The combination of pasta and tomato sauce is one of my favourite things, and I make it a lot. I probably make Felicity Cloake’s “perfect” sauce the most but not every time. Another favourite is the one I told you about here.
Whenever we eat this I’m transported back to when my boys were young. I would make it for them at least once a week; clean plates were guaranteed. Of course one could easily pick up a tub of sauce from the supermarket, and sometimes on busy days I would do this, but in truth it doesn’t take long to prepare your own. I’d like to think that’s what Italians would do. In fact I happened to be chatting on the phone to an Italian friend when making tomato sauce yesterday, and he gave me a few tips. You see I had bought some fresh San Marzano plum tomatoes in my local Waitrose and wanted to make my sauce with these instead of the usual tinned tomatoes. I’m sure in Italy this sauce is made with fresh tomatoes a lot of the time, but until relatively recently we couldn’t even buy fresh plum tomatoes here so we all use tinned. I knew the San Marzano was considered to be a superior tomato and a quick Google search revealed that it’s also sweeter and less acidic than other plum tomatoes. I normally add a little sugar when cooking tomatoes but didn’t in this case: they were sweet enough.
My friend Antonio said there was no need even to cook them: I could just chop them up, add a little olive oil, basil and seasoning, and add them to hot pasta. I will do that next time but I had already chopped an onion which was softening in some olive oil in the simmering oven. His next tip was to slightly undercook the spaghetti, drain it and then finishing cooking it in the sauce. He also said to add some grated parmesan at the same time as adding the pasta. I will describe everything I did below.
Fresh Tomato Sauce
700g fresh San Marzano plum tomatoes, chopped (no need to peel)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 fat clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
About three basil stalks, chopped
Salt and pepper
A handful of basil leaves
Grated parmesan, to taste
Add the olive oil and chopped onion to a sauté pan or wide saucepan and heat gently on the simmering plate
Cover and place in the simmering oven until the onion is soft
Add the basil stalks and garlic and cook for a minute on the simmering plate before stirring in the tomatoes, red wine vinegar and some salt and pepper
Place the pan in the simmering oven for about an hour but it could well be ready before that and will not come to any harm if you leave it for longer than that. I covered my pan for part of the time but am not sure it makes much difference
Meanwhile cook your spaghetti according to packet instructions but for 1 or 2 minutes less than prescribed
Drain and add it immediately, with some of the cooking water still clinging to it, to your sauce
Add some grated parmesan to the pan
Toss it all together for a couple of minutes with the pan on the simmering plate; the pasta will absorb a little of the sauce and finishing cooking
To serve, add the basil leaves, shredded if large, and have some more grated Parmesan on the table for whoever wants it
Rocket dressed with extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper is the perfect accompaniment, as is this bottle of Valpolicella.
For me Christmas is not the time for trying out new recipes so our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day meals don’t change much from year to year. When I was growing up (in England) with my Norwegian mother and English father we celebrated Christmas the Norwegian way on Christmas Eve and the English way on Christmas Day. This meant my brother and I could open our presents on Christmas Eve and our friends were rather jealous. The evening would begin with dinner and then we’d sit round the Christmas tree for the present opening. I’ve never opened presents on Christmas Day so I don’t know what it’s like but I can tell you there is something magical about doing it by candlelight when it’s dark outside.
When I married my husband I was fully expecting to leave the Norwegian Christmas Eve behind but he loved this way of doing it with all the cosiness and candles and insisted we kept the tradition going. I’m so glad we did because our children have always loved it, partly because it makes their Christmas a little bit different from their friends’.
Christmas Eve: Herrings
Our Christmas Eve meal always starts with Norwegian pickled herrings. We buy them from the Christmas Bazaar held every November in the The Norwegian Seamen’s Church in Rotherhithe, London. When she was younger, my mother used to spend a couple of days with friends in London helping to prepare these for sale at the bazaar. She doesn’t do that anymore so my sons have accepted the mission of going along on the Saturday of the bazaar and purchasing a few jars of this most delicious food. I haven’t managed to join them yet but intend to go along one year, if only for the waffles, cake and coffee on offer inside the church! We eat the herrings on rye bread accompanied by ice cold Linie Aquavit straight from the freezer and cold lager. So delicious.
Our Norwegian Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve: Spiced Pork Belly
There is more than one traditional Christmas Eve meal in Norway. On the West coast they have cod cooked in a special way. It is bought very fresh, cut into steaks, put in salted water overnight to tighten the flesh and then poached. It is served with melted butter and lots of chopped parsley and plain boiled carrots and potatoes. Perhaps surprisingly, Norwegians always drink red wine and not white with this dish. My mother’s family always had reindeer for their Christmas Eve meal but spiced pork belly, popular as a Christmas dish on the south coast of Norway where my grandfather was from, would also form part of their festive fare. We have made pork belly our traditional Hardy family Christmas Eve dish. I make it according to my grandmother’s recipe, passed to me by my mother, who has given me permission to share it with you here.
