Here in the West of Ireland, March was unusually kind to us. Yes, we had some rain, but we were spared the gales that one associates with this equinox month, and we had many dry, sunny days. As I grow older, I have taken to measuring the time and effort required to complete regular tasks. On this front, the garden is the focus of my attention and, for example, I am deeply aware that it takes about forty hours of reasonably hard work to tidy up my patch every spring. This imposes constraints on my life because, given the vagaries of the weather, I must take full advantage of every, passing, dry day, if the herculean chore is to be completed in a timely fashion. This in turn means that other daily tasks, like cooking, must largely be put to one side. Thus, while in recent weeks I laboured in the garden, the dogs acquired a permanently neglected look, my children began enquiring about my whereabouts, friends complained that I never answered the telephone and indoors, the rooms became shrouded in dust. It is at times like this that I resort to one of two simple pasta dishes.
It is strange that I have never talked to you about pasta before, as it is without doubt, my favourite food. I eat it at least once a week and in the full knowledge that it sadly does little to help the ever-expanding waistline. I have been cooking it since I was a student and love it in all forms – lasagne, Bolognese, vongole, alla putanesca, alla carbonara etc. However, I have two special pasta dishes that I always eat when pressed for time e.g. when on a gardening roll or, when on return from being away, I am tired and the food cupboards in the house are relatively bare. Let me share the relevant recipes with you.
It is very important that pasta is cooked al dente or with a touch of bite to it. I also normally prepare spaghetti well in advance, removing it from the simmering hot water before it is quite cooked and then immediately rinsing it in cold water and putting it to one side. Just before eating, I plunge it into a bowl of boiling water for a few seconds to heat before serving. The purists will argue that this is a form of culinary sacrilege, but I am unrepentant. The approach is both convenient and the way I saw spaghetti cooked in an upmarket Italian restaurant in Park Lane where, as a student, I worked as a kitchen porter many years ago.
The first of the two dishes requires the advance preparation of a special tomato sauce, which I always have on tap in the freezer.
Oven-roasted Fresh Tomato Sauce
I kg ripe red tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3-4 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tsp sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 150°C
Lightly grease a shallow baking dish. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer and sprinkle on the rosemary, garlic and half the olive oil. Bake until soft and slightly golden, about 1½ hours. In a large saucepan heat the remaining olive oil and cook the onion until it is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted tomatoes, 1 cup of water, the salt, pepper and sugar (if using) and simmer on a very gentle heat, uncovered for about 30 minutes. Place a moulin à légumes over a large bowl and pass the sauce through the moulin in batches. Discard the seeds and skin. Serves about 6.
Basil could, of course, be used instead of rosemary but in that case, I would not add the herb until say, a half an hour before the tomatoes are cooked.
As I always have stocks of this sauce in my freezer, all that I have to do on the appointed day is to heat it and stir it through the cooked spaghetti. I serve the dish with loads of grated parmesan on top, a side salad of green leaves and a few hunks of good bread.
The second pasta dish is equally simple. For four people, in a large saucepan, lightly fry, in 5-6 tbsp of olive oil, about 150g of finely chopped streaky rashers and 4 finely chopped cloves of garlic. When cooked, add a good handful of chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano, chives or parsley) and seasoning and then stir in the heated spaghetti. Serve as above.
And now that I have written this, I can happily return to my garden……
1. A food mill, which is commonly available in France for making vegetable soups and potato purée. It can be purchased in any good kitchen shop here. Alternatively use a sieve or start this recipe by peeling the tomatoes in the usual way and then at the final stage blitzing the sauce in a blender.