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.
As I mentioned in my last post, during January we are going to avoid meat during the week while continuing to enjoy it on Sundays. I had bought duck legs in the run-up to Christmas, thinking I would make duck confit. However, all the other Christmas preparation got in the way and I didn’t get round to it so I put them in my freezer.
Confit is usually the leg of a bird that is naturally fatty such as goose, duck, or even pork (pigs do fly in this house), that has been salted, seasoned, cooked and finally preserved in its own fat.
I read recently that you don’t have to make duck confit weeks in advance: it will taste delicious if made the day before you plan to eat it. With this in mind I defrosted six duck legs on Friday, salted them overnight, prepared them on Saturday and we ate four of them for Sunday lunch yesterday. The remaining two will reside in my fridge for a few weeks.
This wasn’t the first time I’d made confit but it had been a while so I read two or three recipes before starting. This is what I did:
- 6 duck legs (mine were Gressingham)
- 90g Maldon sea salt
- About 1kg (I used 3 x 320g jars) of duck fat; you could also use goose fat
- 6 garlic cloves, bruised but not peeled
- 12 peppercorns, crushed
- 6 juniper berries, crushed
- A few sprigs of thyme
- 3 bay leaves, each cut in half
- red wine
- plum jam
- granulated sugar
- red wine vinegar
- Once the duck lugs had thawed on Friday I laid them in a dish in one layer and rubbed the salt into them. I covered the dish with clingfilm and placed it in the fridge overnight
- On Saturday I spooned the duck fat into my large Aga roasting tin and placed it on the floor of the roasting oven for 5 minutes to heat the fat
- Meanwhile I washed the duck legs thoroughly (this is important: you don’t want them to taste too salty) under cold running water
- I then placed them in the duck fat with the garlic, juniper, peppercorns, thyme and bay leaves, covered the tin with foil and placed it on the floor of the simmering oven for 3 ½ hours (I’m sure I could have left them for longer); you’re aiming for tender meat so that when a skewer is inserted into the flesh it finds little resistance
- I removed the tin from the oven and let it cool down for half an hour before lifting out four of the legs and placing them in a dish while placing the remaining two in a plastic container which had a lid
- I strained the cooled duck fat over the legs in both containers. When everything was cold I fitted the lid to the plastic container and covered the dish and placed both in the fridge
- On Sunday morning, about an hour before I wanted to cook the duck legs, I took the dish with the four legs out of the fridge and then an hour later I scraped the fat off each leg and placed them on the large Aga baking tray, lined with bake-o-glide of course
- I roasted the legs near the top of the roasting oven for 25 minutes. While they were cooking I made a sauce which involved simply bringing to the boil on the simmering plate some red wine, plum jam, granulated sugar and red wine vinegar and letting it simmer in the simmering oven for 20 minutes or so
I served our duck confit with the plum sauce, boulangère potatoes, red cabbage and broccoli. It was complemented by a superb glass from a bottle of the Italian wine Settebraccia. It comes from the Salento region of Italy and had been given as a gift to my husband. In future I will be more organised and prepare my confit a few weeks before Christmas so that I know I have at least one meal sorted for this busy season.
Before she became a TV celebrity Mary Berry was known as an Aga cook who ran courses on how to get the most out of your Aga as well as for writing The Aga Book which I believe is still given to every new Aga owner when their new oven is installed. My mother-in-law, who has owned a few Agas in her time, learned how to make this stew on one of Mary Berry’s courses and wrote it out for me many years ago because she thought it was so simple yet so delicious. I never got round to making it then but when I found a jar of sun-dried tomatoes which needed using up in my fridge recently, the recipe sprang to mind and I dug it out.
You can make this the day before, refrigerate it overnight and reheat it gently in the simmering oven the next day. I have never worked out why but casseroles are often better when made a day ahead.
The quantities of wine and stock given here are approximate because, as we Aga cooks know, you tend to need less liquid in an Aga. I start with the wine and stop pouring when the meat is almost but not completely covered. You can always add stock later on if you think it needs it.
Beef and Sun-Dried Tomato Stew
(Serves 4 generously)
- 800g braising beef, cubed
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tbsp flour
- Approx. 250ml red wine
- (Approx. 250ml beef stock: see above)
- 10-12 sun-dried tomatoes, halved
- 10g dried mushrooms (I used porcini)
- 1 red or yellow pepper, deseeded and sliced
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 tbsp apricot jam
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- First you need to brown the meat. To avoid splashing oil everywhere you can do this in the roasting oven, as I did when I made boeuf bourgignon
- Spread the beef out on your large baking tray, lined with bake-o-glide if you like, drizzle it with olive oil and season
- Slide the tray onto the first runner and leave it there for 5 minutes before moving it to the floor of the oven for a further 5 minutes, by which time your beef should be browned
- (You can of course brown your meat in batches in olive oil in the casserole on the boiling plate or on the floor of the roasting oven)
- Meanwhile in a large casserole gently fry your onion and pepper slices in a tablespoon or two of olive oil (if your sun-dried tomatoes come from a jar you can use some of the oil from that), starting it off on the simmering plate before covering it and putting it in the simmering oven
- Pour 100ml of hot water onto the mushrooms and put them to one side for 15 minutes
- When the onions and peppers are soft place the casserole on the boiling plate, stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and then add the beef and stir the flour into it
- Add the red wine and, if required, the stock and bring to the boil
- Stir in the tomato purée, mushrooms with their soaking water and apricot jam
- Cover and place in the simmering oven for a minimum of three hours until the beef is tender. Add seasoning to taste
This is delicious with mashed potato but I think I prefer it with rice. Serve with a green vegetable too.
