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Crimp, rocket and roll… salmon ravioli

This weekend saw the latest round of our longstanding local dinner circle: an informal gathering of friends to enjoy good food, drink and conversation around a table. We’ve previously themed each event around a country or geographical region, for both food and drink. It was my turn to host again and I decided to combine Italian influences with locally sourced ingredients. Perhaps unwisely I decided to set the bar rather high, and make a meal from components bought on the day from the market, in a way I’d never cooked before. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, I suppose.

The first course was my most ambitious, and allowed me the chance to try out something new which would hopefully be as pleasing on the eye as the palate.I ended up with home-made giant ravioli, filled with fresh lemon, salmon and local East Lee soft cheese, served with a fennel and vermouth hollandaise foam on a bed of rocket, and topped with pickled samphire and Morecambe Bay potted brown shrimps…

When Miss South and I were young there were few kitchen activities which beat the excitement and spectacle of making fresh pasta. The large kitchen table would get dusted with flour, a broom handle which was reserved for the occasion would be brought out from under the stairs, and would be placed across the back of two chairs, ready to hang and dry fresh tagliatelle. Finally the pasta making machine would be clamped to the table, ready to pummel, roll and cut.

There was palpable anticipation and excitement in our house, as these activities inevitably heralded a dinner party for the adults – an exotic and adult activity from which we were normally excluded, predominantly as they went on way past our respective bedtimes. However this didn’t preclude us from either hanging around as the pasta was being made, nor sampling it later on. Little would stop me from enjoying the pasta in any way, and I used to snaffle leftovers of the cooked, ungarnished linguine straight from the pan. Sorry mum, if you ever wondered where it disappeared to…

Strangely, despite my love of fresh pasta, I’d never attempted to make it myself. However, with the advent of the dinner circle, I rather fancied rectifying this gap in my culinary canon. So, on a wee bit of a whim, I picked up a pasta maker on the way home on Friday evening (at £17.99 thank you Argos). I suspect when our parents had brought back one from Italy in the 80s it would’ve cost significantly more, if it was even possible to source one in Northern Ireland back then.

I consulted my two favourite Italian authorities for all things kitchen-related: Marcella Hazan, and Giorgio Locatelli. Perhaps unsurprising there was some contradiction in their advice. This pasta-making business seems at least partly based on personal preference. The basic components were, thankfully, consistent – flour, eggs and salt. Previous pizza-making escapades ensured I had plenty of finely-milled ‘Tipo 00′ flour squirrelled away at home, but I picked some duck eggs and some double-yolkers from the market on Saturday morning. Locatelli subscribes to the ‘more yolks are better’ school of thought, and as we’re such a fan of duck eggs here at North/South Food I thought I’d take advantage of their renowned attributes for baking and see if that would apply to pasta dough too.

After finely sieving around 500g of flour I made my ‘fountain’ for 3 duck eggs (reminded me more of the way we eat champ) and got mixing. At first the dough was really hard work and I thought I’d got the mixture all wrong, but after adding an extra hen’s egg double yolk and about 10 minutes of heavy going, the dough started to come together more as I remembered it. The duck eggs helped imbue the dough with a wonderfully warm hue (with more than a passing resemblence to polenta). I then separated the dough into 2 balls, and wrapped both in clingfilm to sit for an hour. Thankfully the dough was much easier to work after it had sat around doing nothing… so I got out the shiny new pasta making machine and tentatively fed the dough into its waiting maw. As the dough got thinner and longer, and longer and thinner, I was glad of an extra pair of hands to assist with the increasingly giant lengths. Eventually it was tamed and fine enough to be laid out on the table to cut.

We cut out large circles, trimming gently around a bowl, then added the filling. I’d finely sliced a fresh salmon fillet (from Paul, the great fishmonger at Todmorden Market), mixing it by hand with some of local food hero Carl Warburton’s East Lee soft cheese. Add the juice of half a lemon, a good portion of zest and a generous handful of chopped flatleaf parsley; some coarsely ground black pepper, and mix up by hand. Form into patties and place in the centre of the pasta circle, before enclosing, sealing and crimping. These sat for an hour on a tea towel, looking pretty drying slightly, ready for the pan. When they were almost ready I started to make the sauce, a variation on Delia Smith’s always reliable foaming Hollandaise. I used less wine vinegar and added a generous glug or three of vermouth just before adding the egg whites, which gave the whole thing a hint of anise. Not quite a béarnaise sauce, but the addition of some fennel tops, finely chopped like dill, added to its slightly aromatic character.

After poaching the ravioli for about four minutes each they were ready to be placed in a bowl, on a star of rocket, and drizzled generously with the foaming sauce. The crowning glory was a garnish of pickled samphire (from the wonderful Brixton Cornercopia, courtesy of Miss South) and some potted brown shrimps from Morecambe Bay. Incidentally, if you’ve not had these little beauties before, snap them up if you’re lucky enough to spot them. They’re so moresome and flavoursome, but not worth the fiddle and faff of preparing them yourself. The dish did look at least as beautiful as I’d planned, and the combination of flavours was balanced and delicious. Thankfully it was also well received by my dinner guests. Phew!

The next day, buoyed up by the success of the ravioli, I used up the rest of the pasta dough and quickly created some tagliatelle. This provided the basis for a rapid leftover lunch to die for: sautéing some fennel in butter, adding some pieces of salmon and the rest of the shrimps, a splash of lemon juice to help wilt the rest of the rocket leaves, and a squirt of harissa to add warmth. This certainly helped to temper the fluffy head from the previous night’s drinking, and underscored that pasta making is nothing to be afraid of. I will be attempting much more of this in the near future… can’t wait until the wild garlic season comes round so I can make fresh pesto and spaghetti!

