the method of cooking (pan, oven, casserole, old shoe…). I’ve chosen this one simply because it’s probably the easiest and it’s also one of the quickest. And I know you all lead such busy lives and can hardly find the time to spend more than ten minutes in front of what should be a sort of altar in every home: your cooker! (You do have one, don’t you?)

So, drag your drunken self away from the pub 20 minutes earlier than usual, do without your daily dose of whatever soap opera you are currently addicted to, put the dog’s walk off until after dinner (when it will help you digest, too) and find yourself half an hour to work up a juicy, scrummy, bursting-with-flavoury dish, jam-packed with Mediterranean flavours.

The dish doesn’t call for any extraordinary ingredients. The key ingredient, though, is oregano. Oregano is a (non-smokable) weed which infests fields and roadsides throughout the Med. If you walk through the Italian countryside in summer, you will often turn a bend and be struck by an incredibly strong wave of oregano aroma. You might also be struck by a car whose driver is busy on the phone, so watch out. You will still find Italians combing the fields and roadsides with a basket in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, collecting oregano while it is still fresh, to take it home then and dry out in a dark closet somewhere. Indeed, the oregano in my own kitchen was collected in this way (as was the rosemary and the mint). Of course, you can quite happily buy the stuff in the supermarket, but there’s no doubt that the flavour is better when you’ve gleaned it yourself. And it’s free! You can use either fresh or dried oregano for this recipe, but remember that the dried product is worth about 3 times the fresh, so if you use 1 tablespoon of dried, you’ll need 3 tbsp of fresh.

Another ingredient I ought to mention are the black olives. Now, entire volumes have been written about the humble olive, one of the first fruits/vegetables/thingies cultivated by Man (I use the term in its neuter sense) and prized above all for its glorious oil. Olives are grown all over the Mediterranean, with each country loudly claiming its olives are the best (“Mine’s bigger than yours”). Who cares. As far as I can make out (coming as I do from an olive-free country) all these countries produce excellent (and some less excellent) olives and olive oil.

Eating olives are prepared in a variety of ways: in brine, roasted, in olive oil, with or without all sorts of flavouring agents such as orange peel, aniseed, garlic, and the list goes on. This recipe requires pitted olives. Now if you are so minded you can do this yourself, with a sharp knife, patience and preferably a pair of surgical gloves (black olives release a black dye which lasts on your fingertips for about a week). The first dozen or so will be spent trying to work out the best method of releasing the pit from the fruit. And all too often you will end up destroying the olive. The recipe requires that the olive be cut into rings, so you will need to keep it fairly intact. For this reason, I suggest you procure olives which have already been pitted by someone who knows more about it than you (they’ve got fancy machines for doing it, or as I prefer to think, squadrons of nimble-fingered, dusky Mediterranean maidens with stiletto knives).

Now, with the preliminaries over, I give you my Mediterranean Summertime Chicken. Well, not in the sense of actually “giving” it to you, you get your own…

Ingredients:

  • 300g Chicken breast fillets
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano (or 3 tbsp fresh)
  • 100g pitted black olives
  • 1 large carrot
  • 4 small ripe tomatoes
  • 1 large courgette
  • salt
  • chili pepper flakes
  • extra virgin olive oil

Method:

The longest part of this dish is the preparation, rather than the actual cooking. So, arm yourself with 4 suitable containers: 1 big one for the carrot/courgette/pepper, 1 small one for the tomatoes, 1 very small one for the olives and 1 for the chicken.

First, julienne the pepper, carrot and courgette. For those of you who have just said “Julie who?”, it means cutting the vegetables into small strips, more or less matchstick-sized (very roughly speaking, about 6 cm long by half a cm wide). Watch your bloody fingers while you do this. Fingertips have been known to disappear!

Julienned peppers look like this. So should yours.

Julienned peppers look like this. So should yours.

Next, cut your pitted olives into rings, i.e. crosswise, from one end to the other.

Now take your chicken fillets and do unto them as you have done unto the vegetables. You’ll need a sharp knife for this bit, and once again mind your bloody fingertips or they will become bloody fingertips.

Finally, cut the tomatoes in half. Cut each half into thin slices, turn 45 degrees (either the tomato or you, the effect is one and the same) and cut again into thin slices. You will now have produced half a finely-diced tomato. Celebrate by doing the same with the remaining tomatoes and a half.

OK, that’s the preparation done. You have earned yourself a break. I suggest a Campari and soda, but the choice is yours.

