Saturday, 13 February 2010

Pasta whilst baked

With a week to go until rationing restarts, I'm doing some experimenting. Last month, I made an anachronistic pasta dish, making a wartime-standards dish out of something that wasn't eaten at the time - although there's no reason beyond British conservatism as to why not.

I'm trying it again, as a bake this time, based on what I've learned from a month on rations and from the last version. This time I'm actually being more authentic, as I used strained tomatoes last time but I've roasted whole tomatoes for this version. I made a tomato soup last month with roasted tomatoes and it really worked well, giving a "depth" to the flavour that tomatoes themselves sadly lack: too many restaurant meals have tomato sauces that taste of - and are - tinned tomatoes warmed up.

Actually, to digress, about 15 years ago I was staying in a hotel in Edinburgh whilst working on behalf of Lloyds Bank to close down and kill off their TSB subsidiaries. On the first night, exhausted by the world's most awful flight (I never flew again), my colleagues decided to eat in. There was a single vegetarian option, which turned out to be creamed mushrooms with mushroom risotto on a bed of fried mushrooms. My boss, the other vegetarian in the party, hated mushrooms and she instructed the kitchen to make something else (this was the reason she was the boss - they did, without question).

The chef said he'd make "penne arrabiata". What arrived was a bowl of spaghetti, still swimming in salt water, with a tin of chopped tomatoes on top. And a basil leaf (which turned out to be a mint leaf). Debs ate it, but refused to pay for it. And also got the wine we had comped as well (she really was a very good boss). It'd be very wrong of me to mention that this anonymous hotel was part of Best Western at this point, and worse still to recommend that people reading this don't ever, ever stay at a Best Western with their singularly unhelpful staff, bowls of rotting fruit in the rooms, damp towels with unfortunate brown stains and televisions with problems with horizontal hold, so I won't ask you to join my 15-year boycott of Best Western hotels and will leave you to decide for yourself whether you want to stay with the awful, awful Best Western chain or not in future.

Back on topic. The last pasta dish I made was simply not as filling as the wartime staples we'd been eating until then. So this one needs to be, ready for next week's hell-month. I took a dozen tomatoes, halved them and pushed garlic into the soft bits, then sprinkled finely chopped basil on top. A very slow oven, 3 hours.

Then I all-but dry fried a sliced onion. I used an almost unmeasurably small amount of butter to start it off - perhaps a quarter of a teaspoon. Unsurprisingly, the onion started to burn very quickly, so I added half a dozen mushrooms (quartered) and started on the unstoppable stirring. If nothing else, this project is giving me a right arm with muscles on it not seen since I was last enthusiastically over-using my right arm when I was 13.

When the mushrooms had softened, I sloshed in half a third-bottle of red wine (oh, the maths... that's half of 1/3 which is, er, one sixth of a real bottle, I believe) and let the alcohol burn off: if you're cooking with wine, don't slosh it in at any old point like in sitcoms; you want the wine in early to get the alcohol content burnt off while you're still cooking at a higher heat. Leave the alcohol still in the food and you're just asking your eaters to inhale fumes.

Then goes in the tomatoes, and more stirring to get them mashed up. Then it's a handful of oats; if I was making a pour-on sauce, the oats would've been before the wine, but I don't need to worry about fat globs in a bake. Finally, a sliced potato, some very very anachronistic black olives and some basil leaves. Bring back to the boil, cover and take off the heat to let everything cook in its own time. I also added a dash of Maggi, but a small amount of Bovril, a smaller amount of Marmite (or none, that's fine too) or even an intense bouillon cube will help at this point.

I'll run the cooked-but-cold mixture through the blender at the end, to make a ragu for my pasta bake. At this point, the rationing fails somewhat, as I'm going to top it with cheese (2oz per person per week does not make for cheese-topped anything from next week). Cook the pasta until it's al dente (literally "at the teeth" but more accurately "slightly underdone"); drain and mix with the blended roast tomato ragu. Put it in an oven-proof dish.

Now for the cheese sauce. White and cheese sauces are easy. There's a mythology that they're difficult because, in very complicated gourmet recipes, they're often sprung upon the unwary cook. Also, that awful Delia woman has published so many "here's a white sauce you can't get wrong" screeds that everyone now thinks white sauces are actually traps set before them. I was lucky: I had my mum to say: don't be scared of it. And she's right: don't be scared of it.

Start by melting some fat. You can't have too much, so don't worry. You will also rarely have too little, but that's not a problem either. It's easier with a lower heat, but with a higher heat it works too, you just need to be quicker with adding the ingredients. Add some chopped onion to the melted fat. It's not essential, but it really helps to know where you're up to. The onion should be allowed to go translucent but not burn (ie, if it starts to burn before it's translucent, turn the heat down).

Now sprinkle in some flour. It really doesn't matter what type. Cornflour thickens quickly, plain is more filling, self-raising may grow alarmingly. Oatmeal or even oats will work here, but slowly. Stir until all the fat is gone. Still some fat? Add more flour and stir. Still some fat? More flour again. Just keep going. You can't add too much (unless you drop an entire bag in, in which case, you're not ready for non-peel-back-and-stir cooking). Eventually, all the fat is gone and the onion is completely coated. Splash in some milk. Stir. The onion-flour combo will absorb it all. Splash some more in. Stir. It'll all go again. Keep at this until adding milk stops making more paste and starts making thick liquid. There's your roux.

For a white sauce or a soup base, you can now start adding your ingredients. For a cheese sauce, start stirring in grated or small cubes of cheese. Feel free to add more milk, water or stock if it starts to go back to being a dough. Remember, you're not scared of it. Eventually, you'll have either ingredients covered in paste or gluey cheese paste. Either way, add milk or stock until it's the ideal consistency. If it gets too liquid, let it cook uncovered for 10 minutes or so until it reduces.

For the meal I'm making, I'll get a thick sauce at the end to pour over the tomato and pasta from earlier ( I hope you were taking notes). Grated cheese on top (now; not when rationing begins, obviously) will provide a crust; and into a medium low oven until the sauce bubbles and the grated cheese browns.

Of course, I'm doing this all as prep for tomorrow. I'm alone tonight and was planning on having hot dogs or something similarly cheap n' easy tonight. But this post took two hours to write, in which time I accidentally drank 3 litres of cheap cider. So I might go to bed instead of having dinner.


Michelle said...

So was the cider dinner or an appetizer? ;)

Kecske said...

I remember Macaroni cheese was a school dinner staple - I have a feeling it would have been familiar in wartime Britain as well. Certainly bland and stodgy enough, but I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong.

It was the only thing with pasta in it we made in Home Economics at school, where the recipes were extremely conservative.