Two sweet finds

Last Saturday I found myself at the other end of town from my usual stomping grounds.  This gave me a chance to nip into Aldi and pick up some of their pesto sauce, which I think is rather better than the one sold by my regular supermarket.

It was fairly crowded in the shop and I was in a bit of a hurry so I just dived in, grabbed 3 jars of red pesto (noticing that they didn’t seem to have any green in stock – not a problem as I prefer the red anyway) and made for the checkout.

Only later, when I got home and went to stow my purchases, did I realise that I hadn’t actually bought pesto after all.  Instead I’d picked up jars of a “Creamy and Smooth Tomato and Mascarpone Stir-In Pasta Sauce”, which happened to be in very similar looking jars (from the same manufacturer) as the pesto ones, and in the place I’d usually expect to find them.  In fact, outwardly, there was little apart from the writing on the label (which, admittedly, does fairly clearly say “Tomato and Mascarpone Sauce” rather than “Pesto Rosso”) to distinguish the two.

This is probably not something I would normally have bought unless it was on a particularly good special offer (actually it may have been, since it cost me about 50p less than I was expecting for 3 jars of pesto) but I decided that, since I’d got it, I might as well use it.  Like pesto, it appears to be the sort of thing that you can just stir into some freshly cooked pasta, though I’m sure you could do fancier stuff with it as well (I recently discovered that pesto works well in bubble and squeak, but I digress).  That’s what I like about pesto, incidentally, the fact that it’s very versatile and particularly useful for being able to put together a tasty (and reasonably nutritious) dish very easily when you’re in a hurry or feeling tired.

I opened the first jar for lunch yesterday and was very impressed by the lovely, creamy taste.  On that occasion I also threw in some sweetcorn that I had left over from the previous night’s dinner (tuna pasta – yes, I do eat quite a lot of pasta).  This evening I used up the remainder of the sauce jar just with pasta and it was still very delicious.

I found an old pesto jar waiting in my recycling box, so I was able to compare the labels.  To my surprise, the tomato and mascarpone sauce actually contains fewer calories (and also less fat, sugar and protein, though marginally more salt) than the pesto.  I guess that’s probably due to the fact that nuts (well known to be a good source of fat, sugar, protein and energy) are a staple ingredient of the latter.

Now that I’ve discovered this sauce, I’ll probably continue to get it from time to time, though I hope that Aldi hasn’t stopped stocking their pesto sauce since it’s a very useful addition to my food cupboard.

I made another exciting culinary discovery recently too.  I’d been given a little pot of cream cheese (something I don’t usually buy, though I quite enjoy eating it from time to time) by somebody who couldn’t use it and I randomly thought to try it on bread with honey.  It was very tasty and is definitely another one I’ll try to remember for future use.

 

When life gives you lemons…

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!

 

Not quite self-sufficient

In principle, I’m very much in favour of the idea of growing one’s one food.  However, I’m glad I don’t have to rely on eating what I’ve grown for myself…

Today I harvested the first-fruits of this year’s yield from my garden – just enough spinach and rhubarb to contribute to tonight’s dinner (fortunately I was dining alone, as it wouldn’t have stretched).  That’s already better than last year, when I don’t think I managed to get anything at all edible out of my garden despite trying to grow several things, but I’m not expecting very much more of either crop and I’m doubtful that my sprouts are going to produce anything at all.  I should get a nice crop of nasturtium leaves if I actually remember to harvest them this year.

I steamed the spinach and enjoyed that as an accompaniment to the pasta con funghi (and other random ingredients, all non-home-grown)  that I cooked up for dinner. I’m sure there are more adventurous ways of preparing spinach but this simple approach works perfectly well and I didn’t want anything too complex to clash with the array of flavours in the pasta dish.

The rhubarb went, as it usually does in my kitchen, into a crumble.  There was only just enough fruit to cover the base of the dish, so I ended up letting the crumble topping mix in with it rather than sit on top.  I also varied this crumble a bit by using honey instead of sugar to sweeten the rhubarb (along with a dash of lemon juice – the citrus seems to complement the rhubarb quite well – and a bit of water) and drizzling a bit more on top, as well as using a mixture of plain and self-raising flour (instead of just plain) to make the crumble.  I’m not sure if that pushes it towards cobbler territory, as I can’t remember whether the use of raising agents is the differentiating factor (if there is one) between cobblers and crumbles, but it certainly helped to lighten it a bit, which was quite useful given the higher than usual crumble-to-fruit ratio.