You will need:
Pork belly (you decide how much, depending on how many people you are feeding, but remember, it tastes just as good cold so any leftovers will not go to waste) with the skin removed (I get my butcher to do this) but the fat – very important this – left on
Ground ginger, salt, mustard powder and white pepper. I’m not giving you quantities except to say: be generous
The day before you want to serve the belly score the layer of fat with a sharp knife and rub lots of white pepper, ground ginger, mustard powder and salt into it on both sides and wrap it in clingfilm
Place it in the fridge fat side down for at least 24 hours
On Christmas Eve in the morning take the belly out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature
Sprinkle on some more salt
Choose a roasting tin (I always use the large Aga roasting tin because I tend to cook a whole belly), remove the clingfilm and place the meat in the tin, fat side down
Add about a cupful of water and cover with foil
Hang the tin on the second or third set of runners of the roasting oven, taking care that the foil doesn’t tear as you slide it in
After twenty minutes take it out, remove the foil, turn the pork over and add a little more water if it looks dry
Slide the tin onto the floor of the simmering oven and leave it there for the rest of the day, checking the water level every now and then. It will be cooked and delicious after five hours but even better and falling off the bone after eight or nine
I serve it with spiced red cabbage and roast potatoes, having made a divinely spicy and gingery gravy by adding some wine and sour cream to the meat juices.
Baked pasta is comfort food and this particular baked pasta dish is more comforting than most. It is no less delicious and perfectly flavoured than I would expect from Simon Hopkinson. I found the recipe on the BBC website. I seem to remember watching him make it in his TV series, “The Good Cook”, a few years ago. I never got around to buying the accompanying book of the same name but am seriously considering doing so now.
This is so simple to make; simple recipes often are the best. I never thought I’d be regularly cooking recipes for only two people but the truth is it’s often just my husband and I at the kitchen table these days, and if my elderly mother-in-law isn’t up to cooking, there’s always enough to take a small portion of whatever we’re having downstairs to her. Don’t look at the quantity of pasta and worry that it’s not enough; I promise you it is. This is a filling dish. It’s also good for you: I recently read that mushrooms, especially porcini, are the best food source of two anti-ageing antioxidants. So that’s a bonus.
Bring the milk up to simmering point in a pan on the simmering plate
Add the porcini mushrooms and remove from the heat
After 10 minutes or so drain the milk through a sieve into a bowl, pressing out as much liquid from the mushrooms as you can
Melt the butter in a clean saucepan on the simmering plate. Add the flour and stir for a couple of minutes with a wooden spoon until you have a smooth roux
Pour in the porcini flavoured milk in one go and whisk vigorously until smooth and starting to thicken. Season, cover and place in the simmering oven for at least 10 minutes (can be longer: as ever where the simmering oven is concerned, it will come to no harm) while you cook the pappardelle according to the packet instructions until it’s al dente. (I bring a large pan of water to a boil on the boiling plate and add salt before adding the pasta.)
Drain the pasta and then in a large bowl mix it with the porcini, pancetta and sauce. Tip this into a lightly buttered oven-proof dish and sprinkle over the parmesan
Place in the middle of the Aga roasting oven for about 25 minutes until it’s bubbling and golden brown
Serve with a green salad and you might want some extra cheese too
I make meatballs fairly regularly: Italian ones with garlic and herbs in tomato sauce, Thai ones with ginger, chilli and lime in a broth and Scandinavian ones with nutmeg and white pepper in a sour cream sauce. These are just the basics; there are so many variations, I feel I could spend my life making delicious meatballs without serving the same ones twice. And I haven’t even mentioned the accompaniments: pasta, noodles, potatoes or bread? I feel a whole series of blog posts coming on.
When a recipe I spotted recently promised to give me Italian-style meatballs like they make in New York, I couldn’t wait to try them. The meatballs proposed by chef Stephen Harris in the Telegraph are, as he says, quick to make and to cook. While they are not the best I’ve made, they’re pretty good and do conjure up that New York/Italian vibe.
For 2 people
500g beef mince
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves (optional)
1 ½ tbsp olive oil and some for drizzling
100g baby spinach
1 x 400g tin tomatoes
About 30g parmesan and a squeeze of lemon
In a bowl mix the mince with about 5 pinches of salt and the thyme leaves if using
Roll the mince between your palms into 10 x 50g balls
Heat half a tablespoon of oil in a large frying pan and gently fry the meatballs, turning them until they’re brown all over. They will not yet be cooked through to the middle
Remove the balls to a plate and heat another half tablespoon of oil in the pan and add the spinach leaves, cooking them until wilted
Add the tomatoes, bring to the boil and stir in a little more salt
Add the meatballs, turn down to a simmer and cook. If you’re using an Aga, you don’t need to cover them: just place the pan in the simmering oven for about half an hour or longer if you need to. If using a conventional hob, loosely cover the tin (with a lid or some scrunched up foil) and simmer for about 10 minutes
Drizzle with a little olive oil, add a squeeze of lemon and serve with grilled ciabatta (see below) and a rocket salad
Split half a ciabatta lengthways
Take a ridged griddle pan if you have one (or a regular frying pan if you don’t) and pre-heat it in the roasting oven
Place it on the boiling plate and add your ciabatta slices and toast on both sides
Rub the pieces of ciabatta with the cut sides of two halved cloves of garlic and drizzle over some olive oil
If I was making these again, I’d add breadcrumbs soaked for half an hour in milk to the meat mixture. I find this makes the meatball texture softer and less rubbery. But that’s for another day. In the meantime, these will do fine.