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The finished dish… a bowlful of hot cacio e pepe

Pasta & cheese part 2: Cacio e pepe

A bowl of cooked cacio e pepe, with fork

This is the second article about the perfect partnership of pasta and cheese; the first being Macaroni (and) Cheese. If you though that sounded good and easy to make, just wait til you try this wee number!

I first read about the classic Roman dish, cacio e pepe, about ten years ago. I think it was in an old River Café recipe in the Guardian. I wasn’t convinced… it seemed just a little too simple and basic… but my curiosity was piqued and I knocked up a portion one lazy evening. I’ve not looked back since, and my fridge always has a small stash of pecorino in it; perfect for a quick bowl of this wonderfully life-affirming pasta dish. It really is the perfect fallback meal.

A bowlful of grated pecorino

Cacio is a local name for pecorino cheese from Lazio, and pepe is as in pepper; and that’s all you need to know in order to bring a bowl of pasta to life. I’ve tried it with fresh pasta too, but prefer the bite and feel of dried pasta, as the cheese sauce works brilliantly with its smoother surface texture. I particularly love bucatini, with its thick, hollow tubes which flex and bow with just the right ‘bite’. I read somewhere bucatini’s the correct pasta for this dish, but it works equally well with linguine or spaghetti too.

A fistful of dry bucatini pasta

The basic components are dead simple, the preparation time is a shade over ten minutes, and it’s a forgiving recipe which anyone can tackle. Bring a good amount of water to the boil in a deep pan. Salt it well – good pasta always deserves a decent dollop of salt to cook it with – and add a generous fistful of pasta per person. I invariably make too much of this for one person, but it always mysteriously disappears as soon as it hits the plate. You just need to cook the pasta as you would expect, until it’s slightly al dente. When it’s done, be sure to reserve a little of the cooking liquid before you drain it (I’ve absent-mindedly tipped it all out on more than one occasion, so now I scoop out half a cup or so to make sure I keep it, before draining). The starch in the cooking water is important, as it helps to soften and melt the cheese.

As for the cheese, in Rome this would be made with the local pecorino Romano. I prefer the stronger taste of pecorino Sardo if I can get it, but either way, the sheep’s milk in pecorino is perfect for melting, and the salty umami flavour compliments the warmth of the pepper perfectly. I’m not sure about quantities of cheese… i grate up enough for a generous helping. Some recipes call for a mix of Grana Padana or Parmesan, and I find this mix doesn’t melt quite as well, but tastes even better than straight pecorino.

Pour a bit of the reserved water back into the pan over a medium heat, stir in the cheese, and watch it melt. It should quickly become a very pale, almost white stringy consistency, bubbling on the base of the pan. At this stage you’ve got to remember two things: this dish needs to be made and served HOT, and served FAST. Stir in the pasta, keeping everything moving quickly, and grind in black pepper.

Starting to melt the pecorino

This is important, you really need the fieriness of freshly ground black pepper – don’t use anything pre-ground –  it needs to glow and sparkle with the heady aromatic notes of freshly ground peppercorns. Again, I tend to subscribe to the principle of twist and grind until you think you’re done, then give it a couple more turns for good luck. Give it a bit of welly: your eyes may water but you’ll be grateful for the punch of pepper against the mellow salty smoothness of the cheese. Sometimes I add a twist of mixed peppercorns over the top of the plated dish: the floral pink and green peppercorns give it a lighter, more playful finish.

Get this onto a plate, pronto, and eat it while it’s still piping hot. A slice of good rustic bread on the side is always a plus, to mop up those last errant smears of cheese and pepper., and I can guarantee you’ll have the cleanest plates after this meal. Quality pecorino is a bit like Clint Eastwood: hard, salty, and matures with finesse, so as long as you wrap it properly in waxed paper, and keep it carefully placed in the fridge, it’ll always sit patiently ready for an emergency callout for cacio e pepe.

It’s one of the easiest dishes you can make in a shade over ten minutes… just water, pasta, cheese and black pepper. Magnifico!

The finished dish… a bowlful of hot cacio e pepe

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Pasta & cheese part 1: return of the mac(aroni)…

Mmmm, pasta and cheese. Such perfect bedfellows, and the basis for two of my most favourite, comforting and fail-safe meals. After all, it’s hard to beat the double whammy of carbs and dairy products on a cold day. As it feels like winter is knocking on the front door, it’s time to share them with you. this first one is easy, the next is even easier: so there’s no excuse not to try these out for yourself!