Just before we get down to the cooking, get your salt, chili flakes and olive oil out of their respective cubby holes, ready to use.

Add a tbsp or two of oil to your deep, heavy-bottomed frying pan, turn on the heat and allow the oil to heat up. Throw in the courgette-pepper-carrot mix and cook it over a medium heat, stirring frequently. When it all starts to wilt slightly add the olives and stir through.

Then add the chicken, a large pinch of salt, as much chili pepper as you like (though remember the dish is not intended to be spicy) and the oregano. Stir through heartily, separating the chicken pieces.

Once the chicken has completely separated and is well on the way to being cooked, add the tomatoes and, you guessed it, stir through. If, after a couple of minutes the whole thing seems a bit on the dry side, bung in a good dollop of dry white wine and allow about 5 minutes for the whole thing to amalgamate. Your Mediterranean Summertime Chick is now ready and the smell in your kitchen should be indescribable.

I usually serve this with plain rice, preferably Basmati or Thai. But I see no reason why some boiled new potatoes could not be happily used instead.

And last but not least, this dish definitely needs a tangy white wine or even a rosé such as a good Cotes de Provence or Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence.

Pasta with Peppers and Prosciutto

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Aaaaaaaaaaaaand he’s back. So after my 6-month absence, you’re probably all sick of eating Farfalle con zucchine and Pasta e ceci, though I would of course hope that your nutritional needs do not rely entirely on the contents of this blog.

Anyway, last time I checked in we were in the middle of winter and most of the dishes reflected that fact. As I write, however, (9.00 am) it’s a roaring 30° outside (and something similar inside, too) and the forecast for lunchtime tells me it will be 35°. I’m beginning to understand why Jamie recommends “the naked chef” (some of you might have to google that one). Nonetheless, I will be slaving away over the cooker today, as every day, and I’ve got a nice little summery treat for you today which requires as little time as possible in front of the cooker: Pasta with Peppers and Parma ham.

Bell or Sweet Peppers (or capsicum to Aussies), be they the more traditional red, green or yellow or even the increasingly popular orange, purple, white and brown – I kid you not – are a fantastic summer vegetable (yes yes, I know that botanically speaking they’re fruits). They are incredibly versatile and always provide a special touch to any dish, either as one of the principal ingredients or just something of a sideshow. They’re also full of vitamin C and other useful thing like anti-oxidants. Nowadays, of course, the bloody things are available year-round thanks to globalization. But I would urge you to buy as local as possible. Now clearly the sun levels required to ripen peppers are generally higher than anything seen in northern climes like Britain and Ireland, put you will find peppers grown there. For flavour, I would recommend peppers from southern Europe (Spain/Italy) and avoid anything which comes from another continent. It will have been picked before it was ripe and thus lacks the flavours that only develop in the final stages of ripening on the plant. And by the way, a ripe red pepper can be told by the fact that it is a very deep shade of red. This is the stage where it has most flavour.

There is constant debate over whether or not it’s best to use peppers with or without the tough skin. Many Italians will loudly proclaim “Oh, I can’t digest them at all”, as if it were something to be proud of. Be all that as it may, there is something to be said for skinning the bastards (the peppers, that is, not the Italians) because the process involves imparting a very particular flavour/aroma, which is not something to be sniffed at. Well, actually it is something to be sniffed, but not sniffed at, if you get my drift. So the recipe below includes instructions on how to skin a pepper. You may like to follow it or you may not – it’s up to you. The recipe works fine either way. And if you can’t hold your peppers skins, that’s your business.

Another important ingredient in this recipe is prosciutto. I’ll be writing a separate blog entry on prosciutto, as it’s a little like wine – it’s a world of its own. Suffice it to say here, that for the purposes of this recipe, you can use whatever type of prosciutto you like. As it’s mixed up with some other strong flavours, it’s probably best not to use one of those awfully expensive ones, like culatello or cinta senese. And you can of course use non-Italian dry-cured hams, like the Spanish jamón serrano or the French jambon de Bayonne, if you happen to have any lying around the place, that is.

Another ingredient is grana padano, a parmigiano reggiano-like hard cheese from the Po valley area south of Milan. You can happily substitute it with parmigiano reggiano if you prefer, though the grana is preferable as the rest of the dish is very rich in flavour and the grana is not quite as strong or complex in flavour as the parmigiano reggiano.

