Linguine with Basil, Lemon and Parmesan

Contrary to popular belief, eating magnificent food doesn’t have to entail sweating for hours in the kitchen preparing Masterchef-style meals. There is a time and a place for that, and for most people it comes on a wet Sunday when you’ve nothing else to do. For most of us our days are full and busy, and when you come home starving but the evening is late what can you cook that is healthy and home-cooked, and will take a mere ten minutes? This is the kind of cooking that Nigel Slater excels at, and I am heavily indebted to him for this recipe.

In these short of time and inspiration situations, pasta is generally the first thing that springs to mind, but what to do with it apart from stir in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto from a jar? My first thought is to add a lemon. Pasta and lemon are a match made in heaven, the bright notes of the citrus lift pasta from a potentially stodgy dish to a light and airy bowl of heaven. The Parmesan used here reacts with the lemon to create a grainy sauce that is not unlike carbonara, only without the bacon, while the basil gently wilts and adds a delicate fragrance.

This is the kind of dish that would cost you a tenner in a smart restaurant but can be made for pennies from a kitchen storecupboard.


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RECIPE – to feed 2

220g linguine

the juice of a large lemon

5 tbsp olive oil

50g finely grated Parmesan

a bunch of basil, leaves only, shredded

Rocket, lettuce and cucumber (for a salad)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

Put a very large pan of generously salted water on to boil and when it is bubbling vigorously add the linguine. Set your timer for 9 minutes.

Combine the lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl and whisk together. Tear up the basil and grate the Parmesan, using a microplane grater if you have one, otherwise grate it as finely as you can.

Assemble a simple green salad of rocket, torn lettuce and finely sliced cucumber, drizzle a little of the lemon and oil dressing through it. Light your candles, pour a glass of wine and wait for your linguine to finish.

When the linguine is cooked (it should be al dente as it will cook on), drain thoroughly and return to the pot. Add the lemon and oil, stir thoroughly then add the basil leaves, stir thoroughly again. Now tip in the Parmesan and once again stir thoroughly.

Season in the bowl, relax and enjoy a delicious meal that has taken less than 15 minutes to prepare. A takeaway wouldn’t arrive that quickly…

 

Black Bean Chilli

We are largely vegetarian in our house; I will happily eat anything but my wife won’t eat meat – though she will eat fish. The challenge then is to come up with meals where the absence of meat is not an issue, and the secret to achieving that is to concentrate on flavour and texture.

We both love the heat and flavour of spices, so we have spent a great deal of time testing and refining recipes for chilli. Quorn mince has been a godsend; it is so good now that when we have friends and family over for dinner they often don’t realise that they haven’t had ‘real’ mince. Using a meat replacement always feels like a bit of a cheat to me though, one I’m happy to indulge in, but it is so much more satisfying to have a recipe that stands on its own ingredients rather than pretending to be something else. The black beans used here add a rich, thick texture that works perfectly with chilli.

This black bean chilli recipe is universally loved, and the reason for that is the bold spicing. It isn’t blow-your-head-off spicy, instead it is deeply-flavoured and comfortably warming. It has a lovely umami feel as well, thanks to the addition of a little fish sauce – fish sauce is my favourite seasoning ingredient, adding not only a layer of salt that accentuates the other flavours, but also a layer of ‘mmmmmm’ that you can’t quite put your finger on. It smells disgusting when you open the bottle, but once cooked in it takes all the other flavours to another level entirely.