Here’s the first of these… it’s macaroni cheese. Perhaps not haute cuisine, but one of my all-time favourites. And to any of our North American readers, I apologise in advance to you: this is the exact opposite of a Kraft Dinner. Miss South was braver than I, and last year experienced boxed Kraft & Mac. Made from powdered cheese: two words which should never be used in the same sentence. Unsurprisingly, she wasn’t a fan. I shuddered at the very thought of it… but then my macaroni cheese has become a signature, sloppy, safe dish; something I can always fall back on when feeling cold or blue. So it’s time to redress the balance and serve up some proper North/South mac!

Half-eaten macaroni cheese with tomatoes

Firstly, let’s drop the ‘and’. On this side of the pond, it’s always just been ‘macaroni cheese’. I was heartened to find it’s been a favourite in the UK since Victorian times, no doubt because it’s simple to make, and almost universally appealing. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten macaroni any other way apart from with cheese. If ever there was a typecast pasta, it’s macaroni. Whole packs must sit at the back of the cupboard, dreaming of being partnered with a cacciatore or arrabbiata sauce. Macaroni wants to be treated like an adult, and I’d like to think I know how to show it a good, grown-up time. There must be something to this: over the years I’ve found none of my guests has turned down my offer of seconds. Or thirds, come to think of it…

So let’s start with the basics… you’ve got to make a white sauce. I’ve got a bit more classical in the last few years, making a proper béchamel by letting the warm milk infuse with a clove and bay-studded onion, before adding it to a roux of butter and flour. But you can keep it simple and just trickle the milk in gently once you’ve stirred the butter and flour together into a smooth paste. The secret is to keep stirring at all times… I’ve been known to walk around the kitchen, stirring the pan as I go, just to keep everything perfect. This might seem excessive (or obsessive), but this is the cornerstone to the whole dish: a superbly glossy, silky, smooth and savoury sauce. And, if like me, you learn how to make this most classic kitchen sauces as a by-product of knocking up a bit of dirty comfort food, all the better. Without a badass sauce of the right consistency, this dish fails, so give it some love and attention. Once you’re confident in doing it properly, you’ll be able to do it with your eyes shut.

Three cheeses for macaroni

Obviously cheese is the other fundamental to this dish. Apart from the time, still celebrated in our family lore, when our dad managed to omit it altogether (cue whole family confusedly chewing pasta in white sauce, waiting in vain for the flavour to kick in). Generally our mum used to make a killer macaroni cheese, always using mature cheddar to up the umami stakes, giving every bite a good savoury tang. I used to do the same, but over time have settled on a broader range of complimentary flavours. So now you’ll find the sweet nuttiness of Parmesan paired with the kind of tangy Cheddar which makes one’s mouth pucker involuntarily, and a creamily lactic Lancashire to soften everything out. Sometimes a wee bit of pecorino will get added instead of the Parmigiano, or I’ll substitute some local Pike’s Delight for the normal mature cheddar; but the rich elegance of the sauce is best based on a range of cheeses. After all this lactic love, I tend to go heavy on the quantities. My rule of thumb is to grate a bowlful of roughly the same volume of cheese as the volume of dry pasta I’m going to use. Seems like a lot, but you need a decent amount for the topping. As the cheese gets stirred slowly into the béchamel, it’s time to get the macaroni going in a pot of boiling water. Drop in, return to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.

Once you’ve added a good proportion of the cheese (perhaps three quarters of the bowl), and the consistency of the sauce is like a thick custard, it’s time to season. If I was a purist, like the excellent Simon Hopkinson, I’d insist on using white pepper to keep the delicate shade of the béchamel consistent. However I normally add a tablespoon or so of wholegrain mustard at this stage, so some freshly ground black pepper just adds to the speckled appearance, and gives a touch more warmth to the dish. Taste will tell what’s right for you… I like it with a decent amount of poke. A few minutes stirring, ensuring the sauce is rich, flavoursome and thick, and the pasta should be about ready. For God’s sake, don’t overcook it: we’re finishing the dish off under the grill (and in a bed of molten sauce), so slightly al dente macaroni is better then flaccid and overdone any day.

