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Recipe: Courgette and Truffle Carbonara

Courgette & Truffle Carbonara

I have a really bad habit of going food shopping on a whim and being charmed by the glistening ingredients which I can’t resist. I pop them in my trolley gleefully, only to review when I go home and wonder, so how does all of this fit together, and when exactly amd I going to get time to eat it all? Eating it all is never really a worry, although it has worrying effects of late. It does prompt some creative cooking, driven by what I am in the mood for, and what I have nabbed en route home.

I was faced with one such dilemna last night. All I knew is that I wanted to eat something rich, comforting and light, and it had to contain some pasta. Not just any pasta, I was eyeing up my box of Pastificio dei Campi linguine, the grand cru pasta (as declared in Italian food magazine Gambero Rosso) from Gragnano which I have been covetting. I never need an excuse to eat pasta, I love the stuff and frankly am in awe of anyone that can cut out carbs. I just don’t know why you would do that to yourself. However,if you need one, and you just might, good pasta like this cooked al dente is low GI my friends. Eat your fill.

Gragnano is to pasta what Parma is to ham. A town dedicated to artisan pasta making using traditional techniques. The Pastificio dei Campi pasta is finished by hand and gently passed through bronze dies before being slow dried at low temperatures creating pasta with superior flavour and texture, unlike anything you get at your local supermarket. This really is top of the range stuff.

The bronze die lends it a rough outer texture which allows it to grip the sauce eagerly. Interestingly in this age where so many cultures are disconnected from the origins of their food, every box of pasta can be traced back to the day that batch of wheat was sown, the field it was grown in and when it was harvested, directly linking the sourcing of the best limited supply grain back to the farmers. A human connection and real food. Regular readers will know me well enough to realise that quality and sourcing drives my cooking, so it won’t surprise you that this is my primary source of pasta now.

Back to dinner. It was late and I was hungry. I wanted something creamy and rich but not too intense. It is summer after all. My eyes fell upon the new season courgettes, medium sized and shiny, my favourite blue Old Cotswold Legbar eggs with their large golden yolks, some rich aged Grana Padano cheese and some luscious bulbs of garlic. The cupboard yielded some Tetsuya’s Black Truffle Salsa. I knew what I was going to have. A truffle and courgette carbonara.

Odd combination? Perhaps. Although courgette goes very well with rich hard cheeses like Grana Padano, and courgettes love eggs. Truffles love eggs even more, and we all love pasta. Courgettes would ease and comfort the intensity of the truffle, adding a sweetness and some moisture and texture. Like those couples you see with one noisy one and one nice calm one.  You know what I mean, it just works, doesn’t it?

Before I go further, carbonara needs no cream. Just egg yolks and cheese. A lick of garlic on the pan, you can finely chop it, or just cut it in half and fry it briefly to flavour some oil. Egg yolks are so rich and intense and a perfect sauce for the linguine.

Notes on ingredients: you can get the Tetsuya’s Black Truffle Salsa at Harvey Nichols in London, or substitute with grated fresh truffle or some jarred black truffle from the supermarket. Some truffle oil would lend some flavour too. The Pasificio dei Campi linguine is available from Food in the City online UK and internationally, or at Harvey Nichols.

Note on the photograph: the linguine shown in the photo isn’t quite al dente as I gobbled mine up, and photographed a cold portion after, whih had continued to cook as it cooled down. I didn’t waste it though – don’t fear. It makes a tasty leftover dish when fried.

Courgette & Truffle Carbonara

Serves 2

Ingredients:

200g linguine
2 egg yolks
2tbsp Grana Padano (or parmesan)
1 fat clove of garlic cut in half
1 heaped tsp Tetsuya’s Black Truffle Salsa
3 medium courgettes, quatrered lengthways and sliced finely
grated Grana Padano to serve
S&P
Olive oil

Method:

The pasta should take 10 minutes so get that on first.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over a moderate heat and add the cove of garlic until starting to brown, discard. You’ve got the garlic flavour now and that’s all you need.
Add the courgettes and cook over a gentle heat for 5/6 minutes until tender.
Place the egg yolks in a large bowl and stir in the cheese. Season with S&P.
When the pasta is almost dente, add the truffle to to the courgette and stir through.
Drain the pasta and add to the truffle/courgette mixture.
Add the pasta mixture to the bowl of eggs and stir quickly preserving the creamyness of the egg yolks and cheese and not allowing it to scramble (really, it never does as long as you’re quick).
Taste & season. Add some more Grana Padano to taste.

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In the kitchen at L’Anima with Francesco Mazzei: Linguine Vongole

Vongole at L'Anima

I was very excited, and also a little hot and bothered. I had to be in Liverpool St at 5pm, but I didn’t finish work until 5.30pm, and I work an hour away. Eish! What to do?! Thankfully, Francesco and his team were patient and flexible, and unfazed when I burst through the door, earlier than I thought possible, but later than arranged, red and frizzy and ready for vongole.

