Easy pasta dishes

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I can understand the urge to grab a quick takeaway on your way home from a tiring day at work. But think about it, you don’t know what really went into it. Arguably one of the most convenient “kind-of-ready-made” food is pasta. Who doesn’t have a packet of pasta lying around in the cupboard right now? So let me give you a couple of ideas which work for me when I’m in a I’m-hungry-NOW mood.

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One thing which I am really loving right now is pappardelle. They are so good for lapping up any kind of sauce. They also offer some variety on a plate, unlike the usual spaghetti. I like any flat pasta – be it linguine, tagliatelle, fettucine, mafaldine etc. They tick all the hunger boxes for me. I have to admit it though: there are few things in life better than spaghetti carbonara, but obviously, take it slow with that!

But how about a nice summery pasta concoction washed down with a fresh white glass of vino? Ahh I have dreams about that – me, in a summer garden calmly *cough* wolfing down a lovely biggish bowl of pasta with fresh vegetables with a prawn or two thrown in, at least for those who love them like I do. If you don’t then leave them out and substitute them with either a light meat option like leftover chicken or turkey that was already cooked, or another vegetable. It’s your pasta, you’re the cook so do whatever you like. That’s freedom! There will be no exact quantities for this. Let this be your guide and go with whatever your gut tells you (excuse the pun).

Pasta with Prawn and Fresh Tomatoes (For 4).

  • 500g fresh or dried pappardelle
  • 1 tablespoon or so mild olive oil (not extra virgin)
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried chilli flakes
  • 150g small plum or cherry tomatoes, cut in half
  • 6 large chestnut mushrooms, cut into quarters
  • 100g or so shrimps or 8 uncooked prawns, de-veined
  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. In the meantime gently fry the onion, garlic and chilli flakes in the olive oil for a couple of minutes.
  2. Quickly add the plum tomatoes and the mushrooms. I like everything to be al dente, so throw in the prawns, leave until they turn pink and toss everything with the pasta. Serve instantly with a drizzling of extra virgin olive oil (now you can since here it only serves as a dressing), freshly ground pepper and some fresh lemon juice. Ready? Now let’s eat!

For a vegetarian option try the following:

While the pasta is cooking, gently fry in olive oil some chopped onion, finely chopped garlic, chilli flakes in a hot pan. Throw in some chopped zucchini (courgettes) and mushrooms. When cooked through but still firm, add some chopped fresh tomatoes and there you have it. Toss with the pasta, serve as the recipe above and go eat this in the garden. Bliss!

Rob x

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Baked Conchiglie

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You know the drill: you go to the shops and buy something which is not one of your usuals. It has been a while though since I’ve gone on a shopping strike recently. Well not really…not a 100% because you can’t do that…but I had this packet of dried conchiglie lying around in my pantry not doing much. I got so tired of looking at it that I decided to use some of it.

There’s no denying that pasta and pizza are great for pantry clearing. They also come in handy when you’ve either forgot to do the shopping or when you’re too tired to think after a day’s work. The following is a take on an easy recipe which is very popular in Malta. Fact is that back home we love our food, baked dishes being some of our favourites. Baking with pasta or even rice is quick, practical and it’s the kind of food which you can freeze and reheat. It will also keep well for two to three days in the fridge. You can use other types of pasta if you like, but conchiglie give you bulk without having to pile up the pasta for decent thickness and presence. I like to make this in summer or when I don’t feel like faffing about with lasagne.

