During my time working as a seasonal cook in Rome, I must have cooked and eaten over two hundred bowls of spaghetti, farfalle, linguine and pici, not counting the times I went back for seconds. Each one was slightly different to the last, with ingredients that reflected what was growing in the fields outside Rome.
One might think that the novelty of eating pasta every day might have worn off quite quickly, but to misquote Samuel Johnson : “When a man is tired of pasta, he is tired of life”. From tinned tomatoes during winter through spring’s peas to the first basil of summer, the sheer brilliance of the humble pasta shape is that each one attaches seamlessly to the changing seasons. Flicking through my Roman kitchen diary, I only have to look at the pasta dish to know which month we were in.
Effortless to prepare and comforting to eat, it is easy to see why pasta is Italy’s favourite fast food. What I learnt in Rome is that the most simple of ingredients can make for a moreish meal – a tin of anchovies, an ageing piece of cheese, some dried chilli flakes – it’s how you combine them that counts. We have a tendency in England to serve pasta sauce as a topping, rather than ingredient – a practice which horrifies Italians.
The Italian I speak today is limited to kitchen vocabulary, and mantacare was my first word. Literally, this means to emulsify the cooked, starchy pasta with the oil in your sauce. Practically, it means to be generous with oil whilst cooking your sauce and to always keep back a mug of cooking water before draining the pasta. Fold your sauce and cooked pasta together in the saucepan, loosening with the reserved water until it shines. I would always add a little cheese into the mix, which not only adds richness but thickens the sauce in an extremely satisfying fashion. Whether it’s pesto, a slow-cooked ragù or a simple pomodoro, bringing sauce and pasta together before they meet the plate will awaken in you the excitement I still feel every time I cook pasta – which, it may not surprise you to read, is almost daily.
Courgette, pea & mint pasta
The technique of frying and blending vegetables for a sauce is one I use year round. In summer, it works well with red peppers and black olives. In winter I use broccoli, boiling first and then slowly frying with anchovies while the pasta cooks.
What you need
200g dried pasta (I used fusilli)
3tbs olive oil
70g goat’s cheese
Handful frozen peas
Handful chopped fresh mint
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil. Salt the water generously – it should be as salty as the sea. Throw in the pasta, setting the timer for two minutes less than the al dente cooking recommendation.
- Slice the courgettes into half centimetre rounds. Heat the olive oil to a medium/high heat in a wide frying pan and add in the courgette. Season generously with salt and pepper and zest the lemon over the pan. Cook for five minutes until tender but not browned, stirring regularly.
- Pour one ladleful of the pasta cooking water into a mixing jug. Crumble in the goats cheese, chopped mint and half the cooked courgette, keeping the other half on a low heat. Squeeze in the lemon and blend until fairly smooth using a hand held blender.
- When the pasta timer rings, add the peas to the pan. Set for another two minutes. In the meantime add the blended sauce to the frying pan.
- Just before draining the pasta, lift out half a mugful of the cooking water. Drain the peas and pasta and pour back into the saucepan. Pour in the sauce and mix well using a spatula. If the sauce seems a little dry, add in some of the pasta water and a splash of olive oil. You’re looking for a shiny, luscious-looking sauce.
- Serve with a sprinkling of fresh mint.