Ever since the advent of Atkins, low carb regimes and the ‘carbs will make you fat’ manifesto of the protein only brigade, poor old pasta has received a rather (and, quite frankly, undeserved) press. Bit of a shame, really, especially as we have come such a long way in Britain since the days of spaghetti hoops being the sole example of what many believed to be the only type of edible pasta in an era when anything foreign was perceived as, to quote my dear late granny, ‘foreign muck’.
Thankfully, pasta is neither a suspicious nor esoteric entity like it was many years ago and like many others, I absolutely love it. Pasta reminds me of being a kid with a bolognese covered face. It reminds me of Lady and the Tramp and reminds me never, ever to order spaghetti bolognese on a first date. It reminds me of being a student and of spending time in halls of residence kitchens concocting dubious combinations of pesto, pasta and whatever veg was lurking at the back of the fridge drawer. It reminds me of being so hungry that only an enormous, steaming hot plate of pasta will do. Preferably featuring bacon.
Of course when it is done badly, like most foods, pasta is bad. Like, really bad. Congealed, hard pasta does not a satisfying meal make. Just ask whoever is in charge of catering for economy class on British Airways. Never has a plate of pasta activated my gag reflex like British Airways pasta. I am still convinced that a vat of PVA glue mistakenly makes its way into the pasta on the Heathrow – Dubai flight. Sorry, Willie Walsh, but your economy pasta is crap.
When done well, however, pasta is a beautiful thing and it can’t be denied that we are utterly spoiled nowadays with such a variety in our supermarkets and delis. A personal favourite of mine is pappardelle whose thick, silky ribbons go so well with nutty, buttery chestnut mushrooms and parmesan. I also love penne and fusilli whose bite size pieces make them ideal on those occasions where one does not want a smattering of pasta sauce decorating one’s face in a public place.
Another favourite of mine is gnocchi. I had never had gnocchi until adulthood and it was most certainly not a staple in my student kitchen, nor was it something I ate when I first entered the real world and got a real job. In fact, the first time I ate gnocchi was around a couple of years ago, mainly because I saw Nigella cooking it on TV and its two minute cooking time seemed ideal when coming home from a job that, quite frankly, despite its perks, often leaves me feeling comatose. I was also attracted by the idea that you know it is ready when it floats up to the surface of the pan, bobbing contentedly. While I have watched many a Masterchef contestant make gnocchi, I have never attempted it myself, mainly because quite honestly, I’d rather spend time making a cake. In fact, I have never made fresh pasta and while I know I’d have a great time doing so in a cooking class, I know for sure that I would most likely never do it at home, especially on those days when even my best under eye concealer is failing to work its magic.
Here’s a quick gnocchi dish of mine that I made up one evening using what was in my fridge. This dish is so versatile you really can use whatever is in your veg drawer. This would also work with other types of pasta.
1 bag of gnocchi (approx 500g)
80g pancetta/bacon (omit if you are vegetarian and replace with mushrooms)
2 peppers, chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
A pinch of chilli flakes (leave out if you don’t like spice)
2 tsp dried oregano or Italian herbs
2 tins of chopped tomatoes
1 ball of mozzarella
Salt and pepper to taste
Caster sugar (optional)
Heat up a pan over a medium heat. Add the pancetta. Meanwhile, heat your oven to 180C.
Once it starts to cook and releases a little of its fat, add the peppers and the garlic. If you are using bacon with the fat trimmed off or not using bacon at all, add a little olive oil to the pan.
Add the chilli flakes and oregano/Italian herbs. Stir.
Add the tomatoes. Reduce the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. If the tomatoes taste bitter, add half a teaspoon of caster sugar. Leave the sauce to reduce. Don’t let it reduce too much as you don’t want the final dish to be dry. I left my pot of sauce for around 10 minutes on a fairly low heat.
Meanwhile, put the gnocchi on to boil. It is ready when it starts to float up to the surface.
Drain the gnocchi and add to the sauce. Stir. Put into a baking dish and tear over the ball of mozzarella. Leave in the oven until the mozzarella has melted to your liking. In my speedy oven, this took around 15 minutes.
As you can see from the photo, this dish is not overly pleasing on the aesthetic front. However, once you have that first mouthful of salty mozzarella, you’ll soon be reminded of that old adage “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”.