Saturday, 24 November 2012

Fast(a) Pasta: Blue Cheese Pasta Toss

We are busier than ever before. Long working hours, unpaid overtime, and the daily commute all conspire to take away precious hours out of our days. We get home, hungry and tired. We crave food. But do we have the time and energy to make ourselves something tasty and sustaining? Not always. So we often resort to 'prick n ping' microwave meals or take-aways, and feel guilty about the extra calories and cost.

Some of us try to make the effort to cook as often as we can, but sometimes we find our time just so squished, it doesn't seem possible. That's the time we need help. Time we need a quick fix. Time we need a speedy supper.

It's funny, but "quick recipes" cause both delight and despair in the minds of food fans. It's a strange equation. On the one hand, nobody minds tips and techniques which are capable of saving time. On the other, people don't want to compromise quality on high-speed ready prepared ingredients. 

Lots of television cooking shows have made speedy dishes and short cuts their focus. Hardened "foodies" complain about these programmes. I think these whinges are often unfair. Better people are cooking at all and eating something with lots of flavour than reaching for the take-away menu. We, each of us, must choose the compromises we wish to make, and not impose ours on others.

For me, pasta is often the saviour for those difficult midweek suppers. There are nights I come home tired just because my day has expended much of my energy, and then there are days which I teach my group of long suffering part-time students their evening sessions. Pasta offers the easy, tasty, fulfilling way out of dinnertime dilemmas. You put the water on, and get on with a small amount of preparation in the 3-5 minutes the water takes to boil. Then the pasta goes on and in the 9-12 minutes it takes to cook, you can get so much other stuff done. Before you know it, the meal is ready, and you have satisfaction of mind, soul and belly sorted in the time it takes to watch an episode of your favourite soap opera. (Which, if you are inclined, could be enjoyed by simply having a TV in the kitchen whilst you cook).

So here is a very simple pasta recipe. It involves very little preparation, and is quick, flavourful and effective.

The pasta I used was Gragnano pasta, reputedly the best pasta in the world, from Campania province. Legend has it that it is Naples and its surrounding area where spaghetti originates from. I bought back several packets from a trip to the Amalfi Coast and it was great to have the chance to use some. The variety is rather apt for an area overlooked by the mighty Vesuvius, isn't it?

Essentially, this is a vegetarian recipe. There is no need for any meat. However, the pancetta, my continuing obsession, although unnecessary has been included as an optional topping since Him Indoors needs to be enticed to a meal by meaty goodness. Bacon never fails to succeed. So if you are vegetarian, or can't eat pork, just leave it out. You may want to use some parmesan as your topping instead. 
The cheese I used was bought at the South Bank. You can substitute gorgonzola, dolcelatte, or roquefort. I am obviously suggesting you use a soft textured blue cheese, but I am sure you could use white cream cheese (such as Philadelphia or similar) without much difficulty. Perhaps one of those herby/garlicky Le Roule or Boursin cheeses could fit the bill.

Blue Cheese Pasta Toss

Serves 2


200g dried pasta
100g blue cheese
40g fresh rocket
25g pine nuts
7-8 halves of roasted artichokes in oil, cut into half or thirds, as you prefer
80-100g pancetta (optional meaty topping)
Finely grated parmesan (optional vegetarian topping), 2 tbsp


If you are using pancetta, dry fry it in a large shallow frying pan until beginning to go crisp. Remove to a kitchen-paper covered plate to collect the excess fat.

Dry fry (toast) the pine nuts in a small pan. Be careful - they burn very quickly. You will need to keep stirring or shaking them whilst the heat is on. You'll need 3-5 minutes. Remove to a plate and spread out to arrest the cooking process.

Put a saucepan of water on for the pasta. Cook pasta for 1-2 minutes below the normal cooking time (the al dente time, please).

Take 100ml or half a mug of the cooking water out of the pan. Drain the pasta thoroughly.

Now add the blue cheese, rocket, pine nuts and artichokes. Toss vigorously (or stir thoroughly).

Put the pan on a very gentle heat, and mix as you allow the pan to heat up for 1-2 minutes. You want a silky, creamy covering to the pasta. 

