Canned tomatoes and a basic tomato sauce

Spaghetti with a basic tomato sauce

I have both everything and nothing to say about my basic tomato sauce. I could write for pages and still have more to say about how it epitomizes everything I love about rustic Italian cooking. It is warm, comforting, and transcends the sum of its most basic parts. At the same time it is beyond simple, the kind of sauce that can be made while the pasta cooks and is so straightforward that a recipe is hardly necessary.

There is really only one thing to remember: Use the best quality canned tomatoes. This doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive, by the way. On the contrary, the brand I buy ("D'oro") are the cheapest I've seen, and even cheaper when I buy them a slab at a time. If you don't already have a brand you're happy with, buy a can each of a few different brands and taste the difference. Tomatoes from Italy are a good place to start but this isn't a guarantee of quality. Mediocre canned tomatoes can be semi-disguised with heat and salt, but the best tomatoes will taste good straight from the can. Not quite 'eat by the spoonful' good (to my taste at least), but slightly sweet and free from any metallic or bitter tastes.

This recipe makes enough sauce for one serving of pasta (90g uncooked weight), but scales up very easily to make as much as you need.

Basic tomato sauce

Ingredients (serves 1):

  • 1 tbsp of finely diced onion (about 1/8 of a medium-sized onion)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely sliced
  • 1 tbsp of olive oil
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1/3 cup of good quality canned tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp of fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
  • 1 tbsp of fresh basil, chopped
  • Cracked pepper

1. Gently sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes over a low heat. They should begin to go translucent, and not colour.
2. Add the tomatoes, and turn the heat up to medium-high. Cook for 2 minutes or until the tomatoes begin to break down and thicken.
3. Add the fresh herbs, cracked pepper to taste, and cook for 1 minute. Although best eaten fresh, at this point the sauce can be refrigerated or frozen. To serve, add the almost al dente pasta and about 1/4 cup of pasta water and toss over heat until the sauce coats the pasta (about 1 minute). Top with grated parmesan and serve.

Basictomatosauce

Macaroni cheese, and footnotes

Macaroni cheese

My earliest memory of food is me sitting on the sofa while Mum was in the kitchen making her macaroni cheese. I say 'her' macaroni cheese because as far as I know it was no one else's. When I tell friends about it they look at me in disgust, as though I was describing a bolognese sauce made from ketchup and spam. Her macaroni cheese had shades of semi-homemade, this can't be denied, but between the ages of 5 and 14 it was my favourite thing to eat.

The recipe was simple: boiled macaroni, and kraft cheese spread. Had I understood as a kid how easy it was to make I would have used this to campaign for macaroni more often, but I doubt my body would have tolerated such a move. When asked how much I wanted I would say, "Make bulk!" I didn't know what 'bulk' meant but I knew it was what I wanted. Sitting at the dinner table I'd take one piece of macaroni at a time, eat the sauce first, then eat the piece of pasta. This drove my younger brother and sister crazy, who had to wait for me to finish before they could have seconds.

If you gave me a bowl of Mum's macaroni cheese today it would be gone in a second. I love it, but it's just not the same unless Mum makes it. These days I still eat macaroni cheese, but the kind that wouldn't cause Martha Stewart to punch me in the face. It's a typical pasta + mornay sauce recipe, where a mornay sauce is a béchamel sauce with cheese added.

Macaroni cheese

Ingredients (serves 2, or 1 if you're invulnerable to heart disease):

  • 90 g of macaroni
  • 1 tbsp of butter
  • 1 tbsp of flour
  • 3/4 cup of cold milk
  • 1.5 tsp of dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp hot english mustard
  • 110 g of cheddar, grated1
  • 1/4 cup of parmesan, grated finely

1. Cook the macaroni in lightly-salted water. When done, reserve 1/2 a cup of pasta water then drain and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, combine the butter and flour in a saucepan over a medium heat2. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring to avoid coloring or burning the mixture.
3. Add 1/4 cup of the milk and stir with a wooden spoon3 to incorporate. Once incorporated, add some more milk, stir to incorporate, then repeat until you've added all the milk. Stir in the mustards, then cook over a low heat for 5 minutes to get rid of any raw flour taste.
4. Add the cooked pasta and all but one handful of the cheddar, and stir to combine. If it's too thick and sticky, stir in some pasta water. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
5. Remove to a baking dish/oven-proof bowl and toss the remaining cheddar over the top. Sprinkle the grated parmesan over this and grill (aka broil) until the top is golden brown4.