Now it’s getting quite hot here in front of the computer (in fact the computer itself is heating up a little too much for my tastes…) so I’ll leave you now with the instructions for my fun, summery Pasta with Peppers and Prosciutto – PPP (the kids will like that), instructions vich must be opeyed at oll timess.

Ingredients:

  • 200g conchiglie (pipe rigate/lumachine will do)
  • 1 ripe red pepper
  • 50-60g prosciutto
  • 3-4 ripe tomatoes (and I mean ripe – i.e. dark red – but still firm to the squeeze)
  • Grana padana in flakes (or grated if that’s all you have)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Method:

First of all, having shooed the kids out of the kitchen (and preferably tied them to a post in the garden) set your pasta water to boil and when the time is right, chuck in the pasta and cook (remember to stir it from time to time!!). When it’s done, drain it, stick it in a large bowl, add a tbsp of the oil and stir it all around, do the hokey-cokey then forget about it for a while.

Next, skin your peppers. Basically to do this you have to grill/roast them until the skin starts to come away from the flesh (I find it helps to anthropomorphize the peppers and image they are someone you don’t like very much at the moment). If you have a grill section on your cooker, lay the peppers on the rack and grill them, turning regularly (the peppers, not you). If not and if you have gas rings instead of electric (so much better they are, too) then simply turn on one ring and hold the pepper, by the remnant of the stalk) over the flame until the process is complete. This is boring, so you might like to take out your Proust to pass the time, but do throw an eye on the roasting pepper from time to time.

Peppers roasting. I can just hear the screams...

Peppers roasting. I can just hear the screams…

When they’re ready, allow them to cool for a bit and then get to work stripping off the skin. Imagining the pepper crying in agony will help. Alternativly, there is another method which is much kinder on your fingers – put the pepper in a sheet of newspaper and gently roll it up and down your kitchen worktop. The skin should stick to the newspaper and your fingers will remain the same temperature as the rest of your body.

If you want to do the non-skinned peppers variety of the dish, slice your peppers into narrow strips (watch your bloody fingers! I cut the tip off one of mine last week), add a little oil to the pan and a bit of garlic if you fancy it, then cook on a reasonably high heat, stirring continuously until the peppers begin to wilt and even start to burn ever so slightly.

Back to the dish. Cut your skinned peppers into fine strips. Then cut your prosciutto into fine strips. Finely dice your tomatoes.

Next, bung the peppers, ham, tomatoes and grana padano in on top of the pasta. Add a hearty grind of black pepper and another tbsp of oil and mix it all up. If it needs salt, add some, though it probably won’t. Let it all rest for 5 minutes or so and then begin the triumphal march to the table where your family will be overawed by your culinary prowess. And quite rightly too.

As for a little something to accompany this, I think the strong flavours here call for a red, rather than a white. My personal recommendation would be a nice Monica di Sardegna.

Spaghetti alla carbonara

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This week’s dish is a classic. Pretty much everyone has heard of if not eaten spaghetti alla carbonara, so no novelties today. But have you eaten a genuine carbonara? Or was it like the one I ate in Budapest in 1991, a sort of fantasy with cream, peas, mushrooms and quite possibly rat’s arses too? Now while it is true that there are many variations to the “genuine” version of the recipe, they are more of a theological nature (Are cherubim fatter than seraphim? Is parmigiano better than pecorino?) rather than esoteric (My grandmother always swore that carbonara is made with chicken livers, rat’s arses, yoghurt and grated nutmeg!). So if you more or less follow the recipe below, you won’t go far wrong and you’ll enjoy an as-close-as-dammit authentic plate of spaghetti alla carbonara.

I myself vary the recipe from time to time. I may not have guanciale, for example, and resort to pancetta, a perfectly acceptable substitute. My partner is not a fan of pecorino romano, and although mixing it with parmigiano helps to tone down the stronger, saltier flavour of the pecorino, she prefers her carbonara with parmigiano reggiano alone. So I often have to tag along. Mind you, bastard that I am, I often make it with both anyway and she doesn’t seem to notice…

Talking of pecorino romano, which means “Roman sheep’s cheese”, the vast majority of it is not actually made in or around Rome. It used to be, but for some reason best known to themselves, the city authorities banned Roman cheesemakers (clearly no longer blessèd) from adding salt to their produce back in the 1880s, not long after Rome became part of Italy (and its capital to boot). So most of them moved production over to Sardinia, a sort of Mediterranean New Zealand with a sheep-human ration of something like 3 to 1. To this day, most pecorino romano is still made there. Parmigiano reggiano, by the way, is made from cow milk, which explains its milder flavour.