Vongole? What’s that? It’s one of the best Italian culinary offerings, and when nestled with linguine, a real treat. Fresh and lively, salty and sweet, fruity and toothsome, you can’t beat it.

I’ve cooked this at home, but not for a while. It’s one of those things that has to be done right, great vongole from an even better fishmonger, great pasta and some time. That’s all. Like anything else, there are ways to do it to do it and to do it right you need to adhere to the rules, but really it’s not that complicated, and once you know the steps, it’s utterly achievable. It’s a weeknight dish should you choose it to be one or a perfect quick weekend treat.

Vongole at L'Anima

Italian cuisine is one of my favourites; it’s so fresh and full of flavour. Loaded with character and variety, how could you not love it? I love the attention to detail, the adherence to quality and the sociable nature of it all. I love that everyone is confident about food, we should be here too. Everyone has a secret family recipe, knows local wines and heartily recommends favourites. They want to take you to their favourite places, and share their culinary heritage, for they are very proud of it, and so they should be. So, I wasn’t surprised when Francesco seemed to represent all of these qualities, fizzing with enthusiasm and passion, and ready to share his knowledge.

L’Anima is a lovely space, airy and bright, perhaps leaning on stark, but very stylish. We started at the bar with some snacks and a prosecco, and then progressed to the kitchen, which was stacked with food and chefs, and while busy-busy, it was very calm. Waiting by one of the sinks were enormous and very fresh clams, that had been rinsed to rid them of any sand that they had retained from the sea bed, they were ready to become vongole.

Vongole at L'Anima

Francesco whizzed through the recipe, it really is very quick. Patient and attentive, occasionally making reference to how red I was, with a chuckle. I was at pains to explain that I am Irish and can’t cope with extremes of anything – hot or cold. Ireland is mild and temperate, and this is what my body demands, but rarely receives. So, there you go! I am doomed to have a big red face in warm environments. But that’s ok.

Vongole at L'Anima

The vongole had already been cleaned and were gleaming and ready for action. Using a bronze cut linguine, Francesco starts the dish with a light south Italian olive oil, that won’t over power the clams. The pasta is put on, and some garlic slices and chilli are gently fried. The vongole are added shortly after with a glass of white wine, and cooked gently until they start to open. The pasta is added with some of it’s starchy cooking water, creating an emulsion with the vongole sauce as it is stirred. The pasta looks to be about half cooked at this stage, and Francesco stirs it, until it it’s al dente and nestled is a beautiful creamy sauce. I love this technique of cooking pasta by absorption, a technique that delivers a much superior pasta, and costs nothing but time and a littler exertion. Not unlike the creaminess that you get from risotto rice, when you give it all of that care and attention.

The dish is finished with a handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, and is ready to eat.  We had a taste, and I was in heaven.

Vongole at L'Anima

I was loathe to leave the kitchen and that luscious linguine behind, but Francesco assured me that I would have some more soon, over dinner in the private room, where 8 of us gathered and participated in a feast.

Vongole at L'Anima

A gorgeous starter of muscles cooked in a josper oven, a powerful charcoal oven, just briefly, for a minute or so until they popped open. They retained their memory of the sea, in those last drops of sea water that they had held onto from when they were caught. These were superb, a real highlight, tasting of fire and water with embers from the josper oven and sea water, with a meaty mussel embracing it in the middle, and some delicious n’duja sausage with some fennel seeds.

Vongole at L'Anima

Our linguine vongole escapades were next. Three different types, all perfectly executed, although one fusion one, while lovely, was not to my taste. I prefer the more familiar rustic Italian flavours of garlic, chilli and tomato. We had a lovely wine with the linguine, a delicious Soave, so good, I proclaimed that it was worth going that night to discover that wine alone.

Vongole at L'Anima

We finished with a frozen chocolate truffle. An icy large truffle with chocolate sauce oozing out of the middle. Delicious. I know that word is over used but I don’t care, because that’s what it was.

And there you have it. A perfect evening. Linguine vongole is on the bar menu at L’Anima, it’s well worth a try with that glorious Soave. Francesco Mazzei is certainly one to watch and I look forward to trying L’Anima again.

I will make this dish soon and post the recipe. Give it a go, there or at home. You’ll be very happy with yourself.

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Summer Pasta #1 – Crab Linguine

crab linguine

I adore light summer pastas, so I thought that I would do a little series, starting with one of my favourites, crab linguine. Crab is a wonderful delicate meat. Light and fluffy and tasting of the sea. One of my favourite restaurant dishes ever, was a River Cafe starter of crab on toast with a light salad. It was so simple and gorgeous, with stunning fresh ingredients.

Growing up in Ireland, I thought that eating crabs was plain insane. Our elderly neighbour used to catch enormous ones in a bucket at a rocky beach near our house and boiled them up for her alsatian dog. I envy that dog now but at the time I felt it was an act of cruelty. I was also terrified that she would come near me with her bucket of living sideways walking friends. I was afraid of crabs, and really anything living in the sea, I remember standing on an isolated rock shrieking with horror as the crabs ascended. I thought that they would eat me. They didn’t but that’s another story.

