Balls.

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The passing of a great restaurant, or even one that one was just mediocre, but had a couple of good things on the menu, is honestly like a death to me.

This is of course because my best friend is a biscuit, and so ‘places that feed me’ is just about all I’ve got to cling to these days.

From a food perspective there are few worse sensations than pitching up at your favourite place, expecting to be tucking into that thing that you order every time with the usual greedy, piggy-face, to not only find that the restaurant isn’t there any more, but that now it’s a shop that sells toilets.

It feels like getting mugged, and then having the mugger kick you in the shins because they’re also communists and you confess to not having read Das Kapital – and I’d know. I’ve been mugged a lot. And even though I claim I’ve read Das Kapital, I haven’t really.

My very, very first experience of this kind of thing was with a place in Grahamstown, which is where I grew up, that my mom used to take me to called Davenports. In reality it was probably a stuffy old-school type tea-room filled exclusively with old ladies who thought that putting a flower arrangement on their head constituted ‘being a progressive about hats’, but in my mind it was The Best Restaurant In The World (aged 4) because it was the first time I was allowed to have an Appletiser. Which was a big deal in those days.

It promptly closed down and became a Spur, which is still there. The ladies who wear hats are not.

Also in Grahamstown was a Bavarian grill-house which was called Tiny’s, because no doubt it was run by a jolly and usually quite sweaty, fat man called George Gruber (which is totally the best fat man’s name ever) and back in the 80s, no one had yet gotten tired of that joke of naming something its opposite. Of course, you can’t be called George Gruber and not be a jolly, big guy who runs a steak-house with his dumpy wife – it goes against nature.
Gruber’s favourite thing in the world was to flambé a steak at your table as an excuse to hold forth on the wonders of Austria for as long as it took to burn your face off with flaming Kirsch, but it was a proper ‘grown-up place’ and the rare occasion when my parents decided on a night out at Tiny’s, it was always a ridiculous highlight to go there. It was also the first time I was introduced to the idea of monkeygland sauce, which let me tell you, provided an endless source of debate for an 8 year-old and his dumb mates; mostly revolving around exactly how many monkey-glands went into making enough sauce for a burger, and did Vervet monkey-gland taste different from, say Baboon or Bonobo?

Sadly Gruber died and the restaurant closed, and for years no-one could make anything else work in the space. At one point someone tried a rip-off KFC-style chicken joint called Southern Fried Chicken, which closed almost immediately after the first person actually tried something off the menu. Today however it’s the legendary and institutional Rat and Parrot, which is the pub equivalent of getting kicked in the face by a pack of talking dingoes in party dresses. Again, I would know.

I’ve long suspected that the Burger Quality Debate Index is the primary indicator of a high standard of living. This must be the case, because apparently it’s the only thing anyone in Cape Town, that dear fishing village by the sea, has any time for – since they’re always super-quick to laconically declare how awesome both they, and their standard of living, are. It seems that the energy of every single person in that city is bent towards a permanent, in-depth, absurdly passionate debate about Who Makes The Best Burger, where if you dare to suggest it’s Royale (as opposed to Hudsons or Clarkes) then you clearly have the taste of a dust mote or a goat-rapist, or you’re from Johannesburg, in which case they pat your head you’re a retarded child who, shame, can’t be expected to know any better.
The reason they’re all wrong, and are about to be robbed of seemingly the only point to their lives, is that the best burger in the world used to be made a lanky vulture-like woman who was the owner/proprietor of a ridiculously-named fast-food joint called Bambi’s. And yes, there was totally a giant picture of Bambi painted in the window – which if you think about it, raises some very odd thoughts about exactly what was in those burgers. Years after she’d retired from fast-food, I actually went and tracked her down at her house, determined to get her to fix me up one last burger, which – incredibly, she did. Because it was that good. Enormous and dinner plate-like in its roundness, the Bambi Burger was a secret-sauced, pickled-up burgerous marvel in a soft white bun – and to this day I’ve never had one to match it.