For this recipe, which serves up to 6-8 people (always depending on your guests’ level of hunger) you need:

  • 750g conchiglie, cooked al dente & drained

For the ricotta mixture:

  • 500g ricotta
  • 250g fresh spinach, steamed & cooled
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

For the tomato sauce topping:

  • 1 -2 onions, chopped
  • 700g passata
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • ½ teaspoon curry
  • ½ teaspoon mixed spice
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil
  • salt & pepper, to taste

For the cheese topping:

  • 50g grated Red Leicester, Cheddar or any other hard cheese you like
  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4/350ºF.
  2. In a large bowl mix the cooked pasta, steamed spinach, ricotta, salt and pepper. Steaming the spinach is ideal if you don’t want a sloppy mixture. When you are happy with the seasoning, add the beaten eggs and mix everything until well combined.
  3. To prepare the tomato sauce, you don’t need to cook it on the stove. Just mix well your ingredients in another bowl.
  4. Spread a tablespoon of olive oil on the bottom of a rectangular ceramic or glass baking dish, and also spread a thin layer of your tomato sauce. Tip in the cooked pasta and ricotta mixture into the dish and spread evenly. Then spread the tomato mixture over the pasta.
  5. Grate the cheese all over and bake for around 45 minutes, but keep an eye on it once in a while. You could serve this alone or with some green salad.

    Enjoy!

    Rob x

Book review: Small Adventures in Cooking.

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So some three weeks ago or so, I came across a very interesting concept by the people back at Quadrille Publishing. Interesting as in good, by the way, just in case you were about to ask. It’s called New Voices in Food and their objective is to showcase exciting and talented new chefs. I contacted Quadrille about this project and I was sent James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking, published on the 6th June.

When it arrived in the post I was so relieved, for two things mainly: size and simplicity. It’s full of original ideas but it’s small enough to carry in a small bag. Big encyclopaedic-sized table top books are very nice mind you, but if you’re like me and you like to read through recipe books from cover to cover before you actually decide on what recipes to try, then the big ones don’t work for you initially. And since this is a simple book then there’s no glossy pages to deal with, which is, as you might know already, what I like best. Simplicity and unpretentiousness is what you get throughout the book; the real stars of the show are the recipes themselves. Even though James is the author, he is confident enough not to have loads of photos of himself splashed about. There are some photos on the flaps but that is it. Another good thing. So I marked most of the pages with orange sticky notes, as usual, and away I read.

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What I wanted to do before writing this review (which is by no means exhaustive) was to try some of James’ recipes. I have tried three, taking them from different sections of the book: the first was the 5-minute Sponge, second the Macerated Strawberries and third his Persian Aubergine Stew with Jewelled Rice. To be honest, my choice was more influenced by the current contents of my pantry rather than my present non-existing adventurous spirit. Don’t get me wrong. I was really inspired by the recipes, but I am moving house very soon so lately I’ve been trying to cook with whatever I have. That being said, I only needed one trip to the market and another to the butcher to get what I needed. I was impressed – usually I get lost among ingredients, wanting to buy every fresh vegetable and every fresh piece of meat I see. But James is teaching me to economise without compromising flavour.

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I started with the Persian Stew. I like stews to begin with because they remind me of home. This is stew with a twist and it’s so simple to make. Looking back I should have made it without the extra Tweaks (the little hints for each recipe) just because I would have given a more solid opinion. But for once I had some limes in the fridge (and this is very rare) so all I had to do was get myself an aubergine and some lamb. Both the stew and the accompanying rice are delicious. My only add-on was to throw a few tablespoons of sugar the second time round, to make up for the sharpness of the tomatoes and the bitterness of the limes and cranberries. This stew has become one of my favourites and if you’re feeding a family or having friends over for a meal, this will be a hit.

I tried the sponge and the strawberry recipes today. I only needed some quiet time this morning, after some coffee of course, to make everything. The Macerated Strawberries is an assemblage really – you need strawberries, lemon zest, mint and sugar, and pepper to serve, and that’s it. Perfect. (Let’s face it, few are those who don’t have strawberries in the fridge at the moment. Being a tennis enthusiast, I did.) And they are yummy with the 5-minute sponge, a five-minute easy whisking job and 15-20 minutes in the oven. Definitely another winner. There’s a selection of other things I plan to try later on…I bought a tub of cream not only for the next Two-week Strawberry-Fest which is Wimbledon, but also for the Kedgeree (pg.86). Plus I have enough chocolate for the Chocolate and Fennel Brownies (pg. 137) and beyond so I’m good to go! On my Facebook page I said that at first glance this book was a beauty. Now I can say that it really is. You can find James’ blog here.