Another variation is the business with the pasta water described below. It can actually be eliminated, though doing so will result in a somewhat less creamy, less well-amalgamated dish. If you wish to do away with this procedure, then after draining your pasta put it into the frying pan with the guanciale and mix well. Then add the egg which you will have previously beaten with all the cheese in it. Stir heartily to coat and serve immediately. There’s a nice article about the origins of this dish (including another recipe version, similar to the quick version just outlined above) here.

A nice alternative to plain old spaghetti (though it is by far the best choice here), is spaghetti alla chitarra, square-shaped spaghetti made with flour and eggs and not flour and water like normal pasta. It also goes by the name of tonnarelli or troccoli. You can also try it with bucatini, an immensly entertaining form of pasta. Basically it’s like spaghetti, except a bit fatter and with a hole in the middle, which ensures whistling all around the table while people are sucking it up. The kids will love it, particularly those who love getting pasta sauce all over their faces.

So here goes for my traditional spaghetti alla carbonara. Enjoy it!

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Ingredients:

  • 120 g guanciale (about 4 thickish slices)
  • 80 g grated pecorino romano, or parmigiano reggiano or better still mixed
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 whole egg
  • 400 g spaghetti
  • salt
  • pepper
  • extra virgin olive oil

Method:

Guanciale is best for this dish, but is not always available. You can quite happily use pancetta in its place, better still if it is smoked. The first thing to do is slice up your guanciale. Do this by first slicing it lengthwise and then crosswise into thin strips – almost like julienning it. Then take a large frying pan (large enough to hold all the pasta), add a squirt of oil, throw in your guanciale and a few twists of the pepper mill and let it bubble away on a lowish heat until it’s nice and crispy. That’s nice and crispy, not rock solid and black, OK? It should still show some signs of life, by which I mean some softness.

Put your large pasta pot on the heat and bring it to the boil (fill it with water first!).

Meanwhile, take a nice big bowl and pop your egg yolks and the whole egg (minus shell obviously) into it. I care not what you do with the remaining egg whites, but there’s a nice simple recipe for yummy coconut biscuits here which requires, oh look, 3 egg whites! Anyway, once the eggs are in the bowl, beat them soundly (so they’ll remember it) with your handy egg-beater, or a fork if you haven’t got one, cheapskate.

Next, add half the cheese and mix in well. Throw in a couple of pinches of salt (not too much – the guanciale/pancetta are salty enough on their own) and rather a lot of freshly-ground black pepper (10 turns or so if the pepper mill is in good nick, more if it’s on its last legs). Mix in the salt and pepper.

Your water will probably be boiling now, or nearly, so chuck in a good handful of coarse sea salt, followed by the spaghetti. Cook as described elsewhere on this site – and don’t forget to give it a stir every now and then. Remember, dire things will happen if you don’t, so don’t say I didn’t warn you!

After a couple of minutes or so, add a ladleful of the pasta water to the guanciale in the pan. Also keep a ladleful or two aside somewhere, in a bowl or cup. When the pasta is about 2 minutes away from being cooked (for example, at 6 minutes if the packet says 8 minutes), drain it quickly – it doesn’t need to be thoroughly drained. Then bung it into the frying pan on top of the guanciale and add a ladeful of that water you put aside. You did put it aside, didn’t you? Ah, good. Now then, mix the pasta in with the guanciale, keeping it moving over the heat. Then add the egg mixture (maybe give it a quick beat first as it will have settled) and mix it into the pasta. Turn off the heat under the pan immediately, add the remaining cheese and another bit of the pasta water. Mix it all well and as soon as the sauce seems smooth (it should be neither runny nor solid), serve it up with a good sprinkle of black pepper.

Spagheti alla carbonara is a tricky dish to match wine to, because of the egg. If you prefer a white, go for something quite acid (Frascati Superiore from Lazio or a good Trebbiano from Umbria). Red is also possible, but go for fruit rather than tannin.

Pasta e ceci

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Merven's pasta e ceci

Yum yum

So, what with today being the Epiphany, the holidays are finally over and it’s back to work tomorrow. That being the case, Merven’s Kitchen decided to come up with some comfort food, mostly for the benefit of myself, but also for herself, albeit she went back to work last week. Comfort is in short supply these days and will probably be taxed soon, so the more the merrier.