Kraft Mac n’Cheese

I have long been a bit of an Americanophile with a particular penchant for American literature. Part of that fascination is to do with the descriptions of seemingly exotic sounding foods in these novels. To someone growing up in Ireland, corn dogs and crawdaddies held an almost magical fascination. So imagine my childlike glee when I espied a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in Brixton Market last weekend! I could finally try that most archetypal of American meals without the need for transatlantic travel…

Kraft Mac n’ Cheese or Kraft Dinner as it is also referred to, seems to be the thing that most of my American ex-pat friends crave the most outside the USA. They beg returning travellers to slip those familiar blue boxes in their luggage or pay ridiculous prices for it in Selfridges food hall. Their eyes glaze over with wistfulness when they mention it. How could I resist trying something so iconic?

So on a grey rainy Sunday evening, after a few cocktails the previous night, I decided it was time to try the ultimate comfort food and open that box of Kraft Dinner in time for Come Dine With Me. Firstly, I was alarmed to see that since the macaroni and cheese sauce are separately packed, you have to make the entire 3 serving box in its entirety. Even as a great lover of macaroni cheese that seemed excessive.

Secondly, the macaroni seemed to stick together the instant I added it to the boiling water and no amount of stirring seemed to help. Thirdly, while my pasta lump was cooking, I was horrified to see that the serving instruction was to use 4 tablespoons of margarine to make the cheese sauce. For a real butter lover those instructions felt like sacrilege. I was slightly relieved to see that the ‘Light Prep’ involved 2 teaspoons of butter and the same amount of fat free milk. Pondering why anyone would willingly add that much margarine to anything, I drained the macaroni.

Thanks to having to stir it to try and break up the unappealing lump it had formed, I haven’t seen macaroni this gluey since I last made art in kindergarten class. Obeying the express instruction not to rinse it took every ounce of my willpower. Instead it lay draining in the colander looking wan and quivering like a recently unearthed brain. I hoped the cheese sauce would salvage it…

I added a 1/4 cup of semi skimmed milk to the pan along with a lump of salted butter and opened the foil sachet of cheese sauce powder. Believe me when I say the last time I saw anything that unnaturally lurid in colour, it was being worn by a eager young thing en route to a Nu Rave night. Luckily stirring it into the milk and butter rendered it normal enough coloured to consider eating and it looked almost palatable by the time the macaroni was stirred in.

I was too shocked to take a good photo...

I put the whole mountain of mac n’ cheese in a bowl and added some black pepper for extra favour. I was slightly concerned to see that by the time I had sat down to eat, it had begun to congeal slightly in the bowl, adding an extra dimension of unappealingness to it all.

Undaunted, I dug into the dish, only to discover it looks better than it tastes. I’d say it tasted like sick, but at least sick has a definable flavour. This was offensive in its sheer blandness. It didn’t even taste of salt, let alone cheese. The macaroni was limp and wet with absolutely no texture or bite while the sauce was just tasteless with a unpleasant hint of oiliness. The whole thing was simply like milky semi digested pap. By the time the good folk of Come Dine With Me had reached their first starter, I had had enough.

Having tasted this dreck, I cannot imagine how miserable you must be feeling for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to classify as comfort food. Everything about it is an insult to the real thing. Any craving for processed cheese I had after reading this paean to it has been obliterated. After this crushing disappointment I doubt I will ever risk trying an egg cream or a funnel cake in the future. I’m not sure I could take the shattering of another childhood dream after this debacle!

Brassica Tacks

I love broccoli. I love this much-maligned brassica so much that I get withdrawal pangs if I go too long with it. I love it so much I may have entered into broccoli eating contests with a friend on occasion. So imagine the excitement I felt when I discovered the new world of cape broccoli at the farmers’ market on Sunday…

This excites me far more than the oh-so fashionable purple sprouting broccoli, which can have very woody stalks and a slightly fusty flavour. It looks much prettier to me even if it is basically a purple cauliflower. I was intrigued to know how it would taste and would the colour last on cooking?

I decided to try some of it slightly steamed as I would with the normal stuff, but to encorporate the rest in this delicious sounding dish of slow cooked broccoli with buttermilk and serve it with pasta for a brassica-tastic midweek dinner. I am well known for my tendency to under cook broccoli so I thought I would challenge myself with this different style of dish.

I went for half cape broccoli and half regular broccoli with this very easy to make dish and it looked fantastic in the pan. I added an anchovy to the recipe for a bit more oomph, but otherwise stuck to the recipe. This all required about 5 minutes preparation, before simply leaving it to gently simmer for around an hour.

Unfortunately, this made my entire flat smell like a cheap boarding house as the dreaded musty sulphurous smell of overcooked brassicas permeated everything while it simmered. I figured I could overlook this minor annoyance since the dish was bound to taste delicious. I decided to serve it with pasta and while my bucatini cooked, I took the broccoli off the heat and added the lemon zest and buttermilk, along with some grated parmesan before plating up.

The broccoli did not look at all appealing at this stage. It looked like suspiciously how I imagine ectoplasm might look if you are unlucky enough to have a poltergeist about the house. But I refused to judge this book by its cover and tucked right in…and was instantly disappointed.

This just tasted of watery overcooked broccoli with a slightly warming kick from the chili. Admittedly it would have been better with pasta shapes so that the pasta and the sauce mixed better, but this shouldn’t really have affected the taste. I just think the long slow cooking actually cooked the taste right out of this lovely vegetable.

I ate the lot because after waiting an hour for it to cook, I was starving and because I can’t bear to squander food. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by this dish and feel that I rather wasted my poor cape broccoli on it. I will be sticking to my tried and tested 3 minutes steaming in the microwave with broccoli in the future and leaving longer cooking of brassicas back in the 50s where they deserve to stay!