Rob x

Pizza and Focaccia

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Since I moved to the UK almost four years ago, from a large kitchen to a very small one, I learnt to make do with the basics. I wasn’t sure if I would get used to being cramped in a small space. I got some equipment with me but I left most behind, especially my very much missed Kitchen Aid. However, I now beat almost everything with a normal whisk or with an electric hand whisk, which (when working well) is a life-saver. (I must admit though that recently, I beat some zabaglione by hand. Then I swore I would never do that again!)

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One thing which I didn’t have at all is a bread maker. I’m just an amateur cook so you chefs out there please forgive me for owning one, even while you cringe. But now, we can enjoy freshly baked bread everyday. That is what J enjoys most. Long-life super fluffy sliced bread isn’t an option. I have to say though that most supermarkets now have their own bakeries in store that offer good-quality bread and that’s great, but I still prefer making our own. I wouldn’t recommend using it to bake cakes. However it’s perfect for fruit loaves.

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Thanks to our bread maker I’ve been making pizza on average once a week, especially on Saturday evenings. I love the feel and elasticity of pizza dough and it’s so easy to roll out. It beats shortcrust pastry, not in taste obviously, but I don’t have to worry about it falling apart on me. Fact is that pizza dough is easy to make with or without the machine. *With* means less mess; all you need is a little flour for rolling it out onto your working surface. The ingredients remain the same for whichever method you prefer.

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A note before you start: there is the need for salt in this recipe. Omitting it here is not an option. For two square pizza trays you’ll need:

  • ½ teaspoon dried active yeast (I use Allinson)
  • 300g strong white bread flour
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 170ml water

The above is the order in which the ingredients go in the machine. By hand try the following:

  1. Prepare two trays sprinkled well with semolina. This will help you to slide the pizza easily onto your serving plate later.
  2. Preheat the oven to 220ºC/425ºF/Gas Mark 7, but consider more if you’re using a non-convection oven.
  3. Combine the yeast with the water (warm this up, not too much), olive oil and salt in a large bowl and stir until the yeast and salt are dissolved. After a couple of minutes add half of the flour and mix well. Add the rest of the flour and mix well with your hands.
  4. Put the dough on a clean floured surface and work it well. This dough can take it! Then leave it to rise in an oiled bowl or tray, covered with a damp towel. Once it’s doubled in size take it out of the bowl on to a surface once more and divide it into two. Roll each piece of dough and place on the two trays. (You could use pizza stones instead of the trays. These will work better in a very hot oven.)
  5. Top your pizzas with anything you like. I am partial to mozzarella or goat’s cheese, some mushrooms, slices of chorizo and onions, oregano and some more olive oil. I generally slice some tomatoes as a base when they’re nice and fresh instead of tinned passata or polpa. This is obviously a guide. Do whatever you want!

If you want to make focaccia, then all you need to do is to spread all the dough onto a well-oiled baking tray and leave it to rise a little (leave out Step 3). Puncture the dough with some fresh rosemary when you can find it. If not prong it with a fork, spread some more olive oil and top it with some onions and again with anything that you like. There’s your Saturday evening dinner sorted. Enjoy!

Rob x

Cookies with Cranberries and White Chocolate

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So during the last few weeks I have had one main aim in life you might say, i.e. to use up all the food in my fridge and pantry. It’s the classic situation really, I’m always tempted to purchase one or two ingredients for a particular recipe. Then I end up with a gazillion packets of dried fruit and nuts. Now one thing which I absolutely hate is to throw away food. When it’s bad there’s no other option of course, but when it’s good then the possibilities are endless…well, that’s what I keep telling myself…and it’s true.