Today’s dish, then, is Pasta e Ceci (pronounced “cheh-chee” with the accent on the “cheh”), or Pasta with Chickpeas. Now the chickpea is a staple from the Mediterranean to India, but has never been a star in Northern Europe, though they were not unknown. They are the main ingredient in well-known dishes like hummus and felafel, but are also used in soups in Latin countries and of course are a regular in dozens of Indian recipes, under the name of chana. The Indians, amongst others, also make flour from chickpeas which can be used to make a kind of bread or also batter. Healthwise, they are a great source of protein and phosphorus and contain very little fat. Hope that makes you feel better when you tuck into hearty portions of my Pasta e Ceci.

Chickpeas are wont to appear in 2 different guises: dried and canned. The former are raw and as hard as a very hard thing. They need a good long soak in cold water (no salt!) – at least 12 hours. This helps to reduce one of the more unfortunate effects of all legumes: flatus. Once you’ve soaked the little blighters, given them a rinse and then put them in a large pot with LOTS of water (no salt!!) and bring them to the boil. Once bubbling away mightily, reduce to a simmer and cook for about an hour. After that, you’re on your own: test one to see if it meets with your own stringent personal requirements for a chickpea, if you have any. Too crunchy? Continue to simmer for another 15 mins. Just right? Switch off and drain. Too mushy? Like it or lump it, as the mammy used to say.

As far as the canned ones are concerned, they’re already cooked and are stored in either water or brine, the former being preferable. Whatever the case, drain and rinse them before using – you don’t know where they’ve been.

Finally, you can store dried chickpeas in a cool, dark environment for a year or so. And if you cook more than you need, you can quite happily freeze the cooked chickpeas or keep them in the fridge for a few days, covered. Or make hummus. Or shoot them at the neighbour’s cat. The world’s your huître!

Ingredients:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 small stick of celery
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 100 g pancetta (plain or smoked)
  • rosemary – 1 sprig of fresh, or 1 level tbsn of dried
  • 300 g cooked chickpeas
  • 200 g tomato sauce (passato) or canned chopped tomatoes
  • vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper
  • 400 g pasta – choose from lumachine, conchiglie, pipette or pipe rigate

Method:

The carrot (topped, tailed and shaved), celery (including leaf), onion (topped, tailed and stripped of its nasty outer layer) and the garlic (ditto) all need to be very finely chopped. The best way to do this is to julienne them first – cut into short, thin strips – and then cut crosswise. For buddha’s sake, mind your fingertips here – I have no feeling left in the tip of my left index finger for the number of times I’ve sliced it up.

Once the chopping is done, throw it into a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pot (your “J-Lo pot”, no kitchen should be without one). Add the oil, turn on the heat and start gently frying. This base should be allowed to sweat for about 5 minutes or so.

In the meantime, remove the needles from your sprig of rosemary. A handy way to do this is loosely grip the stem at the top and draw your hand down to the base, watching the needles fly off. Alternatively, a young child can be enlisted to pluck them off individually. Free entertainment for hours. Take your liberted rosemary needles and chop them as finely as you can – a mezzaluna (or hachoir) knife is ideal. Add the results to the stuff in the pot. Your kitchen should now smell like it should be in the Cote d’Azur.

Grab your pancetta and (quickly) cut it into small cubes, adding it too into the pot. Give it all a good mix. The mixture should gently fry for about 15 mins in total.

Now take your chickpeas and fire them into the pot, stirring them into the fried mixture and bring them up to heat. Once they’re warmed thoroughly, pour in as much vegetable stock as it takes to cover the chickpeas (it’s best if your stock is already warm). Then add your tomato. Personally I prefer chopped tomato in this dish, but passata works just as well. And if you like, you can even omit the tomato altogether! Incredible, eh?

Anyway, once everything is in, let it bubble away gently for about 15 mins. In the meantime, fill your big pot for the pasta and set it on the heat. When the water comes to the boil, add a good handful of coarse sea salt and the pasta and cook as per the instructions elsewhere on this site.

After the 5 mins are up, remove about a third of the chickpeas with a slotted spoon. You’re going to make a pulp of them and can do it either of 2 ways: shove them into your food processor and watch them dissolve from the comfort and safety of your kitchen stool, or put them into a deep plate and attack them with your potato masher. Personally I prefer the latter as it helps to work off the aggression and I pretend the chickpeas are some of the dickheads I have to put up with. Also, I don’t have a food processor. Which is probably just as well.