This ‘passing of a favourite’ thing also happened more poignantly with the first restaurant I ever developed a meaningful relationship with after moving to Johannesburg. It was an Italian place called Lucci’s in Westdene – owned and run by, of course, old Mr Lucci (no such naming cleverness for the Italians – a spade is a spade, and a restaurant run by a Mr Lucci, is called Lucci’s).

Lucci was a clever fucker, because he knew a good thing when he saw it, and he saw quite a lot of his own fine Italian daughters (not in that way fuckos). And as a result, most of the time you were waited on by one or several of those fine and exotic women. That meant that as a teenager I spent a lot of time trying to hide unfortunate boners with a napkin while trying to eat mushroom Risotto.
It was one of those places where you instantly knew that it was run by a real Italian, because instead of stupid faux-Tuscan brickwork and stock art of grinning fat men holding loaves of bread, the walls were covered with the only things truly close to an Italian’s heart – pictures of Ducatis and Ferraris. Of which Lucci had many. There was also a picture of him posing with Pavarotti, and if a guy has fed Big Luciano, then it’s totally okay for him to feed me. It was the first time I’d encountered pesto made properly, and a man who point-blank refused to serve decaffeinated anything in his restaurant and who also probably felt more distraught about Saltimbocca being poorly-made than he did about baby seals being clubbed to death by Japanese people.

It’s an estate-agency now.

The thing about this dirge-like list of places that I used to eat at which don’t exist any more, is that it happened again recently. It’s funny – I’ve written about Lapa Fo on this blog before, and paradoxically enough, it was to complain about their rather cynical pricing of a particular bottle of wine. But it was like one of those relationships where although someone did something shitty to you, you can’t stop seeing them because the sex is just too good to ever sanely give up, and so you just keep on going back and back. Which was the case here, and oddly enough it wasn’t even for the thing they were famous for; because for a place whose speciality was (incredible) pizza, my favourite thing on their menu was the meatballs.

I know right? Fucking meatballs?

Well, I loved the shit out of them, and it was rare that I’d ever go there and order anything but. Well, now it’s gone and I’ll never have those balls in my face again. And so, in an attempt to not let this piece of warmth and nostalgia die completely, I went home the other night and tried to recapture the essence of my favourite thing of theirs. And so, here is my commemorative Lapa Fo meatball recipe, in a sad and probably meaningless tribute to a thing I liked.

There is a greater point to all of this – and that is (duh), don’t take these places for granted. Because one day they won’t be there, and you’ll never have that particular thing, in that particular way, ever again (Yes, it’s a metaphor for life. Get over it). There’s something magical about the alchemy that goes into the creation of a signature menu at a favourite restaurant – and that special combination of ingredients, suppliers, techniques, chefs and kitchen atmosphere will never come together again. Don’t just assume that it’ll be there forever – because it won’t, and then you’ll be one of those people that starts conversations with “Remember that whatever that so-and-so used to do at blah blah blah, back in the day? I wish I could have it one last time, we never went there enough.” And then you’ll get sad, and then maybe go home and be cruel to your children and/or plants. And that’s how M Night Shyamalan movies happen.

My Meatballs

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Ingredients

A generous glug of olive oil
2 tins of whole, peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
1 tsp brown sugar
1 splash of sherry vinegar

For the meatballs

500g of minced beef
40g of breadcrumbs, some extra for dusting
A goodly handful of grated Parmesan
175 ml milk
2 teaspoons of minced garlic
A handful of finely-chopped parsley
1 tsp dried organum
1 tsp of coriander seeds, crushed into a fine powder
2 large eggs
A generous pinch of Chilli flakes

What to do

Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl, and gently mix them all together until loosely combined. Season well with salt and pepper, then coat your hands with olive oil and gently pack into smallish balls, not pressing them together too tightly. Dust each one with some breadcrumbs.

Rub a roasting tray with olive oil, and get the oven grill onto about 200 degrees Celsius. Pack the meatballs onto the tray, giving each one a bit of breathing space, and brown them on both sides in the oven – it should take about 20 minutes or so.