There’s no doubt that these cookies are delicious, if you like cranberries and white chocolate that is. I know that not everyone likes white chocolate, but I guess it would be easy to use milk or dark chocolate instead. This recipe comes from Nigella’s Christmas. I have thought about waiting until the holidays to include these lovely little bites here, but I couldn’t wait that long and really you can make them any time you want. (White chocolate and cranberries remind me of Christmas though.) I made these three times and when it comes to any kind of cookie it’s always a party especially for J (and if you know him then that goes without saying)!

Some notes before you start: the mixture yields around 30 small cookies or 15 large ones, depending what you prefer. I made the latter. No news there I’m sure! Also you could use less chocolate if you like, as I did the first time I made them. However it’s tricky to mess about with an already good recipe. You could leave out the salt though, which I did the third time round.

You’ll need:

  • 150g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 75g rolled oats (not instant)
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 75g dark brown sugar
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 75g dried cranberries
  • 50g pecans, roughly chopped (works also with walnuts)
  • 150g white chocolate chips or chunks
  1. Preheat your oven to 180ºC/Gas Mark 4 and line a baking tray with baking paper.
  2. Place the flour, baking powder, salt and oats in a large mixing bowl.
  3. In a medium-sized bowl place the soft butter and sugar and beat until light and creamy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix well.
  4. To the above mixture add all the ingredients in the large bowl, then fold in the dried cranberries, nuts and chocolate chunks.
  5. Using your hands roll the dough into roughly golf ball size and place them on the baking sheet. (You will need more than one tray to make the cookies in two or more batches). Push them down with a fork if you prefer.
  6. Bake the cookie dough for 15 minutes, and when done they will be too soft to lift from the tray so let them cool for around 5-10 minutes after taking them out of the oven. Then leave them to cool on a wire rack.

As in the previous cookie recipe, you can freeze the dough for up to three months so if you’re serving these at a party you can prepare them way ahead of time and bake them two days before. They are super easy to make so why don’t you give them a go?

Enjoy!

Rob x

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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Cookies are not very difficult to make. It’s easy to bake a good quality batch at home, but I guess they can turn out bad if not made with care. As with almost all sweet things that need chocolate, it’s important to have a cool environment. I make these cookies regularly throughout the year but in the summer I just freeze the chocolate chunks or chips beforehand just to make sure that they won’t melt while I handle them. That did happen once and although they were good, the chocolate just melted in the mixture. Another thing which helps is to use chunks instead of chips. I can’t find decent sized chocolate chips here so I make my own. I place one or two 100g bars of the stuff into a plastic bag and bash it with a rolling pin until I get small chocolate cubes. I must admit they still end up being large-ish but the larger the chunk, the larger the cookie, so who’s in?

I tried and liked many chocolate chip cookie recipes, so what I will give you is the most recent one I came across and made. This is taken from Nigella’s Kitchen with minor changes. They are a treat. I managed to make a batch of 18 large cookies out of this. You’ll need:

  • 150g soft unsalted butter
  • 125g soft brown sugar
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, cold from the fridge
  • 300g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 300g chocolate chunks
  1. Preheat your oven to 170ºC/Gas Mark 3 and line a couple of baking trays with baking paper or silicone sheets.
  2. Melt the butter either on the stove or in the microwave in short blasts. Be careful not to burn it. Put both sugars in a bowl with the cooled melted butter and whisk.
  3. Beat in the vanilla extract and the eggs till the mixture is creamy. Slowly mix in the flour and the baking powder and gently mix everything again. Now is the time to fold in the chocolate chunks.
  4. Using a small ice-cream scoop or a US ¼ cup measure (or your hands if you like and if they’re not too warm), drop the cookie mixture down onto your lined baking trays. Make sure you place them around 6-8cm apart because they will expand in the oven. Try to keep the cookie dough bowl in the fridge to keep it cool in between batches.
  5. Bake for around 17-18 minutes. Keep an eye on them and take them out as soon as their edges turn a little golden. Leave to cool for a while before turning them on a wire rack. Do not over-bake.

