“Are you bored?” asked a socially distanced neighbour, obviously feeling the strain of village isolation. Well, no I’m not, actually! And neither is Other Half! In fact our days in lockdown have been completely filled from day one with ample things to do. Personally, I’ve found it’s been a perfect time to reflect, and get all those little jobs done around the house. For me, it’s also been a great time for experimenting in the kitchen, using my imagination, and rustling up meals out of nothing more than a cobweb and a cornflake!
Like the rest of the nation, I have been trying to make bread without yeast, as yeast seems to have taken over from toilet rolls on the shop’s ‘most wanted’ list. What is it with bread that you suddenly want it when you can’t have it?
My most successful to date is a remarkable loaf made from flour and tonic water (no gin left). I took a beer bread recipe, and in the absence of any beer, replaced it with tonic water. I couldn’t believe the result, and it was so scrummy the next day, toasted under the grill and spread with butter and honey. As there are only two of us in the household I made a small loaf in a 1lb loaf tin. It’s not the kind of bread for sandwiches (although I didn’t try), but it was great for cheese on toast and buttered, fresh from the oven, with a hearty soup. I will definitely try it again.
This is what I did: Sift 2 cups of plain flour with 2 tsp baking powder into a large bowl. Add 1 level tsp caster sugar and a good pinch of salt. Stir in 225ml of tonic water which is actually a small can. Don’t over mix, but stir well to combined ingredients into a sticky dough, then transfer to a 1lb loaf tin. (I lined mine along its bottom and up its two shorter sides with greaseproof paper). Smooth top and bake at 190◦C for around 40mins, depending on your oven, until well risen and golden. I also sprinkled the top with sunflower seeds before baking. Give it a try. I hope you will be as surprised as I was at the result!
But let’s put the bread to bed now and get saucy! Like I said last week, I took my pristine pasta making machine out of its box for the second time in ten years, with the intention of using lockdown to resurrect my desire to produce home made pasta dough. Sadly, I was totally distracted by all the lovely dried pasta shapes I already had, sitting there in regimented lines, within their sealed and crispy packaging. So I thought I would concentrate on some quick, easy sauces instead.
Pasta however, is not just a delicious thing to eat, lathered with a tasty sauce, but can also be a great source of entertainment for bored children. The girls can design and make their own jewellery, necklaces, friendship bracelets etc from macaroni, along with a plethora of pasta shapes threaded onto silk cotton or elastic. You can also get their little creative juices flowing by challenging them to paint the individual pasta shapes with colour and inspiring design before threading into bespoke accessories.
As for the boys, they can make racing cars (hopefully you’ve got the wheel pasta) weird spaceships, aliens and soldiers by sticking pasta shapes together with glue. They can even make complete football teams for a game of blow football with two straws and a pea! Very competitive for the dads! However, if all you’ve got is spaghetti in the cupboard then I’m afraid the boys will have to amuse themselves by creating some delicately painted totem poles!
Measuring dried pasta for cooking can also prove to be a confusing conundrum for most people, including me. For macaroni and most pasta shapes etc, the Italians say that one good handful per person is enough, thrown into boiling water that’s salted to taste like the sea. I always used to think that particular portion looked quite meagre and usually added more, only to find I’ve cooked far too much. So, trust the Italians and try it just once – one good handful is plenty! Dried spaghetti is another tricky one. Sophia Loren once told me, through the pages of a magazine, that you measure the quantity by pinching the tip of your forefinger to the tip of your thumb around the strands of dried spaghetti. (serves two). Your finger to the first joint in your thumb is a big enough portion to satisfy one!
Here are two amazing yet easy sauces (in two person portions ) to accompany any dried pasta you have in your larder.
Broccoli is generally undercooked or steamed and sometimes tricky to get ‘just right’. Here, you boil it to death along with the pasta to make a delicious, pesto-like sauce.
Here goes: First prepare your broccoli. Surprisingly, you don’t need that much, just a good handful of florets. Cut the stalks holding the florets together into small slices. You don’t want much stalk left on the florets as you want them to break up. Bring a pan of water to the boil, salt well and add the sliced/chopped stalks, the broccoli florets, half a small finely chopped onion and your chosen pasta. I like to do it with Sophia Loren’s spaghetti!
While the pasta is cooking, usually between10-12 mins, peel and chop 2 or 3 garlic cloves. When pasta is almost cooked, heat a generous amount of olive oil in a large frying pan and soften garlic but don’t burn. Retain a cupful of pasta water, then strain and add entire contents of pot to frying pan. Sprinkle with a generous amount of grated parmesan and mix well adding some pasta water to keep it loose. If I have any pesto sauce in the fridge I usually add 2 teaspoons along with a few good twists of black pepper. I sometimes also add a few frozen peas to the boiling pasta. The broccoli should have broken down and be well distributed through the pasta. Top with more grated parmesan and enjoy. For additional flavour you can always add chopped bacon when you saute the garlic, or a few anchovy fillets which will dissolve into the garlic.
If you don’t have any pesto to hand, you can forage a good alternative and make some from common nettles. Nettles grow wild like dandelions. Once cooked, all the little hairy stingers melt away, so you need to prepare them first. I was cultivating a nice bunch in the garden, but Other Half decided to do a bit of weeding so my nettle pesto went for a burton!
If you do have some nettles to hand, gather four packed cupfuls (thin stems acceptable) and blanch in boiling water for 2 mins. Once cooked, nettles can be used like spinach in anything! Blanching greatly reduces the amount of nettles, and for nettle pesto you need to end up with one cup. Dry the nettles with kitchen paper then blitz to a smooth paste in a food processor (I always use my faithful mini blender) with 2 garlic cloves,1/4 cup pine nuts or walnuts, ¼ cup olive oil, 2 tsp lemon juice, pinch salt, good grinding of black pepper and ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese. This nettle pesto is also great just on its own, simply mixed through cooked pasta tossed in olive oil. If you go down this ‘nettle pesto only’ route, simple finish the dish with a good grating of fresh lemon zest.
Possibly the world’s easiest pasta sauce, ever!!!
Cheese and lemon pasta
Serves 2. (simply double up to feed 4) Cook required amount of macaroni pasta or spirals in salted water. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, slowly melt ½ tub Philadelphia full fat cream cheese with grated zest of one lemon and juice of half ( add more lemon at end to taste). Season with ground black pepper and stir continually until you have a smooth sauce. Retain a little pasta water, then strain pasta and add to sauce, thinning with a little of the reserved liquid to a creamy coating sauce. Serve immediately in bowls and top with a garnish of peppery rocket leaves. I’m sure Sophia would love it!