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RECIPE – to feed 4

250g dried black beans (or 2 tins)

1 onion, halved

1 orange, halved

2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole


2 tbsp olive oil

4 garlic cloves, crushed

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

3 tbsp smoked paprika

3 tbsp ground cumin

3 tbsp cyder vinegar

2 tbsp caster sugar

2 tins of chopped tomatoes

2 tsp fish sauce

1 tin of kidney beans

1 lime, zest and juice

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


METHOD

 

The conventional wisdom is that you should soak the black beans in plenty of water, the evening before you use them. However, after much back-to-back testing it is plain that not soaking them makes them blacker, more beany and flavourful, at the cost of having to cook them for a little longer. How long? Around 90 minutes or so, until they are soft but retain bite and texture – the older your beans the longer they will take. To cook them, use a big pan and plenty of water, into which you have put an onion – halved but otherwise intact – an orange, again halved and gently squeezed, and then put both halves in the water, and a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil then simmer until ready. If you have a pressure cooker then life is much simpler, follow the guidelines for your device but cook them for around 20-25 minutes. When cooked, remove the onion, orange and garlic and set the beans aside.

You don’t have to do all this, but for some reason using dried beans adds more flavour, and when cooked using aromatic ingredients the flavours are amped up even higher; tinned beans are fine though, no need to feel guilty.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions until just softened, then add the garlic and chilli flakes. Cook gently for a minute or two, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Put the paprika and cumin in a small bowl, add the cyder vinegar and sugar and mix to a paste – you may need to add a little water. Doing this prevents the powders from burning and means the flavours cook out more evenly. Add this paste to your onion mixture and cook on for another minute or so before adding the tinned tomatoes and the fish sauce. Simmer gently for ten minutes, then add the cooked (or tinned) black beans and the kidney beans. Bring back to a boil then turn the heat off. Ideally, leave your chilli to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

Just before serving, finely grate the zest of the lime into it and squeeze in the lime juice, stir thoroughly and check and adjust the seasoning.

This goes extremely well alongside guacamole, and can be garnished with chopped spring onions, soured cream, grated cheddar, chopped coriander leaves, crumbled feta, sliced radishes, chunks of avocado and, of course, is best served with fluffy rice.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 4 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

Pizza!

Watching Masterchef the other evening, I heard a Michelin-starred chef state that the whole idea of eating out is that you get to eat something better than you could ever make at home. That’s the whole idea of eating out for me, but it can be a double-edged sword – sadly we can’t go out for pizza any more, not even to the best restaurants; we are always disappointed because we unavoidably compare what we are given with what we make at home. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, the truth is that nothing can compare with a fresh, home-made pizza.

There is a secret ingredient to a great pizza, that ingredient is time. Time for your dough to develop its flavour, time for your tomato sauce to mature, and the shortest possible time in the oven. Master the use of time and, like me, you will never be able to go out for a pizza again, and you certainly will never order in.

The best thing about making your own pizza is that you can make it faster than you think. Spend a little time getting your dough and sauce ready the day before, then ten minutes rolling your dough and assembling your toppings, ten more minutes in the oven and it is ready to eat. That’s faster than the time it takes for a takeaway to be delivered, and probably faster than the time between ordering and eating in a restaurant. It costs next to nothing as well.


 

RECIPE (Makes 2 thin and crispy pizzas, double or treble everything to make more)

For the dough:

125g strong white flour

125g ’00’ flour

1/4 tsp dried yeast

1 tsp fine sea salt

160ml tepid water

Olive oil, for kneading

For the tomato sauce:

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

A good pinch of Maldon sea salt

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp caster sugar

30g basil leaves, shredded

A drizzle of the best extra-virgin olive oil


METHOD

The evening before you plan to eat, make your dough.

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl, using your fingers in a claw, making sure everything is well combined. Make a well in the centre and add the water, slowly, again using your fingers in a claw bringing the water and dry ingredients together. When all the water is added and you have pulled everything together you should have a slightly sticky dough which pulls itself away from the sides of the bowl, leaving it clean. If you need to add a little more or less water then do so, but be careful not to make your mixture too wet.

Lightly oil a clean, dry work surface with good olive oil, turn the dough out onto it and gently massage the dough using your fingers and palms for around 20 seconds to end up with a fairly smooth ball. Now leave it for ten minutes; when you come back to it you will see that it has already softened and become more silky. Gently knead it again for twenty seconds, using your fingers and palms, shape it into a ball and leave again for ten minutes. Lightly oil a large bowl.

