I definitely seem to be going through an Italian phase at the moment, maybe it was my luncthime meal at Il Pirata, which certainly had notes of flavour that brought memories of my honeymoon in Tuscany flooding back.
I’ve grown into my love of Italian food. I feel I understand it on a much deeper level than before. At first as a cuisine, it can seem almost too simple, and a little bit underwhelming, but when you eat authentic Italian food in the right surroundings, a foodie epiphany can be on the cards. Italian food really is about simple ingredients, cooked with a lot of love.
I caught the One Show the other night, with Jay Rayner doing a slot on finding the best Spaghetti Bolognese in the UK. Of course ‘Spag bol’ is a British invention and the Italian dish from which it comes is a slow cooked meat sauce called Ragu. I’m sure if any Italians had seen this programme they would have been in uproar.
Growing up, there was the odd dinner at friends houses of ‘Spag bol.’ I hated it, dry stodgy spaghetti served with a spoonful of tomato flavoured under seasoned mince on top. There is nothing worse than being presented with a mountainous plate of steaming overcooked pasta with a heap of grey mince on top. My heart breaks a little when I see pasta served this way.
And don’t even get me started on that saw dust in a plastic tub that smells of sick, a very poor excuse for ‘freshly’ grated parmesan. Even at a young age I knew this stuff was the work of the devil. I would watch in amazement as those poor bastards sitting round the table lashed the stuff over their ‘Spag bol’ like ravenous honey badgers on heat, wallowing in their own delusion! God awful jackasses must have enjoyed eating dust that smelt of puke!
The One Show ‘Spag bol’ slot made me think about what it means for a cook to create traditional dishes from other countries, in their own kitchens. I am of the opinion that as a cook and food lover, I shouldn’t mess about with the cuisine of a country too much and should try to create a traditional dish as close to authentic as possible. That way I feel like I’m showing my respect for that country’s cuisine, but I still pour my heart and soul into the dish. OK, so I’m never going to cook a 100% authentic Ragu as I’m not Italian and I don’t have a recipe handed down through the generations from an Italian Mama, but I’ve got my cooking instinct and passion so God dam I’ll try!
For me the real pleasure of producing a plate of food as close to authentic as possible, means I can be transported back to a place, whilst I’m sitting at my own dinner table. Food has that power, as I’ve said before, smells and tastes are so evocative and are hard wired into our memories. They lie dormant and still, but once in a while they will be ignited and burn fiercely and quickly, lingering briefly, only to retreat until the next time you give them that familiar taste. It happens when I make Pad Thai, all those flavours come together and I could be sitting at the counter of a street side restaurant in Bangkok. It also happens when I smell garlic frying in olive oil. When I smell that, I can close my eyes and be in Tuscany.
What I’m trying to say is that for me food is the most inspiring medium from which humans can gain great pleasure, treat it with respect and put your heart and soul into a dish and you will eat very well indeed.
My quest for authenticity has lead me to the ultimate in Italian comfort food, Ragu. This dish is all about the slow cooking of the sauce, for several hours, and a few key ingredients that really ramp up the flavour. Chicken livers give the sauce a richness that you won’t get without them. They will melt into the liquid, providing an incredible depth of flavour. I also like to add a Parmesan rind into the sauce, which adds a layer of subtle seasoning as the sauce cooks.
I like to serve this Ragu sauce with either Penne or Rigatoni, which I think is another nod to the authenticity of the dish as the sauce clings to the ridged tubes of pasta and also gets trapped inside.
2 Large sticks of celery finely diced
2 Large carrots finely diced
2 Cloves of garlic finely chopped
2 Onions finely diced
2 Sprigs of thyme leaves picked
2 Sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped
1 Bay leaf
450g Beef mince
450g Pork mince
225g Chicken livers finely chopped
1 tbsp Tomato puree
2 x 400g Tins of chopped tomatoes
Half a bottle of red wine
1 Pint of chicken stock
1 Parmesan rind
700g Rigatoni or Penne
In a heavy based casserole pot heat some olive oil over a medium heat and gently fry the celery, carrot, garlic and onion, for about eight to 10 minutes until softened, without any colour. Remove the vegetables to a side plate, now add the mince beef and brown well. Remove the beef mince and do the same with the pork. When the pork mince is well browned, transfer to a side plate and fry off the chicken livers for a few minutes. Season each batch of meat well with salt and black pepper as you go.
Once all the meat has been browned, add the meat and vegetables back into the pot. Add the herbs and the tomato puree and allow the tomato puree to cook out for five minutes. Now add the tinned tomatoes, the red wine, the chicken stock and the Parmesan rind.
Put the lid on the casserole and into a low oven, about 150 degree C for four hours. It is this slow cooking that will yield a rich comforting sauce.
Cook the Rigatoni in plenty of salted boiling water. When the pasta is al dente, drain and reserve some of the pasta water. Quickly add the hot pasta to the Ragu and toss well to make sure the pasta tubes are well coated in the rich sauce. Add a ladle full of the pasta water, just to loosen the sauce slightly.
Serve with a large wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano for grating at the table.