The pulped chickpeas should be reunited with their unharmed relatives and heated through. Have a quick taste and see if you need to add salt and pepper. By now your pasta will be cooked and you can drain it. Throw the drained pasta back into its pot and then empty the contents of the J-Lo pot over it, giving it all a good mix around. Serve immediately with a hearty sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano (I’m not showing off my Italian… it’s just that the EU won’t let us say “parmesan” any more).

So there you have it. This is a real country-style dish, filling and satisfying. You can mess around with it, for example with or without the tomato, more or less liquid. Try it with different stocks – using homemade chicken stock, for example, would be a whizz.

If you’re looking for suggestions of something to drink with this, there are a number of options. The quite vivid presence of rosemary means you’ll need something with bite and pungency to it, like a Sauvignon Blanc (preferably from a cooler climate, like France, Italy or New Zealand) or better still a Ribolla from the Friuli region. If you prefer red, try a Schioppettino from the same region. But at a push anything is better than water…

Spaghetti con le vongole

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Spaghetti alle vongole - an artist's impression

Spaghetti alle vongole – an artist’s impression

Now while the Irish are spending Christmas Eve doing the last-minute shopping, buying in crates of dhrrink from the local off-licence, getting legless in some overpacked pub off Grafton Street surrounded by lawyers and accountants pretending they’re back in their student days, the simple country folk of Italy are busy in their kitchens preparing the feast that awaits them, not the following day, but on Christmas Eve itself.

Being the eve of a solemn holy-day when fasting and abstinence are required, Italians (as all Roman Catholics, except the Irish it appears, at least as far as the abstinence goes…) were once banned from eating meat. Although the Vatican removed this ban in 1983, most Italians maintain the tradition of eating only fish on Christmas Eve. It seems that fish flesh is/was not considered the equal of, say, sheep flesh – try telling that to a haddock. And when you consider that many families will serve up about 8 different dishes – all fish-based – it’s hard to see where the “fasting and abstinence” comes in… Actually, it’s because this fishy meal was served AFTER the family had come back from midnight mass. God knows how they managed to digest it all before falling asleep.

So anyway to cut a long story short, the Italians eat fish on Christmas Eve, with the Christmas Day lunch being rather a flat affair, as you can imagine. Now, the sort of dishes that are served varies greatly from region to region. The Neapolitans, for example, love nothing better than to tuck into the most revolting looking dish ever invented, the capitone, or (very) adult European eel. I say this because it’s served in skin-covered sections with bone all over the place and if you’re lucky you get the head… the very thought of it all sends shivers down my spine. Urgh!!

One very popular dish and, unlike the eel, something you could bring home to meet your parents, is another classic Neapolitan dish, Spaghetti con le vongole. This has not only travelled out of Naples to the rest of Italy, it has now even breached Italy’s borders and is possibly one of the better-known Italian pasta dishes alongside Spaghetti alla bolognese and Lasagne.

Vongole, clams to you and me, come in various shapes and sizes. Correctly speaking, the vongola is the Venerupis decussata, or cross-cut carpet shell (but I wouldn’t risk asking your local fishmonger for that). There is also the vongola verace, or grooved carpet shell (Ruditapes decussatus), the Tellina fabula, or angle-wedged shell and the Tellina tenuis, or thin tellin. Any of these, or others you may come across, will do admirably in the preparation of Spaghetti con le vongole.

So having procured your clams (preferably not by going down to Dollymount strand) and having checked your larder contains all the other ingredients, you’re now ready to begin. Given that it’s a Neapolitan dish, feel free to regale your household with your impression of Enrico Caruso singing ‘O Sole mio, Turna a Surriento or Nessun Dorma while juggling with pots, pans and apron strings.

Ingredients for 4:

3 cloves of garlic (4 if you won’t be kissing anybody)
extra virgin olive oil
1 kg clams
500 gr spaghetti
parsley (a good bunch)

Method:

The first thing to do is nurture and care for your clams. This means putting them to bed the night before you’re going to eat the bastards in a large basin of cold salt water. That will help to get rid of all the nasty things inside the shell, leaving only the clam. At this stage I should warn you never to allow curiosity to lead you to investigate the eating habits of the clam.

The next day, give the clams a good shower to make sure you’ve rinsed off all the nastiness. Also, remember that your clams are still alive at this point, so don’t panic if you see them move (by move I mean shutting tighter, not performing a pirouette).

