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.

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