Then get either a casserole or a cast-iron pot and add the olive oil, tinned tomatoes, bay leaves, sugar and vinegar, then season generously with salt and pepper. Gently break up the tomatoes a bit with a wooden spoon. Toss in the meatballs, pop on the lid and put it back in the oven for another half an hour.

Serve with pasta or as part of a meal with salad and crusty bread.

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Cheers Lapa Fo, you will be missed.

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A helping hand. With cannelloni in it.

A sugar-bowl was lost in the creation of this picture. Seriously - I had to balance the camera on it, with unintended and disastrous consequences.

A dear friend of mine has recently been having a somewhat rough time of it. One of those lows that life seems to throw in our path every now and again with a raised eyebrow and a look that says: “Yeah? Huh huh? What you gonna do about it?”

It’s at these points where we generally have two choices: either cry and go home,  or… roundhouse life in the groin Tony Jaa-style, wipe your hands theatrically on your pants and walk on whistling a happy tune, and if things could explode in slow-motion while you’re doing this, so much the better.

I’m happy to say that my friend is doing the second one.

But still… that doesn’t mean that every now and again we don’t all need someone to take the world’s decision-making off our hands, sit us down in a corner, stick a monster glass of wine in our hands and then feed us a lot of something. Preferably with cheese in it. And also preferably stopping to say “The Bastards!”, and “How could they?” at all the right moments.  Jewish moms have known the secret of this for centuries, which is what probably keeps the psychological community comfortably in BMWs and nice houses in Blairgowrie – mostly because of what this does to their daughter-in-laws.

Maybe it’s because I don’t generally have a lot else to offer in these situations (I can’t for instance send people on a Caribbean cruise to take their minds of the woes of the world, and I’ve never been to a strip club so that’s not really within my range either), but I’ve always been a monstrous believer in the power of food as a way to escape from one’s pain and turmoil, even if it is for just a short while. I’ve written about this before this year, so don’t really want to harp on about it all over again – other than to say that this sort of thing probably makes me even happier than the people I’m cooking for, so actually the joke’s totally on them. Nyah nyah.

Also – I know this is two pastas in a row on the blog should finally shatter any illusions any of you might have that this is a well-thought-out and considered exercise, executed with precision and forethought, other than the improvised shambles that it really is.

Three Cheese Cannelloni (for 4)

Yes. That is a lot of cheese.

Okay – this recipe was a somewhat cavalier affair, and as such the measurements are completely vague and mostly based on quantities provided by the punnets and packets of  things I had lying around in the fridge. It’s also incredibly rich.  I know it.  So feel free to adapt a less-fat-oriented version of this, or alternatively just shake your head and quietly judge me for chronic dietary irresponsibility. I don’t care. I ran 4kms this morning and I feel fine.

Also there is bacon in this recipe – but it can very easily be left out to make a vegetarian option. It’s mostly just there because I felt that three types of cheese and half a bottle of red wine hadn’t quite made this excessive enough, and it just needed something to push it over the edge.

Ingredients

1 standard pack of cannelloni tubes

Cannelloni stuffing

1 red onion

1 punnet of portebellini mushrooms

4 leeks

1 wedge of blue cheese

6 or 7 rashers of bacon (optional)

A handful of fresh thyme, leaves stripped – stalks discarded

1 tub of mascarpone cheese

Tomato and red wine sauce

2 stalks of celery

1 handful of baby carrots

1 brown onion

2 tomatoes

tomato passata, or tin of tomato paste

200 mls of red wine

3 cloves

1 chopped chili (optional)

2 cloves of garlic – finely chopped

dried oreganum

2 tbpns butter

Bechamel

three quarters of a cup of flour

200 grams of butter

3 cups of warm milk

2 anchovy fillets

salt

pepper

Wild rocket

Well matured cheddar cheese.

What do do

This is a fairly PT-intensive exercise – so having people around while you’re doing it is always a plus – because you can get them to do all the finnicky annoying bits, like stripping thyme leaves or stuffing cannelloni tubes.