Next take a large frying pan (preferably not non-stick) and when it’s hot bung in your clams. This, of course, will kill them, so something from Tosca might be appropriate at this point. Anyway, as soon as all the clams have opened, turn off the heat and place the clams into a dish using a slotted spoon. Do NOT overcook the clams, just the time it takes for them to open up plus a little extra for the latecomers (some of them are feisty little bleeders who take a bit longer to die). Some will inevitably not open as they’re already dead, so chuck them into the bin for composting.

Next, strain the liquid from the pan into a cup and chuck out what’s left in the strainer, like the filth that it is.

Having given the now empty pan a quick wipe (use kitchen roll, not your sleeve), pour in a good quantity of olive oil. “How much is a good quantity, Merven?” Oh, I don’t know… use your instinct. It’s got to coat half a kilo of pasta with some left over so I’d say around half a glass (start pouring and count to about 10, neither quickly nor slowly). Then, add your garlic, which you will have peeled and either crushed or cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Allow the garlic to sweat for about 5 minutes (ie cook over a lowish flame), without letting it turn brown, and then add the contents of that cup you have sitting in front of you.

Next, finely chop your parsley (doing this before you begin will make life a lot easier). Once the contents of the pan have reduced a little, add half the chopped parsley and then the clams, just to warm them up and allow the flavours to combine.

In the meantime you will have your pasta pot full of water on the boil, so in with the spaghetti and cook as per the instructions elsewhere on this blog. And don’t forget to stir it every now and then while it’s cooking!!!

When it’s al dente (after about 7-8 minutes), drain the pasta and empty it into a large bowl. Then pour the clams over the spaghetti and mix it all up with appropriate instruments, making sure the oil gets into all the nooks and crannies, thus avoiding the worst of all fates… rubbery, stuck-together spaghetti which neither man nor beast can separate.

Finally sprinkle with the remaining parsley and carry your large bowl ceremoniously to the table announcing in a grave, stentorious voice “fellow commensals, I bear this offering, prepared according to the method of a noble octogenarian peasant woman from the village of Santa Maria la Scala on the slopes of the great Vesuvius, had in turn from her great-grandmother”. Or alternatively, just say “tuck in!”. A few twists of the black pepper mill will add further ceremony and flavour to the event.

Winos will be pleased to hear that I have some excellent suggestions to accompany this little wonder of a dish. True to my personal philosophy that food and beverages should be matched from the same region, try any of these fresh little beauties from the Campania region: Greco di Tufo of between 3-10 years, a rich, green wine, Fiano di Avellino, an intensely perfumed, fruity gem or a simple Falanghina, as light as a wren’s kidney with the bite of a granny smith.

Farfalle con zucchine

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Now one thing that really drives me mad is seeing fruit and vegetables that are out of season pop up in supermarkets without even a blush or a by-your-leave. November is not a time for eating strawberries, nor should the desire for bell peppers strike you in January. It’s just not nature’s way and Madam Nature, let me tell you, knows a thing or two by now. It’s particularly riling in Italy, which as a country has quite an extraordinary range of climates (and microclimates), not to mention geological and geographical peculiarities that enable it to produce large amounts of food pretty much all year round. From the Alpine heights of the Südtirol to the balmy heat of Sicily, an enormous variety of foodstuffs is produced throughout the country all year and it is difficult to find any amount of countryside that is not being used for some agricultural activity, apart from the natural parks.

But nowhere will you find strawberries being produced in November. However, down in the Southern Hemisphere – or anywhere Monsanto with its patented vegetables rules – they’re churning them out, and those are the ones that are perched on your supermarket shelves. Now, I have nothing against farmers from the south of the planet. Salt of the earth and mostly living in the sort of conditions half of Dicken’s characters would have considered beneath them. But think of the enormous cost of transporting still-unripe fruit and vegetables from other parts of the world – enriching not the poor farmers but the transport companies and the big distribution chains. Think of the environmental impact. Think of the pointlessness. Think how great it was when you had to wait months for a taste of some fruit or vegetable, the excitement when you saw the first cherries in the shops. The fabulous taste.

So make an extra effort when buying to avoid stuff which has come from halfway across the earth. If you’re in Ireland, choose Spanish or Italian oranges, not South African or Californian ones (I’ll leave Israeli ones to your own individual consciences, but personally I’d boycott them). Choose European garlic, not Indian. Here in Rome, I do give in to the urge for a brussels sprout every now and have to buy Dutch ones since they’re not grown here. But I will never buy the Dutch potatoes on sale in my local supermarket, when the Abruzzo region, next-door to the region I live in, produces perfect potatoes at half the price and a fraction of the environmental impact.