If the pasta sauce appears thick or sticky, drizzle in some of the hot reserved pasta cooking water. I found that I only needed 2 tbsp. 

Serve in bowls, topped with the cooked pancetta and parmesan, if using.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A Favourites List for November 2012

Here is my monthly collection of things I've been enjoying. Some old, some new. Hope you like them!  The pictures this month are from my trip to China, and are obviously all food-inspired.

Blogs worth following:
Superb and authentic south east Asian food:
Eating well on a teensy budget:

Food stall, Guilin

The best piece of food writing I have ever read, and a wonderful spelt risotto recipe:
Free 25 recipe E-book (includes recipes from Wahaca and Busaba Eathai):
An ideal way of having a virtuous vegetarian (packed) lunch:
Autumnal salads need to ring the changes!
22 recipes which prove the Maillard reaction rocks!
Another Autumn salad, and I make no apologies for my love for squash! Reckon if you make too much on purpose, it makes a great packed lunch!:
A very different kind of slow cooked casserole kind of dish:
Claypot chicken rice (瓦煲雞飯), a Malaysian one-pot dish:
Onion Bhajis with a twist by Cyrus Todiwala
White bean soup with porcini sables (my use for my bottle of truffle oil):
Hearty warming sweet potato and sweetcorn soup, both vegetarian and vegan suitable:

Young pink ginger, Chongqing

How-to-cooking guides and know-how:

Food articles and thoughts: 
Interesting insight into Moroccan Tagine making
Guide to ingredients for Thai food:
London eateries in zones 1 & 2 by tube station (an alternative tube map):

Lilyhammer (US/Norwegian comedy drama series)
Father Ted, Season 3 (Irish comedy series)
No Direction Home (Martin Scorcese's film about Bob Dylan)
The Last King of Scotland

Cormorant fishing, Guilin
Grimes - Visions
Django Django - Django Django
Linda Perhacs - Parallelograms
The Black Keys - El Camino
Love - Forever Changes

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Sette: Italian food 7th Heaven!

Sette is Italian for 'seven'. It is a joint venture between Marco Pierre White and Frankie Dettori MBE. It is not their first food collaboration, the other being 'Frankie's Italian Bar and Grill' (based on the New York Italian dining experience). The name 'Sette' was inspired by Dettori's historic achievement in 1996 when he rode 7 winners at Ascot. Him Indoors is a big horse racing fan, but tends to choose restaurants on the basis of their food rather than the sporting achievements of the owner. Let's face it, plenty of people (wealthy punters, celebrities and rich businessmen) have all had forays into the restaurant trade, with many failing spectacularly, or disappearing apologetically. So the big question to answer: IS IT ANY GOOD? Well, the short answer is yes. It is pretty bloody excellent!

Sette is located in the South Kensington area, among the gorgeous and hugely expensive white stucco houses of nearby Pelham Gardens and Onslow Gardens. Its immediate neighbours include Bibendum, the Bibendum Oyster bar and a branch of small Thai chain Patara. 

The interior was light and airy, combining just the right amount of elegance with casual charm. Clean lines, crisp linen and well-proportioned tables grace the dining room, yet the pictures on the wall demonstrate humour and just a little of Dettori's endearing cheekiness; stills from Italian films, atmospheric vintage photos and a few momentoes from Dettori's glittering career. 

On arrival we were tempted with an aperitif. Well, I find it hard to resist a cold, inviting glass of Prosecco, so I succumbed to temptation. The prosecco was perfectly dry, not aggressively fizzy, with crisp flavours and great balance. Perfetto!

The three different breads we were offered were a spongy, fluffy Ciabatta, golden with olive oil, a dense and earthy wholemeal and some rustic, herby olive bread. I have a particular penchant for how well the Italians use herbs, so the herb olive bread was going to be the clear favourite. 

Olive bread with olive oil; the herbs were fragrant and delicate. The use of fresh olives rather than oil preserved or briny was very effective. I felt we got the real taste of the olives which was gentle and refined, rather than the over sharp flavour of either brine or oil which can mar the overall taste of bread. 