Drained macaroni in colander

Drain the macaroni, take the sauce off the heat, and pour the pasta into an ovenproof dish. Slowly pour over the sauce, stirring well to ensure everything is coated properly, then finish the dish off with a generous topping of cheese. This’ll brown perfectly under the grill, adding a bit more bite and chew to the finished affair.

Mixing up the sauce with the macaroni

It was only a few years ago I weened myself off my childhood delight of a good squirt of Heinz’s Tomato Ketchup on my macaroni: as I was upping the ante with ever more posh ingredients. However our mum always used to put sliced tomatoes on the top to brown. I hated this at the time (sorry mum) but as I’ve got older, I’ve appreciated how the tart and sweet flavour of tomatoes complements the savoury nature of the cheese; so now I’m fully signed up to the tomato garnish. You can make the whole thing look as pretty or as lazy as you like, before bunging it under the grill/broiler until everything bubbles and browns, and you can’t resist any longer.

You’ll only need 25 minutes to knock this up; you can feel good as you’re applying some proper chef skills. Yes, the calorie count is on the high side, but this is winter comfort food, not something for a healthy regime. Don’t even think of skimping on the fat: skimmed milk or lo-fat cheese is wrong on so many levels, and just won’t deliver the big, warming flavours you want. I sometimes add a bit of double (heavy) cream to the sauce for a splash more decadence. Once you finish your portion (and seconds too, because this is one dish I can guarantee you’ll not be able to resist more of) you can always do something wholesome and virtuous, like taking a long walk in the park, or climbing a hill. You’ll be ready for anything. Except, perhaps, dessert.

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Hare removal… or who killed Roger Ragu…

Hare ragu, plated and ready
It’s game season again, and my thoughts have been straying towards furred and feathered fare as the hills and woods around here turn various gorgeous autumnal hues. Here at North/South Food we seemed to have cooked a disproportionately large selection of locally-sourced wild beasties over the last couple of years, perhaps motivated by an interest for something a little bit different, combined with a healthy desire to keep food miles low and quality levels high.

The blackboard in the local butcher’s been filled with a good variety of game in the last month: it’s been a bumper year for berries and fruits, so it stands to reason that many of things which feast on them will be in particularly fine fettle. Time to sharpen the steak knives, check the juniper berries, dig out the redcurrant jam and pour a glass of home-made damson gin!

I was gutted to have missed out on hare recently at the butchers (hare today, gone the next… buy it when you see it is the moral of this tale) so I was extremely chuffed to be offered a hare and three rabbits from another source; all local, lean and super-fresh. I’ve had hare in the kitchen once before, but it was more memorable for the cooking than the eating, perhaps as I’d ad-libbed the ingredients and found the beast a bit stringy and wanting for flavour. Since then I’ve read a lot more about hare – how in many respects it’s more akin to venison than rabbit – and wanted to give it a proper go before I made up my mind. So I took no chances and decided to follow a proper recipe this time, rather than make it up as I went.

The beast had been jointed and came without blood or giblets – jugged hare obviously wasn’t an option – so I delved into the excellent ‘Game: A Cookbook‘ by Trish Hilferty and Tom Norrington-Davies (now my go-to book for all things game) and plumped for a classic northern Italian dish of Hare Ragu. It sounded perfect for these cooler autumn evenings. I’m not a great fan of that hardcore, machismo-laced strain of game eating: you know, when the meat’s been left to hang for so long it’s high to the point of walking around the kitchen on its own. Not appealing to me… I’m all for flavour, but not so dominant it threatens to overpower everything else. This hare had been caught the day before I had it, and it spent a day resting before I started cooking. I reckoned the extreme slowness of the recipe would compensate for a lack of extended hanging.

Before going to bed I finely chopped up the veg and aromatics to make a marinade, gave the joints a good coating, mixed up everything and left it overnight to mellow and rest. I then did the same, minus the marinade. Next day I chopped up the last of some wonderfully smokey Porcus backfat and bacon (to keep with the local, hilltop vein), and rendered that down, substituting this for the oil in the recipe. Then the veg got sweated down, accompanied by what few drips of marinade juices were left in the bowl, then in went half a litre of red wine. This took a while to simmer down and evaporate, then I added a dollop of tomato puree and some cocoa.