You don’t need to go to such enormous lengths for this dish. You can buy perfectly good fresh crabmeat already prepared for you. It seems expensive at roughly £5 for a small tub, but this goes a long way, especially in this dish. If you can, it’s better to get a fresh live crab, then you have the benefit of it’s gorgeous fluffiness and the deeply savoury brown meat. I had mine delivered along with an Abel and Cole veg box, they now do lots of other things, and one of these things is fresh Cornish crab meat, which was delivered very cold surrounded by ice gel packs. Very handy for a busy girl like me. Which brings me back to the recipe, which is also very handy for a busy girl like me, as it’s super quick and tasty. This made enough for three, add more crab meat if you’ve got it.

crab linguine

Ingredients:

300g linguine
the very best unwaxed lemon you can find
flat leaf parsley, a handful, chopped
White crab meat (100g)
1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped finely
nice fruity extra virgin olive oil

Method:

Cook your linguine according to packet instructions so that it’s just shy of al dente (it will cook a little when you add it to the crab).
Heat about 2 tablespoons of the oil, add the chilli and stir for about 30 seconds.
Add the crab and stir until it’s nice and hot.
Add the linguine to the crab and chilli, and stir through, ensuring that the pasta is nicely coated, drizzle with some more oil if it’s dry. Add fresh squeezed lemon juice to taste, and some lemon zest with the parsley. Season with fresh ground S&P. Stir through and serve immediately.

It’s a keeper, I think!
Add the cooked linguine

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Clam Linguine

Clam linguine is one of those dishes that I love but am extremely fussy about. Hang on, isn’t that every dish? I digress… I won’t order it out unless I am absolutely certain that the restaurant is reliable and uses fresh clams (fresh = very fresh) and not tinned or jarred clams.

Now, I have had many a “discussion” with friends about this. They think I am a snob, but, hey, clams come in a shell, so why not eat them that way? With seafood generally, the fresher the better, that fresh sea taste, like the salt air, and none of the fishiness that arrives when the fish are out of the water too long.

I really struggle with anything that isn’t extremely fresh, and although I hate to admit it, I really can’t stomach alot of tinned fish. For this reason, I always go to good fishmongers when I can, like in Borough Market or Steve Hatts on Essex Rd in Islington.

I distinctly remember the first time that I had clams. I had been eating mussels for some time but was a bit squeamish about other unknown shellfish. On holiday in Croatia, whilst island hopping and on a visit to a gorgeous island called Vis, we had the most lovely seafood experiences. Fabulous fresh seafood and lots that I hadn’t tried before. Fish there is sold as either white fish or blue fish, white fish being the deep water fish like hake or pollock, whereas the blue fish swim closer to the surface and are a bit cheaper, like mackerel. When you arrive at most restaurants they bring a platter of fresh fish and you choose which one you want them to cook for you and pay by the weight.

We ate in one restaurant there, as we had started talking to someone across the road from it when I noticed a fisherman nearby gutting a large white fish, it turned out that his daughter owned the restuarant and this very fish was destined for the pot, immediately after gutting. How could I resist? It was delicious, a leerfish barbecued over hot coals, with oil brushed on it using herbs as a brush.

It was another lovely local restaurant down the road where I had the clams, larger than palourde and full of meat as they were wild not farmed, they were cooked simply in tomatoes and wine and served with crusty bread, still the best way to eat them in my mind.

Back to the linguine. Clams are a little high maintenance, although this is balanced by how quickly they cook. Before using, soak in several changes of cold water for 5 minutes at a time, so that the clams release any sand contained within the shell. Then scrub the outside shell, they’re usually pretty clean, you just want to get rid of any excess grit that may affect your lovely pasta dish. This really is worth the time and effort.

I treat my clam linguine simply, like the clam dish mentioned above. Some shallots and garlic, sautéed in olive oil, followed by diced, peeled & seeded tomatoes, then some white wine and the clams, stewed with the lid on until the clams open, and finally some lemon to lift the flavour and some parsely to finish.

On this occasion, I got some palourde (or carpetshell) clams from Borough Market. You can get clams at any good fishmonger, and I’d recommend that you treat yourself to some.

Some notes on the recipe:

  • I like this dish fruity so I use alot of tomatoes, feel free to decrease if you don’t feel the same. Alot of recipes use more clams and less tomatoes, you could do this here too and easily increase the amount of clams (up to double) and at the end remove some of the meat from the shells so that you are not fighting with the shells while eating.
  • To peel the tomatoes, score a small cross at the bottom, barely piercing the skin and cover with boiling water for 15-30 seconds or so, as soon as you see the skin start to peel back.
  • You’ll need a dish with a tight fitting lid for the clams.

This dish, as always serves two or one hungry person. I was hungry tonight :-) The recipe follows.

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