Sunday, October 31, 2010

Penne with lemon, ricotta and peas

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write a proper post, but I made this lovely pasta over the weekend and I just have to share it with you. It’s really very simple (as most good recipes are), and its success relies on the quality of ingredients (as most good recipes' do).

Buy decent ricotta (the kind that comes in its own little ‘basket’) — Woolies do a nice one. And try to buy fresh peas still in their pods if you can. It’s sort of the whole point of the dish: to have fresh spring peas.

I love shelling peas... I like to imagine I am a fifties Italian housewife, sitting outside, watching the world go by, gossiping, shelling peas over a large bucket.

Sometimes I even tie a little scarf over my hair, peasant style.

No I don't. I just made that up.

Be careful not to overcook the peas — they should be tender but still firm and bright green. Blanching is best.

Penne with lemon, ricotta and spring peas
Serves 4

400g penne
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
About 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2½ cups green peas, blanched
½ cup finely sliced basil leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
500g ricotta cheese
Grated Parmesan, to taste

Place the pasta in a large saucepan of salted boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain and return to the pan. Toss the pasta with the olive oil, lemon juice, basil, peas, salt and pepper. Add the ricotta and mix gently. Spoon onto serving plates and top with an extra glug of olive oil and the Parmesan.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Artichokes Roman style

I have always adored artichokes, even as child — which is fairly unusual, I think.

About once or twice a year (which may as well have been once or twice a milennia, as far as my preteen self was concerned), my dad would arrive home from work in the evening with a large, bulging brown paper bag under his arm, and my heart would leap, because I knew that evening we were in for a treat.

My mom would boil the artichokes until just tender (remaining admirably calm despite my wheedling demands to know precisely how much longer they’d take), and all four of us would sit at the kitchen table, peeling the leaves, dipping each one into a large bowl of salty, lemony melted butter and scraping the soft flesh off with our teeth. When all the leaves were gone, I would drop the heart into the bowl of butter until it was thoroughly drenched, and place the whole thing in my mouth. This was a solemn ritual — I concentrated very hard on appreciating and savouring the heart, putting off its ingestion for as long as possible, because it had an annoying habit of melting and slipping down my throat in a matter of seconds. We only got about three artichokes each, and who knew when we were going to have them again?

My childhood infatuation with artichokes was mostly due to their being an excellent excuse to eat gargantuan amounts of butter, which I wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed. Also, there was something ceremonial about my mother, father, brother and I sitting together, peeling the leaves, enjoying.

I have a similar love for asparagus, for much the same reasons. They were a rare treat, always served hot, slathered in salty butter. Once, on a family road trip, we stopped at the top of some mountain pass or other, and my dad hauled out our little gas cooker, a small pot and a big bunch of asparagus. The green stalks were tied with string and made to stand up in a few inches of water, then the pot was covered with foil (I remember this very clearly, even though I was only 7 or so, because I thought it such an overly elaborate method — couldn’t they just chop up the stalks, boil them and be done with it?). About 10 minutes later, there we sat, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, eating perfectly cooked asparagus. Heaven.

Spoils from the farmers' market...
I have experiences like this (and my parents) to thank for my great love affair with vegetables. (Butter may also have something to do with it.) Basically, this is a very long-winded way of saying that, until recently, I thought the idea of preparing either asparagus or artichokes in any way other than the methods described above — and I don't say this lightly — a form of sacrilege. To my mind, nothing was going to make these greens attain a higher state of perfection than simple butter and salt. And perhaps a squeeze of lemon juice. Nothing. I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to ruin them by serving them with hollandaise, for example, or sticking them in a quiche, or (gasp!) a soup. You might as well just throw them away, I thought. What a waste.

Recently, though, having made a commitment to eating more seasonally, I have found myself doing my weekly grocery shopping at farmers’ markets, and buying artichokes and bunches of asparagus by the dozen, because, of course, they are in season and more affordable. Having glutted myself on them slicked in butter, I was horrified to find myself daydreaming about a nice artichoke salad (!) or asparagus mixed into a pasta (see last week’s post). And yes, even soup.

This makes so much sense, though, actually. We are supposed to glut ourselves on these veggies for a few months a year — spring — while they're in season, until we are kind of sick of them. Then we don’t mind so much going without for the rest of the year.

I tried this breathtakingly simple River Café recipe only after I got a little sick (from eating all that butter) and tired of the usual. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It might even be my favourite way to eat artichokes (sacrilege!). The liquid reduces to an intense flavour, and although there’s a lot of mint, it loses its pungency when cooked and becomes quite subtle and creamy.