The pasta water gospel, book 1

Gnocchi with tuna & lemon

Pasta water, amazing stuff. Used correctly it can boost the flavour and texture of your dish and improve the marriage of pasta and sauce. By now most people know that pasta water is a good thing, but I still wonder how many use it unless a recipe specifically tells them to. (For those unacquainted, pasta water is the water left in the pot after pasta is cooked, that is usually poured down the drain)

Getting the most out of pasta water:

  1. Salt your water well when it comes to the boil. It's a myth that salt stops pasta sticking and its effect on boiling point is negligible; rather the salt is, as always, for flavour. Some say "as salty as the sea", others have specific ratios. For me one medium-sized handful is enough — the water won't be unbearably salty to taste but you can tell it's salted. Remember this when you're making the sauce — your dish will get a boost of seasoning at the end from the evaporated pasta water.
  2. Catch excess water rather than reserving it. It's a hassle and more washing up to reserve a cup of pasta water. The easiest thing to do is to tip your pasta into a colander and immediately place the colander back on top of the pot. This method should catch enough water as the pasta drips.
  3. Finish the pasta in the sauce. I cook my pasta until almost al dente, then dump it with some pasta water into the sauté pan with the sauce (or a new pan with a portion of sauce if you cooked a lot of sauce). Cooking this over heat until the water has nearly all evaporated will finish the pasta and help bring pasta and sauce together. The italian word for this is pastasaucefinishtogethero.
  4. Shake your pan to emulsify the last bit of pasta water with the oil of the sauce. This will ensure that your pasta is neither too oily or watery.
  5. Don't obsess over amounts; if it tastes good do it. This isn't baking, taste as you cook and add as much as you think you need. Pasta water does have salt so err on the side of adding too little at first. You can always add more later.

In this dish an emulsion of pasta water, olive oil, and lemon juice coats the pasta and makes the recipe a great one to practice with (it also tastes really good).

Gnocchi with tuna & lemon

Ingredients (makes 1 main course serving):

  • 90 g of gnocchi1
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil plus more for drizzling
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 60 g of can of good quality tuna (about 1/3 a 185 g can)
  • 1/4 cup of loosely-packed flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp of lemon zest
  • 2 tsp of lemon juice
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese

1. Cook the pasta until almost al dente in well-salted water.
2. Meanwhile, slowly sauté the garlic for 5 minutes until it softens. Turn up the heat, add the tuna and parsley and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lemon zest and juice and turn off the heat.
3. Once the pasta is ready, drain it reserving 1/2 a cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan with 1/4 cup of the saved water and a generous helping of pepper. Toss over high heat until the pasta water has almost evaporated, tasting for seasoning.
4. If the pasta is tasting too acidic, drizzle some more olive oil and toss to emulsify the oil. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

(1) This isn't gnocchi as in potato dumplings, it's a type of dried wheat pasta. It's a larger version of the more common gnocchetti. Use whatever shape you have on hand.

Gateway pork: Chinese pulled pork belly

Pulled pork belly fried rice

I'd never get a job in a Chinese restaurant. Sure, I think I'd be a skilled and dedicated employee. I'd work well in a team but have the initiative to work independently, I'd be goal-oriented, and many other job interview clichés would also apply to me. But my biggest weakness wouldn't be perfectionism. No, it would be licking every surface that has come into contact with char siu pork. Fingers, knives, it doesn't matter. That sticky glaze is a drug.

There are plenty of good recipes around for char siu pork, most of them calling for pork shoulder, loin, or even neck. While all I had was pork belly which requires long, slow cooking, I wasn't about to go without the sweet, aromatic flavour of char siu. So like a crack pipe fashioned out of a used spark plug, I improvised this recipe for chinese pulled pork belly. You could eat this simply with rice, stuffed inside a pork bun, or as I had it above in fried rice.

Chinese pulled pork belly

Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup of chopped spring onion
  • 1/4 cup of hoisin sauce
  • 1 tbsp of shaoxing cooking wine
  • 2 tbsp of honey
  • 1.5 tsp of chinese 5 spice powder
  • 2 tsp of rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp of peanut oil
  • 2 tbsp of water
  • 800 gram piece of pork belly, skin removed

1. To make the marinade stir together all of the ingredients except the pork belly.
2. Pierce the pork belly all over with a metal skewer or the end of a sharp knife. Rub the marinade over the pork and leave in the fridge overnight.
3. Preheat the oven to 140ºC/285ºF. Cook the pork belly with all of its marinade, covered, for 3-4 hours or until completely tender. If the marinade pooling in the baking dish looks like it's over-reduced and is going to burn, add a few more tablespoons of water.
4. Remove from the oven, and pull the meat apart in the baking dish with two forks. Stir to coat the meat in cooked marinade and return to the oven. Uncover, turn the heat up to 200ºC/395ºF and cook for around 15 minutes to start deeply caramelising the edges (watch it doesn't burn).