Pasta Primavera – asparagus, broadbeans and petit pois

…or how to make my favourite expensive vegetable go further.

This recipe uses a ‘pasta bianca’ sauce, but the way it is made in restaurants. I learnt the method from my friend Claudio, who is an amazing cook. It means you can make it vegan, or optionally vegan, adding parmesan to each plate separately if desired. I think this recipe, with asparagus, doesn’t need cheese – in fact, is better without it – but do as you will, dear reader 😉

Ingredients – serves 2 people, but it is easy to double it up

250g dry weight of ‘smooth’ as opposed to ribbed pasta (pasta liscia)
I used linguine, but I would have used penne lisce, if I’d had some – the important thing is that it is smooth to go with the silky texture of the vegetables.
125g (about half a bunch) asparagus – choose a bunch with thinner rather than thicker spears, as it gives the illusion of being more when they’re cut up
100g fresh or frozen broad beans, their inner skins removed – if you can’t get them, substitute frozen edamame/green soya beans
100g frozen petit pois
2 cloves of fresh garlic, finely minced
1 tablespoon oil or a knob of butter
10g plain flour
200ml cold water (this is about a scant level tablespoon of flour in a hi-ball glass of water)
Coarsely ground black pepper, to taste.

Skin your broadbeans.
Put a large pan of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
Meanwhile, trim woody ends from the asparagus, and cut spears into 2-3 cm lengths. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add asparagus and cook for a couple of minutes until done but al dente. Strain over a jug (the water is very good for you!) and refresh asparagus under cold water.
Add pasta to the big pan, and cook as per instructions on the packet until also al dente. While the pasta is cooking, make a paste with the flour and a little water until smooth, then add the remaining water and mix well. In a small pan over a medium flame, heat oil (or melt butter and when gently foaming), add garlic. When fragrant, about 30 secs, add flour and water mixture and stir continually for 4-5 minutes until the sauce slightly clears and thickens, (it should be an ivory colour and it will begin to bubble up and rise in the pan,) check that the ‘raw flour’ taste has completely disappeared and season – you might not need salt if you’ve used butter, but don’t forget it if you’ve used oil.
Two minutes before the pasta is ready, add the peas and beans to the water. Strain all in a colander, and return to pan, add asparagus and the sauce and mix through. Black pepper and/or parmesan are optional, but there should be enough vegetables in this to be brimming with taste as it is. The fresh garlic gives the sauce plenty of flavour.


Spring onion and ginger oil, mo hanh and some of their cousins

The first time I asked for spring onion and ginger oil in Soho, the rather snotty waiter informed me it was only meant to be served with soya chicken – what a waste! It goes really well with loads of things: stirred through plain noodles, on toast, on chilled tofu, and is a pretty instant dressing for a plain tomato or cucumber salad. It doesn’t store brilliantly well in the fridge – only a few days or maybe a week before it begins to lose its fresh zing, but it does freeze well. I suggest you either make a small amount, so it doesn’t get forgotten at the back of the fridge, or you use a tad more oil and freeze it – the oil means it never sets completely hard, and you can scoop what you need from the tub as and when you want, like a savoury Heston Blummenthal sorbet.

Cantonese style Spring Onion and Ginger oil

1 tablespoon fresh ginger , peeled and finely chopped.
4-5 spring onions, white and mid green part only (reserve darker ends of leaves for something else.
2-3 tablespoons peanut or sunflower oil – corn or canola are too yellow and flavoured. ¼ teaspoon of salt or to taste.
If you can, use young ginger – where the skin is quite thin and you can easily scrap it with a finger nail – it is less fibrous and much juicier, but it depends on the seasonability of ginger where you live. Above all, do not, please, please do not use very lazy ginger from a jar or even the little frozen cubes they now sell, because you will ruin the sauce and your dinner. If you can’t get hold of fresh ginger, make the mo hanh recipe below instead – just as delicious and even more versatile.

Prep your ginger. Remove any really old leaves/papery bits from the spring onions, and trim off the root. If you have scallion style spring onions, with a big bulb, as opposed to Japanese bunching onion, you might as well cut the bulb off and use it in cooking – it doesn’t really matter, it’s more a case of making what you’ve got go further. Cut darkest green – top 1/3 – leaves off and use to make mo hanh below. ..again, you don’t have to. Chop onion in fine rounds and combine in a pestle and mortar or a bowl with the ginger and the salt. Mash together for a minute or 2, so you work the salt in and it dissolves in the juices before you add the oil. If you haven’t got a pestle and mortar, just in a bowl with the end of a wooden spoon will do – if you’re making more to freeze, you could do this bit by blitzing it in a machine.
Add enough oil to moisten and cover your mixture, but don’t drown it.