Start off by stripping the leaves off your handful of thyme stalks. Then slice up your red onion. Get a flattish tray, cover it with a sheet of tinfoil, the clump the mushrooms and onions together, sprinkle over your thyme, a bit of salt and pepper and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Then lay out the rashers of bacon around the outside – like a border if you will. Get the oven onto about 200 degrees celsius, and pop in the tray until the bacon is crisped up on both sides – which should take about 20 minutes or so. At which point the mushrooms and onions should also be nicely softened up. If they aren’t – just remove the bacon and leave the veggies in there for another couple of minutes until nicely roasted and fragrant.

While that’s all going on, it’s time to turn to the wine sauce.  Finely, finely chop up the celery, brown onion, carrot, garlic, chili and the two tomatoes (those you can keep a bit chunkier). In a medium-sized pot, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and then lob everything in there. Let it all sizzle and soften up for about ten minutes or so, stirring so that nothing catches, and when it’s getting really nice and fragrant, add a big pinch of the dried oreganum. Keep stirring (maybe adjusting the heat lower if it’s getting too excited), and add a good squeeze of tomato passata (about two heaped tablespoons should do it).  Stir it in, and once everything has been coated in the tomato paste, add the whole cloves and the wine. Right, now that you’ve got everything in there – you need to get the heat to a point where everything is simmering gently and then leave it until the wine has reduced by about half and starting to take on a slightly more silky quality – maybe about half an hour or so, depending on your pot and stove-top. And be sure to give it a bit of stirring love every now and again and checking its progress.

Now, take your roasted onions, mushrooms and crispy bacon and chop it up so that it’s all nicely mixed together. Then it’s time to haul out those leeks and slice them thinly as well, keeping them close at hand.  Heat up a pan (you shouldn’t need to add any oil), and throw in the mushrooms, bacon and the fresh leeks and get it all stirred about – making sure to keep the heat low enough that its not going mad in that pan – you should be happy with a gentle sizzling. Crumble in the blue cheese bit by bit so that it’s melted in and coating everything nicely. Once it’s all melted in, then stir in the mascarpone so that it all gets creamy and thick. Have a good taste to see if the creamy/blue cheesy balance is right – and then season to taste.

This is where you’ll need helping hands: delicately start spooning your creamy/mushroomy/bacony/blue cheesey mix into the cannelloni tubes and lay them neatly together into a baking tray that’s been rubbed with just a bit of olive oil.  You should have enough mix to finish all the tubes, but it’s not a train-smash if you’re a bit over or under – just keep going until you’ve used up all the stuffing.

By this point, the red wine sauce should be approaching a lovely silky thickness. If it isn’t – just hard boil it for a minute or two until it’s reduced further. Once it’s feeling nice and saucy – haul it off the heat, and either using a stick-blender or a conventional blender, pulse it a couple of times just to get the ingredients a bit smoother.  Put it back on the heat, add the butter, stir it in then set aside.

Now – you’ll need two more fresh pots, one in which to warm up your milk, and another to melt the butter – both for the bechamel. Once the butter is melted, add the flour stirring it up quickly. As the butter has absorbed all the flour, add the warm milk – and with a whisk, start beating at it vigorously until it’s nice and smooth. Add the two anchovy fillets and carry on whisking so that they break up and are integrated into the bechamel. This is the secret to this sauce – as you’re not really going to taste the anchovy as such – but it’ll just give a lovely rich salty quality that just can’t be beaten. Once it’s nice and smooth – you’re ready to rock.

Spoon the red wine/tomato sauce over the cannelloni tubes so that everything’s covered evenly, and then delicately add the bechamel over that. Then finely grate your mature cheddar evenly over the lot and pop it in the oven, set to 180 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes, after which the cheese/bechamel topping should be nicely browned and bubbling pleasantly.

Take it out the oven, sprinkle with the wild rocket leaves – plunk that hot tray on the table and let people just help themselves.

Phew. I need a glass of wine after writing all that out.

Yup. Still a lot of cheese. Except this time more of it is on my face.

Rescued by a Big Fat Sausage. In the face.