Anyway, sermon over. But what all that was leading up to was my next recipe, Farfalle con zucchine or “butterflies with courgettes (or zucchini, if you prefer)”. Courgettes are one of those vegetables (yes, I know they’re actually fruits) that suffer from the all-year-round syndrome. So you won’t want to be making this recipe until at least next June. But do bookmark it, or better still print it off and stick it in amongst the collection of photocopies and magazine tear-outs that inhabit the cookbook section of your kitchen, in between Nigella and Jamie.

This is a fast, fun dish with few ingredients but really satisfying and tasty. And it looks quite sophisticated too, so you can impress your in-laws or whoever it is you feel the need to impress (a potential partner, client, creditor…). Just how good it is, though, depends on the quality of 3 ingredients: your olive oil, your courgettes and the pancetta. This is an essential ingredient in many Italian dishes, so it’s a good idea if you can find a regular source of it if you’re going to be doing any amount of the recipes on this site.

Pancetta is basically pork belly, cured like bacon but differing from bacon in that it’s from the belly and not the side or back of the pig. It’s also dried for longer and, as a result, seems “less fresh” than bacon, though nothing like as well-dried as prosciutto. It comes in two basic forms: round (rolled) and flat, which is the version most of these recipes call for. The skin is often covered in black pepper and sometimes chili. It can also be smoked or unsmoked. In Italy, supermarkets sell sellophaned packs of already-diced pancetta, but it’s foul, pumped full of water and other nasty substances and is (of course) overpriced. Avoid.

A quick word about courgettes. Most of the time you’ll find the standard dark green, smooth courgette. But I prefer to use another variety which is more common here in Rome (where it’s known as the zucchina romanesca). It’s a much paler green and has a series of ridges running from top to bottom, as in the photo below. The flavour of these is much better. But don’t go berserk trying to find them – the plain old dark green ones will do just as well.

Zucchine romanesche

Zucchine romanesche

So, have you got your nice extra virgin olive oil? Your courgettes? Your pancetta? Then let us begin…

Ingredients:

  • one 1-cm-thick slice pancetta, cubed
  • 6 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium courgettes
  • vegetable stock (powdered versions acceptable)
  • coarse sea salt
  • 200g farfalle pasta
  • parmigiano reggiano

Method:

Take a largish, non-stick frying pan and add the oil and pancetta cubes (the smaller they are the better). Turn on the heat and start gently rendering (look it up somewhere) the pancetta. In the meantime, slice your courgettes lengthwise and then carefully – let me repeat, carefully – slice them crosswise, as thinly as possible. Fingertips are difficult to replace, so watch what you’re doing and do not allow yourself to be distracted by fire, famine, earthquake or squabbling 6-year-olds.

Once they’re all neatly sliced, the pancetta should be nicely done (but not crispy). Bung the courgettes into the pan and give it all a good stir around, working the slices apart. Next, toss in a good pinch of salt. Once the contents of the pan have started bubbling merrily, drown their high spirits with a ladleful of hot stock, bring to the boil, reduce and simmer until the courgettes are soft, but not mushy (about 10 mins) with the lid on. Towards the end, say after 5 mins, take off the lid to get rid of the excess liquid.

As soon as you’ve bunged your courgettes into the pan and given them a good mix, put your pasta pot on to boil with plenty of water (remember pasta needs a lot of room). When it comes to the boil, throw in a good handful of coarse sea salt and your farfalle, stir and bring back to the boil. Once that’s boiling, reduce the heat a bit and keep bubbling away for as long as it indicates on the packet minus 1 minute. Then drain well and lob it into the pan where your courgettes will by now be done. Before lobbing in the pasta, though, double check that all the liquid has disappeared from the courgettes.

Now mix it all up and dole into your dishes. Serve with a mighty sprinkle of parmigiano reggiano and a couple of twists of a black pepper mill. Ta-dah!

You should now have something resembling this on your plate:

farfzucch

Alternatives

This dish works particularly well with farfalle, but you could also use penne. An excellent alternative to the pancetta (and possibly even better) would be to use speck. This is similar to pancetta but comes from the shoulder of the pig and is cured with a variety of herbs and spices, including juniper.