I know some recipes say to heat the oil before adding it – I never do, but if that’s what your mum or grandma said to do, do it 😉
I aim to make mine the colour of ‘eau de nil’ green – again this is a condiment, rather than a foundation sauce.

Mo Hanh – Vietnamese Spring Onion Oil

Without the punch of the ginger, and with no salt, this is much subtler and therefore even more versatile. It sneaks into lots of things in my house, not just Vietnamese dishes.
I use just the tops of the spring onion because a) I usually have made the version above as well and b) I really like the bright emerald green…but I’ve seen recipes that use the whole onion…it’s up to you.

Ingredients – makes about 100ml
50ml peanut or sunflower oil – again canola or corn oil won’t do
Top 1/3 of 5-6 spring onions or 2-3 whole ones

Chop the onions into fine rounds (about 4mm). Heat the oil in a small pan over a medium heat. Add onions for 10-15 seconds – literally –and transfer immediately to a bowl. Place in the fridge for about 15 minutes, this helps fix a really nice vivid green.
Will store for about 2 weeks in a screw top jar in the fridge.

…and some of their cousins

Well, more like poor relations, really…I loosely follow the mo hanh recipe for the green bits on old onions/garlic that have sprouted, in fact anything from chives, garlic chives to the leathery tops of leeks, if I’m not making soup. For tender things like garlic chives, I pour hot oil over them, stir and put in the fridge, and for leeks I shred the tops finely and heat in the oil for longer – 30-40 secs…I then strain the oil and discard the shreds.

You can use the method to make garlic oil as well, replacing the sunflower oil with olive oil and cooking for a bit longer, but stopping before it turns brown– I know some recipe books on Italian food say leave garlic until it almost blackens, then discard it, but I’ve never seen anyone do this in real life, either in Italian homes or in restaurant kitchens.

In fact, you can pretty much use any of the allium family to flavour oil, as they are all edible for humans (but, weirdly, not for dogs – the onion family is toxic to canines if eaten in excess, according the marvellous Plants for a Future website, which has an amazing database of over 7000 useful plants).

Home-made Chilli bean paste with garlic

Most chilli-bean-garlic pastes/ sauces you can buy have way too much msg in them – totally unnecessary. I’ve got quite a laissez-faire attitude to a little bit of msg as a ‘umami’ flavour in pre bought food – but like all flavour/mood enhancers, less is undoubtedly more. 🙂
Too much msg makes my tongue feel burnt. Yuck.
This sauce is definitely a condiment, rather than something you use as a foundation in cooking, but I use it all the time – in fact, on toast, it’s kind of become my replacement for marmite/vegemite, so I tend to make it on a 1:1:1 ratio of chilli, black bean and garlic – however, Lottie and Special K, the two mates who I swap homemade stuff with most often, are both diehard chilliheads, so I make a 2:1:1 version for them – you can make it as hot as you like, but the method and the type of pan you use are pretty much set in stone.

Ingredients – makes 2 small jars – about 500 ml.
1-2 generous handfuls of regular dried chillies (red, about 5-6 cm long and 0.75-1 cm wide)
1 large or 2 small whole bulbs of garlic
1 handful fermented black soya beans
300 ml cooking oil – I use sunflower oil, but you could use canola or peanut – the main thing is it should be flavourless and be able to withstand high heat. Use 50-100 ml more oil if you’re using 2 or more handfuls of chilli.

I am hoping that if you’re making Chinese style condiments, you already own a wok, but you could also use a karahi or something similar – the main thing is, the pan should be considerably bigger than the volume of ingredients, as they fizzle and bubble up when you add them to the oil – and there should be a relatively large surface area in relation to the amount of oil you’re using, to allow moisture to escape, otherwise the flavour will be too broiled/boiled.