This is what my hangovers look like. Yes I'm aware there's wine in this picture.

Being accused of hyperbole is nothing new to me.  In fact it happens almost on a daily basis.  I don’t mind this really, because in a way I choose (in a sort of ‘glass half-full’ thing) to take it as an indication that at least I’m still getting excited about things that are happening around me.

Which is a useful knack when two separate sets of pilots choose to miss the runway with planes that I happen to be in at the time. ‘Tail-wind,’ my ass.

So, this hyperbole thing is probably how, on a particular weekend evening, I found myself having an almost United Nations level of intense debate over who manufactures the toilet paper with the puppies printed on it.  This was of course fueled by jagermeister and beer and was ridiculous on many levels, but seemed super important at the time.  I am adamant that it’s Kleenex, my opponent says it’s Twinsaver.  However, after our various standpoints had been exhausted (there is after all, only so long you can say “But it’s Kleenex!”), the only option was to drunkenly google the answer. It which point it turned that we were both wrong and that it’s neither, but the company that does actually manufacture the puppy toilet paper (which is in itself an incredibly odd thing – because if you think about it – wiping your bum with a small dog is really not fun…) it also owns Kleenex, so I felt vaguely vindicated and drank my weight in tequila in celebration.

This brings us to sausage pasta.

Because if there’s anything a human being needs in the wreckage and aftermath of a night where the highlight of the evening was alcoholic Agave Juice and a debate about toilet paper, then it’s a large plate of something to soak up all the idiocy from the night before.

And so, in attempt to rescue my poor savaged self the next day – this is what I turned to. And thank god, because it really ended up being the best thing since the invention of Stockings As Pants on girls.

See? Hyperbole. It’s not so bad.

 

Italian Sausage and Macadamia Nut Pasta

If this picture could sing, it'd sound like all three tenors and their moms.

Ingredients (for 2)

 

2 large Italian-style sausages (spend a bit of time sourcing the best you can get your hands on – it really will make or break this)

1 red onion

1 chili (medium strength)

1 large clove of garlic

1 tbspn dried oreganum

1 tbspn of olive oil

1 healthy splash of sherry

200ml cream

a handful of crushed (unsalted) macadamia nuts

parsley (finely chopped)

Parmesan cheese (finely grated)

salt

pepper

 

What to do.

First things first – remove the sausage meat from the casings. It’s a bit of a finicky job; you have to cut open one end of the sausage and then gently squeeze all the meat out, but once you get going it’s generally okay. Rubbing your hands with a little olive oil before starting also helps.

Then, finely chop the red onion, garlic and the chili (de-seeded if you don’t want the extra heat).  Heat the olive oil in a large pan, then add the onion, chili, sausage meat, garlic and dried oreganum. It should all be sizzling nicely, so make sure that you keep stirring and moving it all about so that nothing catches and burns.

As the sausage and onion is starting to take on a crispier, more golden look (about 7 – 10 minutes should do it…), add the sherry and keep stirring. It’ll bubble like mad for a bit and then the alcohol will mostly burn off, but everything should now have a rich, sweetish glaze to it.

At this point, turn the heat down a bit (to a simmering temperature) add the nuts and the cream – and after it’s all gotten to know each other, taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve with a pasta of your choice with a good dose of the fresh chopped parsley and grated parmesan.

Everything is going to be okay.

The Best Friends Are the Ones That Give You Free Stuff.

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No it's not the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey

I’ll never forget an investigative piece I once saw on TV which suggested that something ridiculous like 45% of olive oil sold in supermarkets was actually made of a combination of paint stripper, engine oil and crushed barbie dolls.  Okay not exactly, but the gist was that a certain amount of nefarious Italians and Spaniards were basically spitting in a bottle, labeling it “extra virgin” and sending it off to people like you and me who don’t know any better.  Either way, I never forgot that – and it made me super paranoid as to what exactly I was forking my R80-120 over for each time I bought a bottle of the olive grove’s ‘finest’. To the extent that I tracked down an FDA study from some time in the 90s that found that a whopping 4% of olive oils on supermarket shelves were actually pure olive oil, most being cut with sunflower oil.

