Bloke in the Kitchen. An Italian Job

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Not the Italian Job, you see. Just one of them. You could call it Bolognese if you like. Spaghetti Bolognese is probably still the standard pasta dish, known all over the world and made in private homes because it is so simple.

bolognese
Now just don’t get it all down your shirt and spoil the impression

Mince, tomatoes and herbs, that’s about it. You can add your individual twist if you like. You know nothing is set in stone around here.

As an observant person, you will notice that this starts off like loads of other recipes: fry some onions and garlic, add some meat.

COWBOY QUESTION

Q. Why always the onions?
A. Because they produce a ‘savoury’ flavor that gives lots of dishes a head start but doesn’t overpower everything.

So without further ado, let’s make what could be called a ‘generic’ Italian meal – in other words everyone knows it’s Italian, but you can’t pin it down to a town or even a region, let alone a particular woman who looks like Sophia Loren and has been giving this to her family since she was married at the age of 18.

But if that mental image helps, so be it. Signora Bolognese is beautiful, sexy, warm and kind. She cooks this dish and then, when the kids are in bed, she and her husband make love with an intensity and passion undimmed by the passing of the years.

Loren
What time’s dinner? Yes, I suppose there’s no rush…

INGREDIENTS

Minced beef

Onions

Garlic

A carrot

A small stick of celery

Dried Oregano

Dried Basil,

Dry wine (white, rosé or red)

Spaghetti (or penne, rigatoni, farfalle, macaroni, etc.)

My late older brother was very conservative with his food, and the only vegetable he would eat was peas. He was suspicious when I made an Italian Job for him and his family because he didn’t know what I was slipping in as I carried out my sorcery, unseen in the kitchen. And he was right to think that, because if there is a green, red or yellow pepper that needs eating, a courgette or some other vegetable asking to be chopped up small and thrown in, or a bottle of beer that just happens to be open and I need some more liquid, any or all of those could find their way into the dish.

METHOD

In addition to the onions and garlic for the basic ‘savoury’ taste, chop up a small carrot and a little celery. Chop them very small and put them in to soften with the onions.

Put in the mince and fry it fairly quickly until it is just cooked, breaking it up as you go. Sprinkle your herbs (basil and oregano) onto the mince, along with some celery salt and black pepper, so they get into the meat, not just the sauce.

Splosh in some wine. The colour doesn’t matter, as long as it is dry, but white is generally a lighter flavour and some Italian reds can be very thick and bold. If you’re not sure, taste some.

SERIOUS TIP

Use decent wine. Not expensive, but tolerable. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it. If it’s corked or has been open for days and is sour, that will come through in the dish. As this is Italian, you might go for a Pinot Grigio, Frascati or Soave. We’ll have a good look at wine in a week or two.

While the wine is releasing the tasty stuff from the pan, stir it with a wooden spoon to help it along, then tip in a can of tomatoes.

SENSIBLE TIP

Nowadays canned tomato producers ‘helpfully’ add herbs and spices before the stuff is packed, so make sure it’s a can of plain, unadulterated tomatoes and you’re not accidentally adding chilli or something to your Italian Job – unless you want to, that is.

Now, TASTE IT. Nice? Need something extra? Stock cube, even? It shouldn’t, but if you’re using cheap ingredients it might need some help. Add, taste, add, taste until you’re happy. Then let it simmer gently with the lid off for as long as you’ve got – 15 minutes if all you’re going to do is cook the pasta and eat, but ideally an hour or more.

bolognese 2
More tomatoey then the one above, and it doesn’t feature actual spaghetti, but it’s the same sort of thing

THE PASTA

Use a bigger pan than you might think you need. Loads of water and room to move, so it doesn’t stick (particularly spaghetti). Add a pinch of salt. Cook it according to the instructions on the packet or just check it after five minutes or so.

Unlike rice and potatoes, you need to get the water boiling before you put the stuff in.

The pasta needs to be not hard but not squidgy. Al dente, they call it. So you can bite through it easily but you can feel it happening.

Drain the pasta well in a colander. Shake it. Get the water out. If there’s still water in it when you serve, it will dilute your wonderful sauce.

To serve, most people put the pasta on the plate and a neat dollop of the sauce on top. Very pretty. But if you want to get the basically tasteless pasta coated in delicious sauce, mix it up before you serve it. Then if you like you can tart it up on the plate with a sprig of parsley or a curly ring of sweet pepper (cut the bottom off a pepper and then take a thin  slice across what’s left.)

And don’t forget the Parmesan.

COWBOY QUESTION

Q. Why do we sprinkle parmesan cheese on pasta dishes?
A. Cheese contains protein, so that might be a nutritional bonus, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. Parmesan is salty, so it lifts the flavor without the frowned-upon adding of actual salt.

Bloke in the Kitchen. All-in-one tuna pasta salad

kitchen

Taking the mystery and fear out of cooking

Another absurdly easy meal to prepare. It doesn’t require any actual ‘cooking’ apart from boiling some pasta.

It is low in calories and full of goodness.

If you have kids to feed, you may even be able to get them to eat this. It has been known for me to be asked for seconds. Don’t bank on that, but it’s a possibility.

Ingredients (for two people)

Pasta (penne, fusilli, farfalle etc).

Lettuce (Romaine, Little Gem, whatever)

Can of tuna in oil

Capers

One fresh lime or lemon

Extra virgin olive oil

 

Method

Logical tip

Do the pasta in advance. It will take 20 minutes or so to cook and then it has to cool. Keep soaking it in cold water and straining until it’s close to fridge temperature. When it has lost the heat, drain it well and mix it up with a little olive oil to stop it sticking together.

So: cook the pasta. Drain, cool and place in salad bowl.

lettuce

Rinse and drain the lettuce, just in case. Lettuce plants grow close to the ground, and although it is unlikely that you will find a slug, snail or valuable Roman coin in there, nobody likes crunching pieces of grit.

Chop (or tear apart) the lettuce and add to the bowl

Add the tuna (with its oil)

Sprinkle in a tablespoon of capers

Squeeze the lime or lemon over everything

Pour on a little olive oil

Mix with your hands

Add black pepper and salt to taste (it won’t need much)

Note: there is no need to mix the oil and citrus juice first.

Drink the rest of the glass of wine that you have already started.

pasta salad
This is the general idea, but you will have more of the green stuff. And you will probably be serving it on plates rather than in cute glass bowls.

 

Flexibility

You could use iceberg lettuce (bland as hell but easy to work with and it does keep better than most). Or if the lettuce in the shop is all rubbish, maybe you can find some nice spinach leaves.

The capers are like little grenades of flavor. You could add black olives, chopped sweet peppers, anything like that, but no onions: that would change it completely.

Lazy git tip

A bag of salad leaves will save you the trouble of tearing a lettuce apart, so if you’re into making Formula 1-like time savings, you could reduce the preparation time by 0.004 seconds in this way.