Come back to your dough after ten minutes, give it a final twenty second knead, shape into a ball, place in your oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Put it in a cold place overnight and leave it. The time it now spends gently rising gives the flavour of the yeast the chance to permeate through the dough.

The same evening, make your tomato sauce.

Sieve the tinned tomatoes, pushing the liquid through until you are left with the tomato pulp and a little liquid. Approximately half the volume of the tin will be left in the sieve, the other half (the liquid) you can leave, covered, in the fridge for a week or so and use in a stock, or you can indulge yourself in a Bloody Mary or two…

Combine the rest of the ingredients and stir thoroughly. Cover and leave overnight, chilled or not doesn’t matter. You can now forget about it for the rest of the night, and your finished sauce should look like the picture below:

IMG_0311 The following morning, check on your dough, it should have risen to at least twice its original size, probably more, and will be soft and pillowy. Using your fingers, and leaving it in the bowl (just to avoid making a mess) gently push the dough back in on itself, expelling the air and shaping it back into a ball. The professionals call this ‘knocking back’ or ‘punching down’ but that sounds too violent to me; I think bread should be treated tenderly and it will reward you. Cover again, and leave it in your kitchen to rise again until around an hour before you intend to eat.

When you reach that time, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (regular plain flour is fine, no need to use the ’00’ flour at this stage), push it down again using your fingers, and divide the dough into two equal balls. Place on a lightly floured piece of baking parchment, dust the top of each ball lightly with flour and loosely cover with either a clean, dry tea towel or a piece of cling film. If using cling film gently drape it over or it is likely to stick.

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When the time comes to start cooking, pre-heat your oven to the hottest temperature it will reach (mine reaches an indicated 250C, and if I use it on fan – which I do – it will reach a real temperature of around 270C). Put two baking trays in the oven to heat up with it, and give it plenty of time to get properly and thoroughly hot.

Now roll out your dough. On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll it out as thinly as you can. We go down to less than the thickness of a twenty-pence piece; don’t be scared of going so thin, it makes the base lovely and crunchy and, because it has had around 24 hours to develop, the dough will be strong enough to hold. If you do get a little tearing just pinch the holes together and it will be fine. If you roll it thinly enough your dough will be big enough to completely fill a standard-sized baking tray. Don’t worry about trying to make it perfectly round, we shape ours into an approximate rectangle. The whole idea is to get a pizza that tastes terrific even if it looks a bit ‘rustic’ – this is home cooking after all.

Now transfer your rolled dough to a piece of baking parchment or a silicon sheet which has been lightly dusted with fine semolina. Flatten it out and thinly spread a layer of the tomato sauce that you made the night before all over the pizza base. Be careful not to apply too much sauce, it is there for flavour and too much will prevent your pizza base from getting really crispy.

Now finish with whatever toppings you like on your pizza – my favourite is torn mozzarella, thinly sliced shallot, a tin of tuna in oil (drained and flaked), thinly sliced hot jalapeno chillies and sweet piquante peppers, topped with a grating of cheddar cheese and a good grinding of whole white peppercorns. When it comes out I like a thin drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a scattering of rocket leaves and it leaves me very full indeed. My wife is more spartan and likes hers cooked just as a pizza base with the tomato sauce, and when it comes out she shaves fresh parmesan onto it and scatters rocket leaves over the top. Whatever toppings you prefer, the base and sauce will lift it to a whole new dimension.

This bit will take two people: remove your pre-heated baking tray from the oven – using oven gloves as it will be fiercely hot. Gently and carefully slide the pizza, on its parchment, onto the hot baking tray; we do this by having one person holding the edge of the hot baking tray level with the surface on which the pizza is sitting while the other person gently slides it on to the tray. Cook in the hottest part of your oven for 5-10 minutes – keep an eye on it as it cooks quickly. If your pizza looks like mine below then I want to come to your house!