Note: Uncooked cookie dough will keep for 3 months in the freezer in an airtight container or sandwich bags. What I do is this: set aside a small batch of formed cookies on a tray and insert these in the freezer. When set, take them out and transfer them into a large sandwich bag. When needed put them back on a lined baking tray and bake into a preheated oven for around 20 minutes.

Enjoy!

Rob x

Random thoughts, books…and a recipe.

So, yesterday I made a huge mistake. J and I went to the University of Surrey for an event with Professors Jim al-Khalili and Brian Cox. No, that is *not* it…the mistake I mean. The interview was fantastic and we really enjoyed watching these two great minds discussing physics, music, broadcasting and the likes. What has all this to do with food? I didn’t have anything to eat before heading out and I was hungry. While waiting in line, J was tweeting away and I was deciding whether to leave the long queue to get myself a sandwich or starve for a couple of hours. A small sacrifice for the opportunity to watch your two heroes on stage, no? Yes. Then it was question time. After an hour of cheerful banter between the gentlemen, someone handed over to them a pile of questions for Prof. Cox to answer. The cards were in a sort of fruit bowl. Was it or was it not? I still have my doubts but that did it for me. So even though it was surreal to see the Professors on stage, I was not totally there. Pathetic of me, I know. Then someone asked Prof. Cox whether he liked Marmite. That’s what I would like (I thought): a big bowl of Spaghetti with Marmite (see Nigella’s Kitchen page 49). Here it is with some changes. The lesson is now learnt.

For 2-3 people you will need:

  • 250g dried spaghetti
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 1-2 tablespoons Marmite (depending on how strong you want the sauce to be)
  • freshly grated cheese, to taste
  1. Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions.
  2. Before you drain the pasta and when it is almost completely done, melt the butter in a small saucepan, add the Marmite and around 1 tablespoon of water from the pasta. Mix well.
  3. Reserve another ½ cup of boiling water, drain the pasta and pour the Marmite concoction over it. You could add some or all the water to combine this mixture if needed. Serve the pasta with some grated cheese.

Just a note: It goes without saying that this recipe is very salty. So don’t cook it too often if like me you tend to avoid salt.

(For whoever wants to watch the Brian Cox interview you can watch it now on the University of Surrey’s You Tube channel.)

I’m reading a number of books at the moment. It’s not always about cooking with me, but it so happens that right now I’m flipping through some recipe books and some biographies, one of which is A Taste of My Life. Raymond Blanc needs no introduction. He is a brilliant chef and a humble man with a great smile. He’s also a genius in the kitchen, which helps! In his BBC programme Kitchen Secrets I was completely amazed at the way he constructed an espresso cup filled with a coffee cream. Watch it here – it’s truly remarkable.

I’m about half way through Blanc’s book, so this is by no means a proper review. (And I won’t say anything bad. If a book is on this blog it’s only because I like it.) I love how he peppers the chapters with different recipes, some of which are derived from his childhood experiences with food. Some descriptions of are a bit too squeamish for me (eg. the pheasant incident on pg. 25) but I can live with them, and part of his mission is to raise awareness anyhow. So really, no harm done. J and I also liked the American guest and the lobster story. Now I would have loved to be there when that happened.

Another book which I recently got from the library is Cook by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. Now you’ve got to love Thomasina – she’s so cool! I cannot get hold of the book, unfortunately but I really wish they would reprint it once more. I would be the first to get it. I would have liked to see more food pictures (by now my readers know that I like to see the food before I try any recipes). However it’s a lovely book and it’s colourful – I can’t help but think of M&Ms every time I open it – and that’s a good thing!

Some recipes that I will definitely try include her Roast Chicken with Saffron Cannellini Beans (pg. 100), the Sicilian Oxtail Stew with Garlic, Chilli & Chocolate..yes, chocolate (pg. 91) and the Chocolate Ganache Tart (pg. 214), to mention only a few. There is a good selection of exotic flavours scattered here and there in her recipes but the food remains familiar. It’s a great book for all, especially those who love to feed big crowds without the extra stress. You can find Thomasina here.

Rob x

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