The addition of cocoa powder might sound a tad unexpected… but after the frankly amazing rabbit with morcilla and chocolate I’d previously cooked, I didn’t need much persuasion to whack a generous teaspoon into the mix. The cocoa-y flavours add a richness with a slight tang, just enough to play off the tomato and sweetness of the veggies. Finally in went the meat, the pot was filled with water, and everything simmered slowly, softening and bubbling away for a few hours until the meat threatened to slip unbidden off the bones. It was at about this time that my guest for the evening, a good mate who’s recently recanted an adult lifetime of vegetarianism, helped me to clean the cooked meat from the bones for the second stage of the cooking. To be honest,  this was above and beyond the call of duty, but he threw himself into the task with more gusto and enthusiasm than many a seasoned carnivore would; driven by a combination of curiosity and hunger. I’d at least warned him that wild beast would be on the menu before he turned up, so it wasn’t too much of a shock for him…

Everything went back in the pot, bar the carcass which was reserved for later use, and the ragu reduced for an hour or so, until it more resembled a dark pulled-pork dish than a normal pasta sauce. By this stage the collective groans of our stomachs ensured the pasta was cooked and garnished. I’d originally intended to dig out the pasta maker and roll out a few sheets of home-made ribbons, but this was a bit ambitious for a midweek work night, so I decided to go with something already in the store cupboard instead. I went for Orecchiette Pugliesi, that curious ear-shaped pasta, reckoning its bite and open shape would work well to catch the thick ragu. It did the trick…

A good helping of pecorino and a twist of parsley topped off the hearty, steaming bowls, and we tucked right in. You know it’s a good meal when there’s little conversation and less left in the dishes by the end. The hare had a big flavour… deeply rich and meaty, with more than a hint of game, but the tastes were balanced rather than overwhelming. Cooking it so slowly meant the meat was soft, succulent and very moist, and had absorbed all the other flavours in the pot, reducing everything down to a dark, unctuous delight. The only criticism is that it was almost too dry for a sauce to coat and accompany pasta… if I made this again I’d take it off the hob slightly earlier.

As is so often the way, the flavour got better over the next couple of days – just as well, as there was a lot of meat on this hare. I was (happily) eating it for days, and there’s still a tupperware container in the freezer, holding at least three generous portions, ready to meets its match with some home-made pappadellle one evening as the nights draw in. And, as the bones were substantial enough to boil up, I’ve also got a good selection of hare stock (or should that be hare restorer?) ice cubes in the freezer, ready to add to something special in the future.

Brown hare are powerful, elegant but shy native creatures – normally the most I see of them is a browny-grey blur when I’m out walking in the hills – so I’m pleased to have gotten a second chance to savour this beast… and that we hit it off better on our second dinner date. I can highly recommend this dish… stop reading this now and make yourself a hare appointment!

Meatball stuffed tomatoes

There are somethings I never tire of and could eat for all eternity and one of those things is meatballs. I just adore them. Served with spaghetti, stuffed into a sandwich, as a canapé or just on their own, I can’t get enough of them. I usually use Allegra McEvedy’s failsafe recipe from the first Leon cookbook, but as the sun slowly came out over London a few weeks ago, I fancied something lighter and more summery. A chance encounter with some veal mince at Waitrose helped focus the mind and the next thing I knew, I had a plateful of veal, black olive and parmesan meatballs chilling in the fridge.

Pan-fried until well sealed and then steamed with stock until fully cooked through, I served them with some grilled courgettes and the pan juices for a treat of a Friday night dinner after a long week. And they were good. The sweet meatiness of the veal was enhanced utterly by the umaminess of the parmesan and the olives. I scraped the plate clean in record time and even recommended the combo to the little loaf on Twitter. But something was missing. It needed something to take it from good to amazing.

It had to be tomatoes. The July sun and heavy rains of the past few months mean that everything is better with a British tomato right now. Bursting with flavour and warmed up naturally by the flickering sun, they add a note to every dish that lifts it beyond just good. But even having decided on the welcome addition of tomatoes, it still needed something beyond just a sauce. And flicking through some stored up summer recipes, I saw an idea for stuffed beef tomatoes and it all fell into place. Meatball stuffed cherry tomatoes…

As I’ve mentioned before, my life is never too short to stuff anything. Not when everything is more delicious filled with something else. Taking the tops off and scooping out the middles of the cherry tomatoes is in fact no more time consuming than rolling individual meatballs and chilling them into shape. It’s almost as relaxing in fact.