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Both the dough and sauce are easily scaled up, just exactly double or treble the ingredients, nothing else changes. If you don’t manage to prepare your dough and sauce the previous evening, don’t despair. Just give them as much time as you can and they will still taste great – your dough will need a minimum of two hours to develop enough strength and it will be fine to use, you just won’t get the same depth of flavour.

I also make my own mozzarella – but that’s a subject for another day…

Spaghetti with Spicy Prawns and Rocket

Some meals you just can’t help going back to again and again, in our house this is one of them. It’s a Sunday evening staple because it is quick and easy to make, and despite having only a few ingredients the flavours are rich and complex, and utterly delicious.

The star of the show should be the prawns. Frozen king prawns are fine, but take the time to shop around, discover which ones you like (we have found that some – and I’m not talking about cheap ones – have a faint whiff of the sewer about them) and be prepared to pay a little extra. It is definitely worth it.

You can make this with whole prawns, but pulling off the heads and tails gets quite messy. Be prepared to experiment with how ‘saucy’ you like this to be, you can make the sauce thick and sticky by reducing it a little more, or you can leave it loose and sloppy which is how we like it.

This recipe can easily be doubled or even trebled, but be careful about your spicing. If serving 4, I recommend leaving the sauce ingredients as they are, and if cooking for 6 increase the sauce ingredients by half – if you are not keen on chilli heat leave the chilli quantity as it is, and always test, test, test. As a rule of thumb, 100g of pasta will serve one person, but the more people eating the less you tend to need.

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RECIPE (Serves 2, easily doubled or trebled)

225g spaghetti

1 tbsp olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

1 red chilli, deseeded and very finely sliced

1 level tsp dried chilli flakes

225g raw peeled jumbo king prawns

100ml vermouth

4 tsp home-made sun-dried tomato paste OR 2 tbsp shop-bought sun-dried tomato paste

1 lemon, zest and juice  – zest finely grated with a microplane is best

Rocket, to serve


METHOD

First, do all your prep: crush the garlic, prepare the fresh chilli, zest and juice the lemon, drain the prawns if necessary, measure out the rest of your ingredients, boil the kettle and get a large pan onto boil for your pasta.

*NOTE: Use a lot of water to cook your pasta, we use two kettles full of water for two people and get it to a good rolling boil before putting the pasta in. The addition of the pasta will reduce the temperature so keep the heat high to get it back to the boil as quickly as possible, this will prevent the risk of your pasta getting sticky by cooking too slowly.

The Italians say that your pasta water should be as salty as the Mediterranean. I don’t live by the Med so I find that hard to judge, but a decent pinch of fine sea salt will add that little bit of flavour that pasta needs, so do your final seasoning with the sauce.

Get your spaghetti cooking, you will want it to be al dente as it will cook on slightly in the sauce, so set your timer accordingly. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and saute the garlic and chilli (both fresh and dry) for 15-30 seconds until aromatic. Be sure not to burn the garlic. Add the prawns and saute them until they just start to turn pink – this will only be a minute or so. Retrieve the prawns from the pan using tongs or a spider (a large open-mesh spoon, used a lot in oriental and wok cooking) and set aside.

Add the vermouth, and your choice of sun-dried tomato paste, to the garlic and chilli in the pan, bring to a simmer and reduce the sauce as desired.

When the pasta is ready, drain it, add the prawns back to the sauce in the frying pan and then add the spaghetti to the sauce as well. Toss thoroughly so the pasta is thoroughly coated, then drizzle with the lemon zest and lemon juice and stir it through.

Serve with a large bowl of rocket. There is no need to dress the rocket, if you mix it through the pasta in your eating bowl it will wilt slightly and add a lovely peppery crunch.

*TIP: Never run out of fresh chillies – they freeze extremely well, so buy them and freeze them whole. When you come to use them, prepare them while still frozen; it makes them easier to de-seed and chop, and it does not diminish their heat. I have a massive bag of all kinds of chillies in my freezer and they can be a life-saver.