I did feel terribly guilty about discarding all those precious outer leaves though, so I ate most of them. Raw. But that’s just me. If you like, you can keep some of the more tender leaves to put in a salad. Just toss them in a little lemon juice to stop them discolouring and eat on the same day. If your artichokes are fresh and young, the inner leaves should be perfectly edible raw.

These are sensational as an antipasti with bruschetta, or served with fish.

They still have a habit of melting and slipping down my throat far too quickly though. 

Artichokes Roman style
Serves 6
12 small or 6 large globe artichokes
Lemon juice
250ml olive oil
For the stuffing:
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with sea salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
Coursely ground black pepper
1 1⁄2 lemons, quartered

1. Using a small, sharp knife, remove the tough outer leaves of the artichokes. If necessary, trim the spikes from the top. Cut the stalks, leaving about 5cm, and peel.
2. Using your fingers, gently prise open each artichoke, turn it upside down and, while pressing down with one hand, pull out the leaves with the other. The aim is to open out and flaten the artichoke.
3. For the stuffing, mix all the ingredients together and season well. Press this mixture inside the centre of each artichoke.
4. Pour the olive oil into a heavy stainless-steel saucepan large enough to contain all the artichokes. Place the artichokes inside, stuffed side down, jammed together so they stay upright. Scatter any excess stuffing over the top. Add enough water to come one third of the way up the globes, and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover with a sheet of grease-proof paper, place the lid on top, and cook gently for about 30 minutes until the water has evaporated and the artichokes have begun to brown at the bottom. 5. The timing will depend on the size and freshness of the artichokes. Test for tenderness using a sharp, pointed knife. You may need to add more water and cook for longer. Ideally, the result should be tender artichokes that have begun to caramelise in the oil. Serve with lemon quarters.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spaghetti with spring greens

Spring is a good time to stop and smell the rosebuds. I’m not going to warble on about renewal and the joyous mystery of the seasons (yea Gods woman — ‘joyous mystery’? Spare us!), but man, you’ve got to admit that visiting farmers’ markets around this time of year is like letting a kid with low blood sugar loose in a candy store. Especially if you’ve committed to buying more local and seasonal produce.

I recently finished reading Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (of The Poisonwood Bible fame), a memoire of her family eating only food sourced within a radius of 100 miles from her home for one year, and I am so inspired. I’d read about eating seasonally and locally before, but this book really put it into perspective for me. But more on that in my next post, I think.

Back to spring and the gorgeous glut of greens available now. I visited the Tokai farmer’s market last weekend, which is located in the most beautiful woodland setting (complete with grazing horses), and I picked up some gorgeous organic asparagus and baby squash (zucchini, patti-pans and gems). Perfect items for this spring greens spaghetti.

It might sound like there are a lot of anchovies in this recipe, but once they’ve melted and coated the spaghetti, their flavour just fades into the background to give a subtle savouriness. You can leave them out if you prefer to keep it vegetarian. My only warning with this dish is that it is a very real and present temptation to eat all the asparagus before combining everything. So if you must have a taste, make sure your resolve is iron-clad!

I'm sure you know that the quality of the pasta is rather important. No Fatti's & Moni's please! (That dreck is to proper Italian spaghetti what margarine is to fresh farm butter.) With a glass of chilled dry rosé, this, for me, is the perfect early summer lunch.

Spring pasta with asparagus and baby squash
Makes 2 generous portions

250g spaghetti
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
6 or 7 anchovy fillets
1 bunch fresh sprue (thin) asparagus
2 cloves garlic, crushed with sea salt
About 300g baby zucchini, patti-pans, or any tender spring squash, finely sliced (julienne-style)
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pecorino, to taste
1 handful basil, leaves picked and chopped

1. Cook the spaghetti in plenty of salted water according to package instructions (al dente) and drain, but reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.
2. In a separate large pan, heat the oil. Add the anchovies and fry gently for about 30 seconds, then add the asparagus. Continue to fry on a medium-low heat until the anchovies have melted and the asparagus is half-cooked, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute.
3. Toss the spaghetti with the asparagus, anchovy and garlic, as well as the julienned squash. Season to taste. Add a little of the cooking water if the spaghetti seems a bit dry — you want to achieve a silky, slippery, glossy effect.
4. To serve, drizzle with a little good-quality olive oil, and top with shavings of Pecorino and the basil (I used the tender young leaves from my sweet and purple basil plants — no chopping required).

Post script: I have enjoyed my time off (oh, I have tales — breaking down in the Karoo on a lonely dirt road with no cellphone reception is a highlight — more on those another time), but I must confess I missed you terribly. It’s good to be back!