This is a pity, because olive oil is one of the great gifts bestowed on mankind. At least once a week some plastic-faced CNN reporter is interviewing a 178 year-old Italian nonna, asking “the secret of her longevity”, the answer to which inevitably involves a tablespoon of olive oil every day (and the equally inevitable air of disappointment on the part of the reporter when the answer doesn’t involve bathing in the blood of innocents by the light of a waxing moon, rubbing your face with goat’s testicles or something equally exotic that might get them an award at some point).

All this led to me being incredibly happy when a good winemaker friend (the infinitely gracious Andre Liebenberg of the Romond wine farm in the Cape) sent me a bottle of the new olive oil that he’s started producing. I say I was happy because I know the trees from which this oil comes, I’ve walked amongst them (okay – drunkenly stumbled, but who’s counting?) and so equally I know that it’s not a bottle of tap water mixed with cheap face cream from Diskem.

Quite the opposite.

I have a thing about ingredients, because stupidly simple recipes can be elevated (wank alert) to the sublime purely by using the best components – and I know no better way of honouring a top quality bottle of olive oil (which this is; beautifully fresh and zingy without being overbearing) than by making an enormous bowl of pasta, whipping up a huge batch of pesto and getting some people around on a Sunday afternoon to eat it all.

Which is what I did.

By the way, if you’re interested in getting a bottle of Romond Olive Oil, or indeed any of his array of wines (including a new Rosé which is particularly good) email sales@romond.co.za

Oh! And lest I forget, thank you to the towering Ryan Metcalfe for taking all the pictures.

Walnut pesto with bacon and linguini

M-5152
Behold my bowl of pasta and tremble before me.


Ingredients (serves 4)

1 small handful of walnuts

1 large bunch of basil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

olive oil

salt

pepper

a couple of rashers of good streaky bacon

1 small dried chilli, seeds removed and finely chopped

half a cup of pouring cream

a good quantity of grated parmesan (no fucking awful pre-grated stuff!! I’ll find you…)

1 pack of linguini pasta

What to do

As you may have noticed, I’m using walnuts for this pesto. This is mostly because of the fact that I don’t actually like pine nuts that much – I’ve always found them slightly too … champy (chew chew chew bits stuck in teeth chew chew), if that makes sense. And after mucking around with various substitutes I’ve settled on walnuts as being my preferred alternative.

In a dry pan toast the walnuts until they’re starting to go golden brown, and then in a blender or with a pestle and mortar combine the basil, chopped garlic, nuts, a pinch of salt and a generous glug of olive oil and bash/pulse until it’s a smooth green liquid paste. I prefer my pesto to be on the wetter side (adding more olive oil as I go) but feel free to keep it slightly thicker if that’s what you like.

Chop up the bacon and then in the same pan you toasted the nuts, fry it up with the chopped chilli and then at the last moment add the cream and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer so that it doesn’t split.

Throw the linguine to a pot of boiling, salted water and cook until al dente (throw some on the roof – if it sticks, it’s done) – drain and empty into a serving bowl. Then mix in the pesto and make sure the pasta is properly coated, then pour in the bacon/cream/chilli and finally finish it off with the parmesan and a couple of twists of black pepper.

M-5153
Luckily you can't see the ropes tied to all my friends so that they can't run away...

Ravioli is not for pussies.

I have nothing interesting or funny to say about this photograph. Bugger.
I have nothing interesting or funny to say about this photograph. Bugger.

So, I’m still housesitting for my deliriously happy honeymooning friends – and while I was being supremely lazy on their fancy couch, drinking their beer and watching cricket on their criminally enormous flatscreen TV, I had an idea.

Sometimes (I assume) people get ideas in this completely random way – you don’t know it comes from, you don’t know how exactly it arrived in your head – but you’re incredibly glad you had it, because it just goes to show that your brain is still on the job, and not…you know, running an interior-decorating business on the side.

This was one of those moments, which was gratifying. Alas it was about ravioli. Which was not.