Insalata de granchio avocado e melograno: crab salad with avocado and pomegranate
A very generous proportion of lovingly prepared white crab meat is the highlight of this dish. It takes considerable time and effort to cook crab meat and then hand pick it to ensure no pieces of shell remain. The crab was sweet and succulent. The avocado ripe, soft and yielding. The pomegranate dressing has a slight tang tinged with ripe sweetness. It is a dish of wonderfully pleasing tastes and textures.  

Insalata de polipo: octopus salad with potato, capers and olives
The octopus was marinaded in a slightly piquant and subtly spiced marinade. It was grilled just how I like my octopus/squid; literally JUST cooked. The accompaniment of salad leaves, potato, capers and olives complimented and contrasted the octopus with counterpointed flavours and textures. Some may find the actual suckers on the tentacles a little disconcerting, but this is a superb dish. 

Agnello con melanzane gratinate: rack of lamb with baked aubergine and black olive sauce
Funnily enough, usually both Him Indoors and I go for very different main courses. As appears to be increasingly typical, he goes for meat and I go for fish. However, on this occasion, we decided to go for the lamb. Rack of lamb is a glorious dish when cooked right. The bones give the meat flavour 

Zucchini friti: fried courgette
These julienned zucchini were battered in a blend of plain flour with an almost Indian twist; gram flour. The result is a crispy, crunchy fried veggie with a perfectly crisp outside surrounding the soft and pleasant inside. This would make an enviable tapa in a tapas bar, or a fantastic alternative to chips. 

Roast potatoes
Herby roasted potatoes are one of the things which makes me salivate. These were new potatoes, which meant no crispiness, but I didn't miss it at all. These were aromatic, light and delicious.

Rocket and parmesan
A classic combination, this was peppy, peppery rocket with good quality aged parmesan. Topped with aged balsamic vinegar, this was a versatile side dish.

Semifreddo alla nocciola con salsa cioccolato:
As the name suggests, this is a semi-frozen dessert. Here, it involves a hazelnut paste (a parfait) with chocolate sauce. It is light, yet creamy. It is nutty, yet not heavy. How can this be? Served with the fresh fruits, which I heartily suggest you eat the pudding with, the chocolate and cream tastes alive, fresh and zingy. 

Torta Caprese: Chocolate and almond cake
Him Indoors describes this pudding as 'brilliant'. Served with old fashioned home made ice cream, it was wholesome, rich and flavourful. Chocolatey and uber-tasty, this is a lovely pudding!

Turning to the service, I found it to be first rate. A couple of other reviewers, particularly on Trip Advisor, appear to have been dissatisfied with the service. Perhaps they visited on a Friday or Saturday night when the restaurant would have been at its busiest. I always try to be forgiving when dining at peak time. Waiting staff have to multi-task and remember so much. Filling my glass once is not going to kill me, so I don't let it affect my enjoyment of a dining experience, particularly when I can see the staff running around like the proverbial blue bottomed flies. But, to each their own opinion. The whole Claude Bosi/James Isherwood 'Chefgate' debacle is not something I am keen to get involved with! (If you want to see a summary of the whole blizzard in a bain-marie, then see this:

Anyway, we were visiting on a weekday for lunch. The service could have been much too attentive, since there were only a few tables full. My assessment was that it was caring, helpful, polite and done with grace and a smile. How important just a smile is! I really have no complaints.

Sadly, this week, Frankie is embroiled in a drug taking row, and I hope that he comes out of it well. But just in case he does not, the restaurant trade suits him well. I would honestly say that on this performance, he can move into a completely new sphere with no difficulties whatsoever. Well done, Frankie!

Sette Restaurant:
4 Sydney Street
London SW3 6PP
020 7352 3435

Snigdha and Him Indoors paid proper hard earned cash for their meal.

Sette on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Rice and Peas Freddie Stylee: A Guest Post from Freddie Patmore

I am delighted to host one of my series of Guest Posts. This one is from a friend of mine, Freddie Patmore. Freddie is a woman of considerable talent. Warm and funny, she is awesome company. Her interests are wide, ranging from mathematics, food, film and craft. She is also one of the nation's leading authorities on knitting, the creative and artistic skill which is only recently getting the recognition it deserves. 

