My Spaghetti Puttanesca.

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It’s been a while, I know.  What better way to return than with a fool-proof, hearty pasta dish?  This recipe is for a sauce that I simply cannot stop making right now.  It’s so tasty, that I keep looking for excuses to eat it at all times of day.

The danger with posting recipes for well-known dishes, is that somebody somewhere will grumble about what is included and what is not.  Puttanesca is a tomato-based sauce that generally contains anchovies, capers, onions and garlic.  I say generally, because like all recipes as old as this, variations are abundant.

I love the origins of this sauce (google it) and I love how easy it is to adapt to what ingredients you have at any time.  At the moment, I use lots of garlic, lots of olive oil, good French olives and anchovies in olive oil.  It would be easy to include fresh herbs and other vegetables too.

My one tip for this sauce is: The longer you take, the better it tastes.  This sauce benefits from long, slow cooking to achieve a rich, punchy flavour.  No need for red wine, stock or anything else…just time.  I usually leave it to bubble away gently for an hour and then toss some spaghetti in it.  Sublime.

 

My Spaghetti Puttanesca sauce.

3x 400g tins chopped Italian tomatoes

1 large red onion (sliced)

2 handfuls of good quality black olives (pitted)

5 cloves garlic (peeled and halved)

1x 200g tin anchovies in olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil

sea salt

black pepper

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I love how easy this is!  I use a 20cm cast iron casserole, but any deep pan will do.  Put the pan on a low heat on the hob and add the chopped tomatoes, garlic, anchovies (and the oil they were stored with), onion and a good few glugs of your best olive oil.  How much is a glug?  Well, put it this way, I love olive oil, so I put a lot in.  You’ll need at least 5 tablespoons.

Once in, give the ingredients a good stir and then leave them to become friends for the next forty minutes to an hour.  Remember, don’t rush it!  Simply return to give everything a good stir every now and again.  You’ll see the sauce turn into a deep, hearty, bubbly, lava lake of loveliness.

If you want to add capers or use brown onions instead of red, you can.  If you don’t like olives, don’t add them.  If you prefer less garlic, tone it down.  This is a versatile sauce that you can make for YOU.  Please yourself and your family by tailoring it to your tastes.

When you’re happy with the thickness of the sauce, taste it and add sea salt and pepper if it needs it.  Be careful with the seasoning; anchovies disintegrate during cooking and will season the dish for you, so any extra salt should be added with care.

Toss your favourite spaghetti in and serve with crusty bread and a smile!  Once the spare sauce has cooled, I keep it in the fridge for the coming week and use it whenever I am peckish.  Yum!

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For the love of garlic.

Garlic frying in butter.  It announces that something special is taking place in the kitchen.  It draws you in, makes your imagination create wonderful possibilities, secret hopes of what the dish might be.  It’s the very beginning of something savoury and full of depth and irresistable flavour.  Garlic does all of this, and that’s before you even taste it.

When my French father-in-law visits, his suitcase is filled with all manner of food delights and this includes the ubiquitous garlic bulbs.  They’re three times the size of the puny bulbs available in English supermarkets and their flavour is wonderfully rounded and smooth.  If you want quality British garlic, you’ll have to look for it somewhere other than your local, friendly, giant, faceless, monopolizing supermarket.

With several bulbs of garlic from southern France, I felt charged with the responsibility of making something worthy of their quality.  My first thought was of garlic bread.  However, first ideas are not always the best and garlic bread is hardly an earth-shattering revelation.  Consulting colleagues didn’t yield any new ideas and I was beginning to scratch my head when suddenly, I had an earth-shattering revelation: garlic bread!

You may laugh (and possibly cease reading this altogether), but my first thought was not as silly as I’d judged it to be.  What better way to showcase the wonderful flavour of this garlic than to combine it with fairly bland, but satisfying ingredients?  I’ve enjoyed garlic soup in the Czech Republic and some wonderful chicken dishes with heaps of garlic in Thailand, but honestly, I wanted something with origins closer to home.

What follows is a recipe so full of garlic, that casual admirers of garlic may wish to turn the volume down on this one.  My recipe is for those who love garlic, I mean really love it.  Can you have too much of a good thing?  Probably.

