When our kids were just 6 and 8, we spent about four months in Italy, travelling the back roads to out-of-the-way farms known as Agritourismo. I was writing my cookbook Savour Italy at the time and, thanks to a contract with a big European publisher, I had this wonderful opportunity for a sabbatical of sorts, where I could learn about the traditional ways of the Italian country kitchen.
Our arrival at the Agritourismo Le Magnolie ( www.lemagnolie.com ) in Abruzzo, coincided with the Sirocco, a searing hot wind flecked with tiny biting shards of sand that blows in all the way from the Sahara. It was impossible to sleep. Olga, our hostess, came to the rescue with towels soaked in icy water and a pail filled with ice to cool the towels down again when we needed. "Tomorrow" she said, "come to the kitchen early, we will make pasta."
In the morning, we arrived downstairs to find the kitchen humming with activity. Barrowfuls of huge zucchinis were being transformed into preserves for winter. Olga shooed everyone out of the way and cleared a bench. On to it went a mound of flour and a big pinch of salt. She got our children to make a well and crack in the eggs and then set to mixing, getting them to rescue any egg leaks that streamed out the sides with flour. In a matter of a few minutes, she was holding a golden silken ball of dough. The pasta machine came out and the children were instructed to feed strips of dough into it, back and forth as Olga turned the handle. The long fine ribbons of pasta were laid out on the bench. Out came a big bowl of pumpkin puree from the fridge. The children noses scrunched up in distaste, they hated pumpkin. What was this woman thinking?
Olga mixed the pumpkin with some ricotta, added a handful of pinenuts and a good grating of parmesan, a little nutmeg, some parsley, salt, pepper, and an egg. The mixture was piped on to the pasta ribbons, covered with more dough, and pressed and cut into squares. Just like that, a mountain of fresh ravioli. As the little pasta parcels cooked, Olga heated up butter, sage leaves, lemon zest and oil. Once the butter had turned a nut brown, she took it off the heat and added lots of lemon juice. The cooked ravioli was drained and dumped into the sage butter. She filled a plate for each of us and we all sat down together. I could see the kids weren't at all keen to try. Rose, up till this point, had only ever eaten pasta bianca. Olga sweet-talked and cajoled, until finally, they each had a tiny taste. Their faces, previously sullen, both lit up. "Mama," Sean said with a sigh of pleasure, "these are like baby pillows, they're so light and puffy". He and his sister gobbled down their plates. Olga beamed. She knew. Pasta always makes people happy.
Next time you need a comfort fix, whip up one of these simple pasta dishes.
Ready in 15 minutes
400g dried spaghetti or fettuccine
2 Tbsp olive oil
3-4 anchovies, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic crushed
2 cups store-bought pasta sauce or 400g can cherry tomatoes in juice
½ cup pitted, chopped kalamata olives
2 Tbsp capers
400g prawn tails, thawed and drained
2 tbsp chopped parsley leaves
Cook spaghetti or fettuccine for 4 minutes less than the instructions on the packet.
While pasta cooks, heat oil a separate pot and sizzle anchovies for a minute or two, stirring until pasty. Add garlic and sizzle for a few more seconds. Add tomato pasta sauce or canned tomatoes, olives and capers. Bring to a simmer then stir in the prawns and cook just until they turn pink (about 2 minutes). Drain the semi-cooked pasta, add it to the sauce and cook for a further 2 minutes. Just before serving, stir through the parsley. Transfer to a heated serving bowl and serve.
Pasta with Mushrooms
Ready in 15-20 minutes
Here's a terrific vegetarian pasta. Fresh field mushrooms make this sauce even darker and richer, and this is their season. Be certain to 100 per cent identify any mushrooms you pick.
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500g dried pasta
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 large cloves garlic, very thinly sliced
juice and finely grated zest of 2 lemons
½ tsp chilli flakes
12-15 large flat mushrooms, chopped or sliced thickly
¼ cup finely chopped parsley
1 Tbsp chopped fresh oregano or thyme leaves
½ cup finely grated parmesan, plus extra to serve
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Cook pasta according to packet instructions, taking care not to overcook – it should be toothsome/al dente, not soft. While pasta is cooking, gently heat oil in a large frypan. Add garlic, lemon zest and chilli and cook over lowish heat until garlic is very lightly golden, taking care not to burn (about 5 minutes). Add mushrooms and cook until their juices have fully evaporated and they just start to brown. Add to drained pasta with lemon juice, herbs, parmesan, salt and pepper and toss to combine. Serve with extra parmesan on the side.
Ready in 30 minutes
Use whatever fish and seafood you have to hand in this seafood lovers' feast.
400g dried pappardelle, fettuccine or spaghetti
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 cups store-bought pasta sauce
1 cup white wine
1 tsp finely chopped rosemary leaves
1 tsp salt
A pinch of chilli flakes
Ground black pepper, to taste
400g boneless, skinless white fish or salmon, cut into bite-size chunks
250g mixed seafood, such as prawns, squid, cooked mussel or cockle meat and/or crab claws
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, to garnish
2 Tbsp chopped dill (optional)
Cook pasta for 4 minutes less than packet instructions. Drain well. Combine all other ingredients except fish, seafood, parsley and dill in a large pot and bring to a simmer. Stir in drained pasta and bring back to a simmer. Add fish and seafood, cover and bring back just to a simmer. Remove from heat, pile on a serving platter and garnish with parsley and dill, if using.