I’VE BEEN WRITING this column for a few years now, and occasionally people ask me how on earth I think of something to say each week. Thankfully, I can think of something to write each week – whether it’s any good is another matter entirely – but then again, when you’re writing about something you love working with and are fascinated by, then it’s a whole lot easier.
My third book is out this week and like the one before it, it is a collection of recipes that have come from these pages. Flicking through the book is like flicking through a family photo album of dishes I’ve served to friends and family over the years.
My best pals would argue that they’ve had to endure plenty of pizzas instead of dinners, and my husband and children regularly say the dinners they get at home never resemble anything like the photographs in the book. But I can usually drag their selective memories back to certain occasions: birthdays, farewells and welcome home dinners that beg to differ. And although they can never remember what they ate, I usually can, because I remember most things through the food I eat whilst celebrating with or consoling the people I cherish.
The recipes that appear on these pages are rarely aspirational, because I don’t think readers are looking for recipes they will never cook nor are that interested in eating. The best ones often stem from recipes from the vast number of new and old cook books I accumulate, that then get pared down, trimmed and tweaked to make them handier and I hope, tastier.
So, take the two recipes that appear on these pages. One is for something rich and unctuous, which requires a 24-hour head start. I cooked it, fed it to the family for two nights, then fleshed it out with some frozen peas and served it with mashed potatoes to squeeze a third night out of it. I marvelled at the depth of flavour that red wine and slow cooking bring to meat. But I know I’ll rarely cook it for anything other than a special Sunday night dinner, which I’ve remembered to kick start on Saturday, and knowing the way my mind works, unless there are Post-its plastered all over the house, I may never cook it again.
But I will think about it fondly and the fact that it came from The River Café Cookbook and therefore from two of the greatest women ambassadors for good food, Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray.
The other comes from an American book, Ancient Grains and is made with wholewheat spaghetti, which I try to eat instead of plain old pasta. My family hate it, but if there’s a good enough sauce on it, you can usually pretend it’s plain pasta. This sauce is very much store cupboard and was really delicious. The spaghetti also made a nice supper on day two.
So there you have it: two pasta dishes, one with a bit of work involved, but that rewards you with great flavours. Then other is healthier and speedy to make – therefore perfect for midweek – but also delicious. I hope that these pages remain a good source of useful recipes for you and yours to enjoy.
Penne with braised beef in red wine
500g beef chuck steak, diced
1 bottle Chianti wine
Salt and pepper
1 head celery
1 red onion, peeled and diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled an diced
Small bunch sage
2 sprigs rosemary
5 juniper berries
30g dried Porcini mushrooms, soaked in 500ml hot water
4 bay leaves
20g pine nuts
1 lemon zested
Marinate the beef in the red wine overnight. Drain the meat and retain the wine. Pat the meat dry. Heat up the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan and when it is good and hot, add the beef and sear it all over, keeping the heat up high and seasoning the meat very well. If you find the meat is stewing rather than colouring, remove it with a slotted spoon, let any liquid evaporate, add some more olive oil and get it to the point of smoking before putting the meat back in. You really need to get some colour going.
While this is happening, roughly chop the celery, onion and garlic and add them to the saucepan and mix well. Add the herbs and spices. Then add the mushrooms – which you can drain and roughly chop – and add three-quarters of the reserved wine that you marinated the beef in, and most of the mushroom-soaking water. It’s probably a good idea to strain the water as it can sometimes be a bit gritty.
Bring the meat up to a simmer and then put a lid on and gently simmer for at least three to four hours over a very low heat. Top up with any remaining water or wine to keep the sauce wet.
I think it’s best to let this cool down, settle and then mash it with a fork. Then add enough olive oil to give it a saucy unctuousness and re-heat gently.
Boil up the pasta, drain and toss with the beef sauce and pine nuts – which you can lightly toast if you remember to – and some lemon zest. Adjust the seasoning, top with Parmesan and serve.
Wholewheat spaghetti with olives, capers and herbs
250g Kalamata olives, pitted
Large bunch parsley
Large bunch mint
2 tbsp capers
2 cloves garlic, crushed
200ml olive oil
Salt and pepper
500g wholewheat spaghetti
Roughly chop the olives and herbs and mix together in a decent-sized bowl. Crush the capers with the back of knife and add them, along with the garlic. Whisk or stir in the olive oil and season really well. You could also add some lemon zest to this. Leave it at room temperature for the flavours to develop.
Boil up the pasta, drain well and then toss with the sauce. Serve warm rather than piping hot.