Killer garlic bread

half French tiger stick (or plain baguette)

1 bunch fresh parsely (chopped)

10 garlic cloves (finely chopped)

150g salted butter

1 tblspoon olive oil

salt

It’s a killer garlic bread for a number of reasons.  Reading the ingredient list gives you a clue to at least one of them.  You can use more or less butter according to your taste (and lifestyle choices).  Copious amounts of butter, however, will guarantee a rich flavour and a moist end product.

After chopping all of the garlic finely, I heat the butter in a milk pan and fry the pungent cloves very gently.  If you burn any of the garlic, it is ruined.  The bitter taste of burned garlic is a real spoiler for any dish, so do take care to add enough butter to let the garlic float a little and give the pan a shake to make sure nothing sticks.  I often tilt the pan so that the butter gathers and cooks the garlic evenly.  I usually add a drop of olive oil to prevent the butter burning too.  Don’t add too much oil or you’ll end up with greasy garlic bread which is not pleasant.

The reason that I use a lot of butter is not just so that the garlic can be cooked evenly.  I need to mix the garlic butter with lots of parsley and spread it onto the bread.  Predictably, the bread soaks up the liquid, so there needs to be plenty of topping to cover the surface of the bread and also to soak into it.  We really want the flavour to seep through instead of sitting on the top.  I use a wooden spatula to mix in the parsley and then I season the buttery paste with some sea salt before spooning it onto the bread.

Tiger bread is very tasty, so when I spotted a French tiger stick, I was excited about using it to make the garlic bread.  You can use a regular baguette for the same result.  I only needed half and I cut through the length of the bread and opened it out to spread the verdant garlic butter onto the soft surface.  The parsley is essential for countering the strength of the garlic.  It also brings a fantastic colour to everything.  I left the bread for a few minutes to let the butter soak in.

I then lined a baking tin with foil and put the bread into a hot oven at 180C for about ten minutes or until the bread was crisp and golden.  Spreading the butter and parsley to the very edges of the bread ensured that nothing burned.  I ate mine with some cream cheese on the side which was a cool companion to every bold bite of this bread.  It’s delicious on its own and would go down a treat at a barbecue!  Just make sure you warn your friends that this garlic bread is the real deal.

 

Pastitsio vs Stifado

“You can’t beat a good stifado” he said, pointing at me and grinning mischievously.  Years later, surrounded by the aroma of tomato and beef infused with cinnamon, I’m tempted to say that the maths teacher was right.

At high school, I had a perfectly friendly maths teacher who did his best to get his pupils to where they should be, but every now and again, a colleague of his would stride into the classroom and on his way in or out, would strike up some friendly banter with me about the merits of various Greek dishes.  His opening line was always the same: “Had any stifado recently?”

Having guessed that my origins were Greek from my name, this chirpy maths teacher (Mr. J) enjoyed sharing his memories of beef stifado and seemed to like hearing about my own affections for pastitsio: a dish that my mum made and that I still make now with a mixture of love and utter glee.  Note to self: must update the recipe to include my own bechamel sauce which has been perfected recently.

The maths teacher and I would continue our faux argument over which dish was champion until it was time for him to let the lesson continue and for me to focus once more on things more likely to help me gain qualifications.  I wished that the stifado enthusiast was my teacher, but he wasn’t and so our conversations rarely moved beyond sauce and seasoning.

Stifado is essentially pieces of meat cooked slowly in tomatoes and red wine with baby onions.  I like beef stifado, but it can also be made with rabbit.  It’s a wonderfully warming dish with a rich sauce and satisfying flavour.  I wonder what Mr. J would make of my version of the classic Greek dish?  I dare say he’d prefer it to my first attempts at high school maths.

Beef stifado

500g best braising beef

500g baby onions

1 glass red wine

2 tins chopped tomatoes

half cup olive oil

4 cloves garlic

2 tspoons ground cinnamon

1 tblspoon dried oregano

If you want to marinate the beef in red wine and garlic overnight, be my guest.  It does help.  If you don’t have that kinda time or forethought, then begin by shallow frying the peeled baby onions until golden.  Remove from the oil and set aside.

Next, brown the beef in the onion oil and add the cinnamon and oregano.  Pour in the chopped tomatoes and bring to the boil.  Add the red wine and boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol.  Drop some cloves of garlic into the pot.  I usually give them a quick bash with the back of my knife so that they release their flavour during cooking.

