In praise of the properly cooked vegetable: cavolo nero pasta for one

bucatini-with-cavolo-nero

I have come to develop strong views on greens. On kales and cabbages (and kings), and green beans and asparagus, and even Brussels sprouts.

Greens! No one likes an overcooked green thing, resigned to a grey and mushy existence following overenthusiastic acquaintance with a pan of hard-boiling water. But I think the growing middle-class dread of serving up a disintegrating plate of veg is resulting in the opposite problem, with vegetables far too often being served undercooked.

A green bean, say, tender and with a hint of crunch as your teeth break through the snappy skin, is a fine thing, perfectly balancing crispness with a soft, yielding interior. All too often, though, cooking instructions suggest as little as two minutes of cooking, resulting in hot beans with a suggestion of softness at the edges, a resolutely crisp interior, and, most unforgivably, hard, cold, mean little seeds at the centre. At that rate, you may as well give in and just served them cool, sweet and raw, so they retain that milky, sappy freshness.

Kale, too, is so often served barely cooked or raw, when its frilly edges are still spiny and throat-catching. Savoy cabbage is rarely shown to the heat long enough to allow its pebbled texture to become nubbled silk. As with vegetables, so too with pasta. Overcooked pasta is an unappestising, floppy mess, often pooled with water so thick with starch it is almost gelatinous. But undercooked pasta is crunchy and chalky and no good for winding round the fork or mopping up the sauce. Balance is essential.

cavolo-nero-pasta

Which leads me to this: cavolo nero pasta for one, in which the leaves of this deep dark Italian kale are cooked down in wine and butter and oil until delicate and submissive. Intertwined with some good bucatini – you can use spaghetti if that’s what you have – it makes a satisfying, iron-rich supper for those nights when, say, your partner in dining is trooping around the great garrison towns of Yorkshire.

When I first made this, the whole thing was a bit bland and didn’t come together until I added lemon juice and zest in at the end – remembering Diana Henry’s advice “when there seems to be something missing, the answer is lemon.” Also, if you have bacon or lardons or pancetta to hand, fry a handful of the cubes or strips off for a few minutes in the melted butter and oil before adding the garlic.

I’m also sure this will sound like, look like, a lot of cavolo nero to start. And it is, enough to make this a hearty meal and give it plenty of body, because green things will happily cook down to nothing if you let them.

You’ll notice I said ‘good bucatini’. I’m no stranger to value packs of spaghetti from Lidl and would not turn my nose up at these ever, but given the relatively sparse ingredients in this dish, a good-quality pasta will make a difference to the final dish. Bucatini, incidentally, is like a slightly thicker spaghetti with a hollow running down the centre and is a little chewier and more resilient than spaghetti; I enjoy its robustness and it stands up well to the assertive kale. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d buy it here.

Cavolo nero with bucatini, for one

  • 90g bucatini or spaghetti
  • 300g pack of cavolo nero
  • 1 tablespoon butter, plus extra to serve (optional)
  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • 4 fat cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped
  • Big pinch of chilli flakes
  • a good glug of white wine – 60ml, if you want to measure
  • The zest and juice of half a lemon
  • Lots and lots of Parmesan – I like mine very finely grated on a Microplane so that it resembles cheese dust
  1. Put a big pan of water for the pasta on the hob, bring to the boil, and salt it generously.
  2. Strip the leaves of the cavolo nero from the stalks. I do this just by pinching the base of the stem between my index finger and thumb and pulling down the length of the stalk – they come away just as efficiently as if you’d used one of those plasticky kale strippersplasticky kale strippers. If you have any smaller leaves attached to slimmer, softer stems, these can just be chopped up without stripping them. Remove any yellowy bits of the kale because these will do you no favours.
  3. Tear or roughly chop the large leaves into bite-sized pieces.
  4. Add your pasta to the pan of water and bring back to the boil. Set your timer for eight minutes.
  5. Heat the butter and oil together in a frying pan over a high heat. Add the garlic and fry until fragrant and just tinged with gold – up to thirty seconds, but as little as 10-15.
  6. Add the chilli flakes and stir them around the pan for a bit, maybe 20 seconds, until you can smell their spicy fragrance.
  7. Throw in the great pile of cavolo nero leaves and stir-fry in the pan for about two minutes. Add a pinch of salt here. Pour in the wine and let it bubble for thirty seconds. Turn the heat down to medium (or medium-low if things seem to be cooking fast) and continue to cook, pushing the leaves around the pan, until they wilt down. Throw in the odd splash of water if things are getting too dry and lower the hear once the cavolo nero is wilted down. Continue stirring.
  8. When the timer for the pasta goes off, give it a test. It might need two more minutes.
  9. Once ready, drain the pasta, not too thoroughly (you want a little of the clinging water). Stir the pasta through the cavolo nero in the frying pan and stir them around together for about thirty seconds to amalgamate. Remove the pan from the heat.
  10. Zest and juice the lemon into the pan. Stir around and taste. Add some salt and pepper if you like and taste again. If you want, zest in more of the lemon and squeeze in more juice and add more salt and pepper. And, also if you want, melt in another pat of butter so the pasta become slick and glossy and the leaves tender and rich.
  11. Pour the panful of pasta and vegetables into your bowl or plate of choice and dust with lots of Parmesan. Then grate over some more Parmesan, because you only live once.

TV and fried food: stuffed courgette flowers and Nigella Lawson’s Tuscan fries

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It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to  admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.

Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?

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Courgette blossoms, tenderly cossetted, before filling, dredging and frying

All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries (her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.

Tuscan fries, oil blotted
Tuscan fries, oil blotted

Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.

Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.

I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.

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