Ravioli is a fiendishly labour-intensive business, one of those things I always start off with naïve enthusiasm and then end up wondering what the fuck was I thinking, mostly drunk on the wine that should be gently reducing with some tomato in a heavy-based saucepan and cursing through my tears at whichever sniveling Italian prick first thought that little stuffed pockets of pasta was a good idea. This is a cycle, however which I’m doomed to repeat, because like most difficult things, the end result is worth it no matter how much one likes to whine about it afterwards.

I think, like a lot of slightly more involved foods, pasta is one of those things that a lot of people will try and convince you is a marvelous thing to make at home from scratch – but this is mostly so that they can sell you pasta-makers that you’ll use once and then forget on the top shelf of your store-room, like novelty socks with individualized places for your toes.

But, like a persistent woman with a low-cut neckline, the idea wouldn’t go away.

And so – my mind started to tinker with the notion of ravioli as a base for something rather than as a focus. I prefer my pasta-sauces on the dry side of things rather than swimming in sauce (foodnerdspeak alert, apologies) – it allows the flavour of the pasta itself to also have a chance of playing on the swings like a big boy. So, if you use a simple tomato ravioli as the base of a topping that’s more about ingredients rather than ‘how much cream and cheese can I pack into this bowl’, each bite should release just enough liquid to make it awesome. Well, this was the theory at any rate…

Ravioli with Broccoli, White Wine and Capers

...I'm assuming that a plate of half-eaten pasta can somehow be considered aesthetically pleasing.
...I'm assuming that a plate of half-eaten pasta can somehow be considered aesthetically pleasing.

Ingredients (serves 4)

Before I get into the rest of this, I wasn’t going to mess about with making my ravioli from scratch as well as a sauce – and so I got decent quality dried tomato-filled ravioli from the Italian supermarket around the corner from my house (it’s in the second story of an office block, hiding behind a dried-up pot plant – it’s the bizarrest thing), but if you want, most delis will also sell freshly made vacuum-packed ravioli that’s usually pretty good, if a bit more expensive.

Half a head of broccoli, broken into florets

2 chicken breasts

a small handful of capers, soaked in water

a medium-sized red onion, finely chopped

2 small brinjals (or Eggplant if you’re American)

4 goodish stalks of rosemary, stripped of leaves and finely chopped

paprika

flour

salt

pepper

olive oil

1 full glass of white wine

What to do

First up, slice up the brinjal into discs and then into strips, put them into a colander, sprinkle with a decent amount of salt and then leave them for about half an hour. A fair amount of juice will hopefully drain away – which is a good thing, because it’s a bitter as a horse-riding aunt.

Slice the chicken breasts into roughish chunks, sprinkle with salt, pepper and a teaspoon of paprika and set that aside as well.

Once the brinjals have been drained of their bitter juices, dry them off with paper towel and then cover them with a decent handful of flour, salt and pepper until they’re nicely coated. Get a good lug of olive oil smoking hot in a pan then add the brinjals and fry until they’re golden brown. Get them out of the pan and onto a plate layered with more paper towel so that the oil can be soaked up.

In the same pan (there should be a bit of olive oil left over) add the onions, rosemary, capers (taken out of their soaking water) and broccoli. Toss it about so that all get to know each other and get coated with the oil and crumbs from the pan. Once everything’s softened up and the onions are starting to brown, add half the white wine and let it reduce until there is almost no liquid left, at which point add the rest of the wine. Once that has also almost boiled away, add the chicken, and once that’s started to cook through add the fried brinjals.

Turn the heat down and let it all simmer gently for about 15 minutes.

Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the ravioli and cook it until done (usually about 20 minutes or so, but taste one when you think it’s done – if it’s nice and al dente (wanky-speak for just done) you’re golden), drain most of the liquid, but keep half a cup of it around, adding a bit of it to the simmering broccoli/chicken/brinjal extravaganza, and then give it a good stir.

Add the ravioli to the sauce, and serve with a bit of grated pecorino. Yee. Ha.