Following on from my boeuf bourgignon post, here’s another classic recipe. Coq au Vin is in fact just boeuf bourgignon but with chicken. Discuss. Seriously, sometimes I wonder why we keep looking for new ideas when the classic, tried and tested recipes are so good; I mean, there’s a reason they’ve been around for so long. It has not escaped my notice, by the way, that the two I mention here are French.
If you Google “Coq au Vin” you will find many different ways of making it but the ingredients don’t vary much. I based mine on Delia’s recipe. Good old Delia: she provides clear instructions and retains all the essential elements without sacrificing flavour. And because we are Aga cooks, we can be relaxed about the cooking time and leave our dish bubbling gently in the simmering oven for longer than the 40 minutes – 1 hour most recipes recommend. Chatting about this in my “I love my Aga” Facebook group, there was discussion about how to thicken the sauce. You could dust the chicken pieces with flour first, but I rather like the method I give here which is to whisk in a butter and flour paste at the end.
I don’t know if anyone uses the cock bird to make this dish anymore. In fact, I don’t know if it would be possible to get hold of one. A chicken, jointed into 8 pieces has become traditional here and I confess that when I made this recently, I just used good quality chicken thighs I bought from Waitrose.
Coq au Vin
- A 2kg chicken jointed into 8 pieces or 8 good quality, large chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
- Salt and pepper
- Butter and olive oil
- 225g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
- Button onions or shallots, 2-3 per person, peeled and left whole
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- Approx. 500ml red wine
- 225g mushrooms, sliced thickly
- A butter and flour paste (beurre manié) made by mashing 1tbsp soft butter with 1tbsp plain flour
- A handful of chopped, fresh parsley
- Season the chicken pieces
- Melt the butter with the oil in a frying pan on the simmering plate and add the chicken pieces, skin side down. Transfer to the floor of the roasting oven for 5-10 minutes to brown
- Take it out, turn the chicken pieces over and return to the roasting oven floor for a further 5 minutes or so
- Remove the chicken and put it in a casserole that has a lid
- Add the onions and bacon to the frying pan making sure they’re coated in the fat and fry until coloured (on the roasting oven floor again)
- Tip the onions and bacon into the casserole and add the garlic, thyme, bay and red wine, which should not cover the chicken completely
- Bring this to simmering point on the boiling plate and then put the lid on the casserole and place it in the simmering oven for two to three hours, turning the chicken pieces over halfway through. If you want it to cook more quickly, I reckon you could put it in the baking oven or maybe even the roasting oven, but I did not try this so I can’t vouch for it
- About 30 minutes before you want to eat, add the mushrooms
- Remove the chicken, bacon, onions and mushrooms and keep them warm
- Place the casserole on the simmering plate and when the wine is bubbling, whisk in the beurre manié and let it simmer until the sauce is thick and glossy. Taste for seasoning
- Return everything to the sauce, sprinkle over the parsley and serve
Inspired by the success of the lamb ragù in my last post, I decided to try out the “not browning the meat” method once again and made an old favourite: boeuf bourguignon. It was a success, so I thought I’d give you the recipe I used for this classic dish. I adapted it from Delia’s in her Complete Cookery Course. It’s also available online here. I’m probably breaking the rules here but if you don’t have any Burgundy, it would not be a disaster if you use whatever red wine you do happen to have in your kitchen.
Serves 6 generously
- 1kg braising steak (I used chuck), cubed
- Olive oil
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 heaped tbsp plain flour
- 400ml approx red Burgundy
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme, or ½ tsp dried thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Approx 12 small onions or shallots, peeled and left whole
- 225g streaky bacon, smoked or green, ideally bought in a piece and then cubed but don’t worry if you only have rashers: just chop them up
- 120g mushrooms, sliced, or small button ones left whole
- Spread the beef out on a large baking sheet which fits on the Aga runners and drizzle with olive oil
- Place the tray on the top runner of the roasting oven for 10-15 minutes to brown the beef
- Meanwhile in a large casserole, sweat the onion in a tablespoon or two of olive oil in the simmering oven until soft and translucent
- Place the casserole on the simmering plate and add the beef to it. Stir in flour to soak up the juices, then gradually pour in the wine until it barely covers the beef, stirring all the time. Don’t use all the wine if you don’t have to; remember that you tend to need less liquid when cooking in an Aga
- Add the crushed garlic, thyme and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper
- Put the lid on and place in the simmering oven for 3 hours or more
- In a frying pan on the simmering plate fry the onions and bacon in a little olive oil until coloured
- Add them to the casserole together with the mushrooms
- Put the lid back on and return to the simmering oven for at least an hour, but longer would not do any harm at all
- Sprinkle with some chopped fresh parsley to serve
Boulangère or dauphinoise potatoes go well with this and so does rice. A green salad and/or green beans are also good accompaniments. As with most casseroles, this one is better on the second day so it’s worth making the day before you want to eat it. I’d maybe not add the mushrooms until reheating it on the second day