Freddie is the co-author of "Knit Step by Step" and "The Knitting Book", both published by Dorling Kindersley. The Knitting Book is considered something of a Bible to knitters and contains some of the clearest explanations of techniques available; all supported by superb diagrams and photographs. It's like having the wonderfully enthusiastic Freddie herself standing over your shoulder telling you 'Watch out! You're about to drop a stitch!'. 

Freddie works as a consultant at Rowan Yarns and can sometimes be found on the 4th floor of John Lewis Oxford Street. So lovely is she that if you have any questions or issues about your knitting, or even your crochet, she will take time, trouble and heart to help you. She is a rare and lovely person. And she is the brains behind 'Knitting Rocks'; a project to get younger people into this most relaxing and productive of creative crafts.

Freddie has been an enthusiastic cook for some time. She invents her own dishes and experiments with food all the time. But it was when she declared she had her own 'family recipe' for Rice and Peas that I had to ask her to help me by providing a guest post. Being the kind, sweet and amazing person she is, it was emailed to me within 12 hours of asking. 

If you are interested in Freddie's writing (published in her full name Frederica Patmore) then I would refer you to the following sites:

Oh, and before any cynics say 'well, she only provided the recipe so that Snigdha would post links to her books.' I say not a bit of it. I wanted to tell you about Freddie and her many talents, and decided to do so without telling her. Frankly, she would actually be jolly embarrassed that I've done so. (Sorry Freddie! Please forgive me! But you hide your light under a big woolly bushel, and it is high time it shone for the world to see!)

Anyway, this is something for Freddie and I to work out beyond the confines of the internet......

So I say, over to Freddie:

With icy conditions fast approaching, sometimes it's time to break out the big guns. Serious soul, comfort food, rice and peas. For me an excellent accompaniment to grilled spiced meats, curries, or great on it's own.

My relationship with food has always been a bit of a unique one I feel. With family members from Ireland and Guyana, you end up with quite a mixture! I boast my fishmonger uncle and my Dad who took cooking lessons in his late thirties to improve his cheffery proudly. For my 21st birthday I sent a notebook around the country to all my family members and asked everyone to contribute one recipe! Even my little sister, who at the time was 9, chipped in. I now go about adding to it every now and then. And this tweak on a classic has been in there for quite some time now!

This is a warming dish, relatively good for you, very filling, and dairy free for people like me who can't enjoy cows-milk! Creamy risottos and dauphionoises are a no-no, but this doesn't make a half bad substitute.

Rice and Peas Freddie Stylee! 
Serves 4, comfortably!

1 1/2 mugs long grain rice, washed the day before and dried out mostly
1/2 can kidney beans
Fistful of spring/salad onions, chopped
1/2 can low-fat coconut milk (make sure you shake it up before opening it!)
Dried Thyme
One small onion, finely chopped
2 hefty garlic cloves, crushed
Powdered Ginger
A chilli of some description
One bay leaf
Vegetable oil
Chicken Stock
Cumin/coriander/black onion/mustard seeds (optional) To taste.

Heat a generous splish oil in a large saucepan, add onion, crunchy spring onion pieces and spice seeds, if using, and fry gently until softened. Save the greener bits of the spring onions for later.

Add the rice, thyme, garlic and ginger and fry on a low heat, stirring regularly, for about 3 minutes, until the oil has coated the rice completely.

Add 1/2 chicken stock, 1/2 coconut milk fluid until the rice is covered over by about an inch. Chuck in a hefty pinch of salt. Don't be shy, these are big servings and you have lots of beans to season. Add the beans now, and a whole chilli, pierced, or some crushed up chillies. Just a sprinkle.

Simmer until rice is cooked and tender, stirring occasionally. Cover and remove from heat, leave to rest for about 5-10 minutes.

Stir in remaining spring onions and serve for a hearty, wholesome warming dish. Delish!