Last night I had pasta for dinner.
That’s not incredibly surprising as it seems to be one of the mainstays of my diet these days – being a relatively cheap, quick and easy way to knock up a tasty, filling and reasonably healthy meal, with quite a bit of scope for variation.
The problem, though, is that I seem to have got stuck in a bit of a rut for my pasta preparation and there’s been relatively little variation of late, so I’ve been getting slightly bored with it (although, when it comes to the crunch – and I do like my pasta slightly al dente – I still enjoy eating it).
My usual approach is to more-or-less randomly select one of the two or so varieties of pasta I usually have in the store cupboard at any given time (last night it was tagliatelle, the other option being conchiglie), set that going in a saucpan (with, obviously, a fair amount of boiling water, as well as a little salt) and then use the 10 minutes or so while it cooks to knock up the sauce.
The sauce starts with a bit of olive oil in a frying pan set to simmer gently. To this I add a chopped up spring onion and often some fresh or dried chillis (last night it was small Italian dried red chillis – just a couple to infuse a bit of bite into the oil), a chopped up anchovy fillet, a few capers and chopped up olives (green, at the moment – I usually seem to alternate jars of green and black olives), a crushed clove (or sometimes two) of garlic, some dried oregano and freshly-milled black pepper and, often (like last night) a fairly liberal dose of tomato purée.
By the time the pasta is cooked, this has all simmered down nicely so I drain the pasta, lob it into the frying pan (which I’ve taken off the heat by now), mix it all around and serve it up in a bowl that I previously warmed up either by resting it upside down on top of the pasta pan for half a minute or so towards the end of cooking or by draining the pasta water into it (either way, a quick wipe to remove the excess water leaves a lovely warm bowl ready to receive the pasta), then grate a bit of freshly grated Gran Padano cheese (which is stocked by at least one of my local supermarkets and seems to be pretty similar to Parmesan (or Parmigiano-Reggiano to use its Italian name) but significantly cheaper) on top and eat it, preferably with a slice or two of fresh bread and washed down with either water or, if circumstances allow, red wine.
As a basic method for preparation of pasta, this has (I believe) a lot to recommend it. However, as previously alluded to, my recent pasta cookings have tended to stick to exactly the same pattern with little of the variation with which I usually like to spice up my cooking (and eating) beyond the shape of pasta and colour of olives used.
Last night, therefore, I was cooking away and thinking how I ought to try to do something a bit different with my pasta sometime soon.
Then I noticed another saucepan sitting on the worktop, in which I’d earlier brewed up some honey and lemon for the cold that’s been bugging me over the last few days (it’s getting a lot better now, thanks for asking). This is a nice simple concoction which, as the name suggests, basically consists of one or two half-lemons (squeezed a bit to let some of the juice out into the saucepan) simmered in water for a while, with some honey stirred in (and often a bit of chopped up ginger too, if I have any to hand – which I didn’t yesterday) and then transferred into a mug for drinking immediately or a thermos flask to save for later. The pan still contained the lemon chunks and that gave me a cunning idea.
Seizing one of the lemons, without stopping to think too much about what I was doing or what it might taste like, I sliced off a bit of the rind, chopped it fairly finely and tossed it into the frying pan (this was, as I recall, shortly before I was due to put in the tomato purée and after everything else had gone in). The initial result was a wonderful citrus aroma that was released into the kitchen, which inspired me further to squeeze a few drops of juice from the lemon into the sauce. When I came to eat it, I found that the lemon rind and juice had imparted a relatively subtle and definitely very welcome note (unsurprisingly, of lemon) into the taste.
Although this particular lemon had been boiled up in water, with honey, I doubt that the effect would have been significantly different if I’d used a raw lemon. I might have got some of the effect with just a bit of lemon juice but I think I would have missed the particularly delightful whiff of the lemon rind first making contact with the hot oil, not to mention the lovely flecks of yellow in the sauce (which, admittedly, were somewhat masked by the addition of the tomato). I’ll definitely be aiming to use lemons in my pasta sauces again in future – though not every time, as that would rather defeat the variation that I was aiming for!