The “Everybody else is doing it why can’t we?” ‘Rustic’ pasta

Let me dazzle you with my mystical sunbeams...
Let me dazzle you with my mystical sunbeams...

Okay, so this is not the first time I might have mentioned various so-called “Food trends” on this page. You can call me names if you want – poke me with a stick, set my beard on fire (okay I don’t have a beard but if I did you’d be welcome to spend a morning with it, some lighter-fluid and a box of matches), but it’s my party and I’ll make snide comments about trends if I want to.

Anyway – the idea of “rustic” food is huge at the moment: bread, stews, salads, cuts of meat – it all basically means that things are torn rather than chopped, and if they are chopped it’s always ‘roughly’ (as in: ‘Heathcliffe took Jemima roughly in the barn’), presentation is uncomplicated and …well this is probably the important bit, the flavours are always simple and ‘robust’.

Oh yes, and don’t forget the oceans of wine that goes along with it. I’m not kidding: oceans.

What it actually all means is that restaurants are trying to make their food look and taste like what you’d expect from your mom’s kitchen, which if you think about it is one of those ‘art imitating life’ situations that mostly just makes me want to jump up and down like a madman on street corners (I really don’t know why).  I guess ultimately it’s a huge win for the Italians, who’ve always been advocates for less complex dishes, simply done, where the main emphasis is letting the (usually very few) ingredients speak loudly for themselves. This is something that makes an enormous amount of sense really, and when it’s expressed like that you wonder how we ever deviated down the blind alley of Nouvelle Cuisine and plate decorations that make a full replica sailing ship out of half a lemon and enough rocket to comfortably feed a goat (yes Coachman’s Inn I’m looking at you) for so long.

I blame the French. And Marco Pierre-White. And the teletubbies – just because.

So needless to say, I’m a big fan of rustic – mainly because it allows me to be a bit more casual in the kitchen than I normally would be, and also I get to drink a lot more when I’m really meant to be cooking. Plus, this is one of those dishes that’s really quick to make. The night I made this for the blog, the whole thing was done from start to finish in under 25 minutes

You can tell it's rustic because its in a pot. On a breadboard. With a wooden spoon it it.
You can tell it's rustic because its in a pot. On a breadboard. With a wooden spoon it it.

Ingredients

¾ of a pack of smoked bacon

1 tin of cherry tomatoes

1 onion

a good handful of rocket

a hard Italian cheese (either pecorino or parmesan – but no pre-grated stuff – I’m serious, I’ll find you)

three slices of slightly stale bread (if you can get a nice country-style loafall the better, but it’s not a life-or-death thing)

butter

olive oil

sugar

1 dried chilli (chopped)

dried oreganum

ground paprika

salt and pepper

Pasta (I’d go for a simple spaghetti or fettucine – but whatever you want really)

What to do

Chop the onion very finely, and then to appease the rustic gods, slice the bacon up roughly. In a large thick pot, heat a tablespoon of butter with some olive oil, and then add the onions to soften and brown. Add a teaspoon of oreganum, the chopped dried chilli and also a teaspoon of paprika. Once it’s all browning nicely, add the bacon and give it a good stir. When the bacon has started to crisp add the tin of tomatoes and turn the heat down to a medium. Add a tablespoon of sugar, put on the lid and leave it for about 15 – 20 minutes, stirring to loosen every now and again.

Now, roughly (remember this is barns and haystacks here) chop up the bread, tear the rocket into pieces, and using a potato-peeler shave off a medium handfuls-worth of the cheese. Heat some olive oil in a pan until smoking hot and add the bread and fry until golden brown and crisp, then combine the rocket, cheese shavings and fried bread in a bowl. Grind a fair bit of black pepper over it and set aside.

Boil enough pasta for four and then once drained, and add it to the sauce-pot. Make sure it’s all combined and then top with the fresh rocket, cheese and bread combination. Bring the steaming pot to the table and let everyone serve it as they will. Drink lots and make sure to tell at least two dirty jokes and a story about how once you streaked at a senior citizens bowls match.