I used about 200g of veal mince, a handful of fresh oregano, about 75g of parmesan and about ten black olives finely chopped and bound together with an egg yolk. I didn’t bother with the usual milk soaked breadcrumbs as I didn’t need the mixture to form such distinct shapes and then I stuffed the tomatoes nice and full. They then got baked for around 35 minutes until soft and collapsed and intensely tomatoey. This was longer than I thought they’d need and when I checked them about 20 minutes in, I added a splash of tomato juice to help steam them quicker. I then served them along with the pan juices on a big plate of pasta.

And they had gone up a notch from tasty to terrific. The tomato was exactly what they needed to set off the flavours perfectly and despite my intentions to only have half the meatballs for dinner, I found myself wolfing down the other portion immediately because let’s face it, there was never really any chance of me saying no to two of my favourite things combined. I enjoyed every single scrap and wished I had twice as many. I did miss the sticky cruncy crust that you get on a fried meatball, but I might just put them in upside down, pan sear them and go from there in future. But really these are the perfect summer supper. Stuff one immediately!

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Wild Garlic Pennine Pesto

I can’t believe it’s only a year since I first tried cooking with wild garlic: this proved to be a revelatory experience on two levels. First, I rediscovered it’s fun to forage for local, wild food (as Miss South can testify with her participation in regular Invisible Food Walks) and secondly, I found out wild garlic tastes really, really good.

There’s a spot nearby where ramsons run wild and profuse so at the weekend I picked a few handfuls… some to take to city-dwelling veggie mates who appreciate the delicate spring freshness… and the rest for me. I tend to pick the leaves and the occasional flower bud, rather than lifting whole plants. After all, this should be a sustainable food one can come back to year after year, so keep the roots and flowers going. So now I had the sustenance from this year’s spring, what was I to make of it?

Towards the end of last year’s season I had a recommendation to make pesto from the wild garlic leaves, as it freezes well and is a good way of preserving a little bit of spring sunshine into the winter months. I didn’t have time to try this out, although I did freeze a few leaves, which we ended up using in our blog’s first birthday dinner. So it seemed only right that I give Pennine pesto a go this year as the brief season is now fully underway.

I’ve previously made Pesto Genovese at home, taking my cue from years past when our mum used to convert the surfeit of fresh basil from the greenhouse into great pesto. From what I remember it was pretty classic pesto… only basil, parmesan, good olive oil, pine nuts and garlic. Last year MIss North and I were very pleased with a fantastic pesto we made from cobnuts and beetroot tops. However the whole subject of pesto making is a contentious subject, discussed in this piece by Felicity Cloake, so I did some more reading. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep it simple, doing a straight swap of basil for ramsons. I rather liked this blog post about wild garlic pesto, so after some brief prep I rolled up my sleeves and got started.

I (rolls eyes) toasted my nuts in a heavy pan, then tossed them in sea salt and let them cool down fully to bring out the best of their flavour. Meanwhile I washed each ramson leaf. Yes, one by one, like some slow-motion chlorophyllic shampoo advert. Although it’s a bit of a faff when you have a load of leaves it’s worth doing it properly to remove any icky things. I grated the cheese (half pecorino romano, half parmesan) and measured out the oil.

At first I tried to use my mortar and pestle to mash up the mix (doing things the traditional way), but I soon realised I’d need a Belfast sink-sized setup to grind all the long leaves easily. I was also getting hungry, so I used the hand blender instead, incorporating the wild garlic, nuts and oil in batches. Once they were done I stirred in the cheese, and a healthy grind of black pepper. I kept the final mix quite coarse; wanting a little bite from the pine nuts, and to let the grated cheese bind everything together. If anything I think it was a wee bit thin, so in future I’d probably reduce the quantity of olive oil, although it was only afterwards I realised I should’ve kept some back to top the jar off with.

The pesto was vividly viridecent; ramsons don’t have the same tendency to bruise or discolour as basil, so it looked fab. The flavour was clean and fresh, without tasting too ‘thin’ or indeed too ‘garlicky’. Tastes and looks great over some good spaghetti or linguine… and as I’ve made enough to keep me going for a while, any spare can go straight in the freezer to add some springtime greenery for a later date!