Break off any stalks on the chillies and twizzle between your fingers to remove most of the seeds – you won’t get rid of all of them, but as they don’t plump up when you soak the chillies in hot water, leaving them all in will make your sauce too crunchy – like deep fried granola, and get stuck between your teeth. If you want a hotter sauce, just use more chillies. CAUTION, if you think you might rub your eyes/nose/tender parts in the near future, you might want to wear rubber gloves for this bit.
Place chillies in a bowl and cover with boiling water – set aside for 30 minutes, then drain.
Peel all the garlic.
Rinse black beans – you can soak them in hot water to plump them up a little bit, but for no longer than a couple of minutes – I don’t bother. When drained, mash lightly to break them up a little.

If you haven’t got a machine, chop the chillies and the garlic quite finely – keeping them separate. Even if you’re going to blitz them, it is worth roughly chopping them before adding them to the machine, so that they end up being evenly finely minced not part puréed with some big chunks. Blitz in short bursts.
When you’ve got these 3 ingredients lined up in separate bowls, put your clean, dry pan on quite a high heat, until you see a heat haze coming off it, then turn heat down slightly and add oil – heat until you see a heat haze coming off the pan and the oil starts to gently shimmer – you have to pay attention because you don’t want it to get to a smoking point – turn off the heat immediately, and if you’re cooking on electric, remove from the hot ring. Straight away, add the chillies – they will fizzle up and spit a bit, so be careful. The oil will turn orange, and when it begins to calm down, but is still bubbling, add the garlic. Stir a couple of times and add the beans.
The addition of each cold ingredient brings down the heat of the oil, so this needs to be done in quite quick succession. Leave to cool, then bottle.
As long as the paste has a good layer (1 cm) of oil covering it, it doesn’t need refrigerating and will easily keep for 2-3months. If you find you have an excess of oil, you can scoop this off and keep it as plain chilli oil for cooking/dressings.
Black beans are available in small bags or cardboard tubs in Chinese stores – they’re dead cheap and last indefinitely. Once you’ve opened them, store in a screw top jar as they smell quite strong. One of the best brands is Pearl River preserved black beans with ginger, which seems to be available all over the world.

really red tomato sauce

There seems to be 101 recipes for tomato sauce – I’m not talking Heinz/condiment, I’m talking cooked, plain or otherwise, to serve over pasta, polenta, potatoes, whatever…so, personally, I totally reject the idea of adding carrots, celery etc – the holy ‘soffrito’ or ‘mirepoix’ trinity of some european cooking….this, below, is either tomato, tomato and onion or possibly tomato, onion and red bell pepper (spanish sofrito) sauce- I add garlic to everything I can, but you, dear reader, may do as you please 😉
The secret of keeping your sauce really red is to fry the tomato puree/paste before you add tomatoes, tinned or fresh, or any water…you might like to think of this as ‘fixing’ the colour, like using a mordant when you’re dying things with natural based dyes.

for a chunky base you may wish to start with onions – if so, for 4 ppl, chop 2 onions quite finely and lightly fry in 2 tablespoonsworth of oil until they turn translucent..then add garlic and fry for 1 minute further…
for a finer base, start with the garlic, minced, gently cooked for 1 minute until fragrant but not yet golden..I recommend 2 cloves per person serving, but do as you will 😉
Then add an equal amount (to the oil you have used) of tomato puree. Stir until the oil becomes orangey red and the puree becomes a shade darker…then you can add your can/carton(s) of chopped tomatoes, or chopped fresh tomatoes – preferably de-seeded (and, if you’re using them, finely sliced or pre cooked red peppers). Cook for a further few minutes, quite a few minutes if the peppers were raw, n.b. it is better to add raw peppers along with or even before the garlic, at any rate before the tomatoes if you’re using canned/carton toms- wait until the (raw) tomatoes give up some juice and/or the peppers soften – then taste – you might need to add salt, and/or a teaspoon or so of sugar. At this point, you can stop, and in a separate pan and a little oil, start to add other ingredients…herbs, chilli, fennel seed, even polpette or bolognese ingredients, then add in your really red tomato sauce and water, little by little, if you want a thinner, less rich sauce.
Re: bolognese sauce..I have been to Genoa, and it’s true that their pesto alla genovese is amazing and the very best I’ve ever had in a commercial premises – but I’ve never been to Bologna – is their meat sauce really that good? All I know is they have a bad arse reputation for some of Italy’s most brilliant and outspoken feminist thinkers…so, shout out to the Bologna massive anyway.
Above all, don’t overcook your version of this sauce – frying of the puree only impedes, rather than stops it going that dreaded washed out orange :-0 goodness, I sound like such a snob.