Simmer with the lid on for an hour.  Keep the heat low enough not to burn everything in the pot, but just high enough to keep everything on a gentle simmer.

After an hour, add as much black pepper as you dare and plenty of salt to taste.  Tip the onions in and cook uncovered for at least another hour until the beef is very tender and the sauce thick.  If the sauce reduces too much, just top up with water or stock.  Eventually, you’ll end up with a nice thick sauce, melt-in-your-mouth beef and beautifully flavoured baby onions.

Stifado goes well with potatoes and I sometimes have a fresh cabbage salad on the side because it has quite a rich sauce.  You’ll certainly need plenty of your favourite bread to mop it all up!

Respect for garlic.

Backpacking brings with it numerous food atrocities and experiences worth sharing if only to warn would-be adventurers.  Each trip is filled with moments to savour and moments to forget about, but each is unique and I guess that’s one of the many attractions of independent travel.  Last year, me and my intrepid wife returned to Eastern Europe to visit new countries and enjoy the rich culture of towns and cities we’d read about.  On the final leg of our journey, we stopped for a couple of days in Bar, Montenegro.  This coastal town had some great seafood and wonderful wine.  It was on a balmy night, at a rather basic-looking eaterie, that we sampled the best squid we’d ever eaten.  Grilled over an open fire and dressed in oil, lemon and garlic.  It was served with a potato salad and was one of the food highlights of our entire three-week trip.

Since then, I’ve been looking for ways to recreate what we’d enjoyed so much.  Part of that experience has found its way into a really simple pasta dish that I made tonight.  The dish includes king prawns, squid, lemon and chilli, but without doubt, the most important ingredient is the garlic.  Now I for one am a sucker for any dishes that feature large amounts of the stuff.  Used appropriately, garlic can really make a meal.  However, garlic is not something that everyone treats with respect in the kitchen and I have to say that my feelings on this are perfectly expressed by Anthony Bourdain when he writes, “Garlic is divine. Misuse of garlic is a crime. Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago,  garlic that has been smashed through one of those  abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting.” 

I stopped buying garlic from supermarkets a long time ago.  generally overpriced and anorexic, the specimens available for consumers is pretty embarrassing.  One trip to your local green grocer will confirm the disparity between the quality in supermarkets and what local veggie shops stock.  In fairness, the food miles clocked up for this quality produce is huge because I buy Chinese garlic.  Despite this, the sheer size and wonderful taste mean there’s no contest.  It’s the same with lemons, which again, are some of the poorest quality fruit on offer at supermarkets.  The insatiable urge to wipe out local independent stores by providing the widest range of produce possible, is not matched by well-sourced, high quality food.  This means that at some point in the near future, consumers will be left with no choice, but to buy all their  fresh fruit and vegetables from supermarkets because their choices locally have been reduced so much.  While some will be happy to part with their cash for bottom of the barrel produce, many will be disappointed unless they demand quality now.  I’m voting with my feet and supporting local suppliers.  It’s the only way to guarantee decent food!

Spaghetti with rocket, garlic, chilli and squid

150g dried spaghetti

4 squid

200g raw peeled king prawns

rocket leaves

1 red chilli

1 lemon

3 cloves garlic (finely chopped)

2 tblspoons fresh parsley (finely chopped)

olive oil

sea salt

pepper

Cook the spaghetti according to the instructions.  Meanwhile, prepare the seafood.  Cut the squid into thin rings and make sure that the beak has been removed by your fish monger.  Butterfly the king prawns by carefully running a sharp knife along the back of each one.  Grind plenty of pepper over the prawns and squid and set aside.

Next, heat some oil in a frying pan and add the chilli and garlic for a minute.  Throw in the seafood and toss to coat it all in the garlic.  Add the zest of the lemon and the juice of half of it.  The seafood needs to be cooked on a high heat for a short time to prevent it from becoming chewy.  Once cooked, add the parsley and make sure that everything is coated evenly.  You may need to add a little more oil at this point.  You don’t want it to be too dry.  Add the cooked spaghetti and fresh rocket leaves and season with sea salt and more pepper if you like it.  Make sure that the pasta and seafood are mixed well and add more lemon and oil to taste.  Serve immediately.  White wine’s a winner with this!

The simplicity of this dish is obvious. The flavours? Full on.