Category Archives: Pasta

Baked Aubergine Ziti

I am always happy when I find an aubergine in my fortnightly veg box. I love this fat purple hand grenade of a fruit and its versatility – it seems to go with every type of cuisine imaginable.  Whereas I usually bung it in a curry, or braise it with some tofu, this time I wanted to do something a bit different. The (frankly awful) weather we’re experiencing at the moment makes me want to wrap myself up in a blanket of carbs and cheese, so I decided to turn to that most homely of comfort foods – the humble pasta bake.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a pasta bake. It’s a ziti, an American/Italian mashup which is a bit like a lasagne but made with short pasta. But, the way I see it, a pasta bake by any other name is still a pasta bake – even if people get a bit snotty when those two words are thrown around. Best of all, it’s the perfect thing to make if you’re cooking for a crowd. The most ‘cooking’ you have to do is creating a decent tomato sauce and browning some aubergine slices. Then you just layer the lot together, smother it in some mozzarella and ricotta cheese and throw it in the oven for 25 minutes.  If you’re not particularly keen on huge chunks of aubergine, you could just chop it into cubes and add those to the tomato sauce. Or, if you’re feeling really dirty, you could coat them in panko breadcrumbs and fry them first to add a nice bit of crunch (thinking back, I kind of wish I’d done this now myself).

This is easy, delicious food, and just the thing to keep the Summertime blues at bay. Add a simple green salad, some good crusty bread and a glass of wine, and you have the perfect weeknight dinner.


You will need:

For the tomato sauce

  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp rosemary
  • 1/2 tsp chilli flakes
  • 3 leaves of basil, chopped
  • 1 tsp of white sugar
  • 200g penne pasta
  • 1 medium aubergine
  • 150g mozzarella
  • 150g ricotta
  • Salt and Pepper to season

Make It:

  1. First, fry your garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil until it begins to soften. Add the tinned tomatoes and tomato purée and cook for five minutes until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the oregano, rosemary, basil, chilli flakes and white sugar and simmer while you are cooking your pasta.
  2. Boil your penne until it becomes al dente. Drain, and toss in a tablespoon of olive oil to prevent it sticking.
  3. Cut your aubergine into thick rounds (they should be roughly the same width as a 2p coin). Sauté in some olive oil until they are just beginning to turn brown.
  4. Mix the penne with the tomato sauce and layer at the bottom of a large casserole dish. Add the ricotta, then the sliced aubergines and top with torn mozarella. Season well, and bake at 200 degrees C/Gas Mark 5 for around 20-25 minutes.
  5. Once the baked ziti has cooked, leave to cool for around five minutes. Serve with a green salad and fresh crusty bread.
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Spaghetti with Morcilla and Tomato Sauce

I’m a huge lover of black pudding – be it deep fried and slapped on a bap, bathed tenderly in a tomato sauce or served up with the ubiquitous pea purée and scallops. Whilst some people may turn their nose up at the idea of eating blood-based-offally-treats, I have no time for their naysaying ways. After all, what’s there to dislike? It’s  just a bit of blood. And ridiculously tasty blood at that.

Whilst my Northern heart will always be allied to a nice juicy Bury specimen, I have a very soft spot for morcilla, a Spanish interpretation which uses rice as a binding agent instead of the usual suet, and is spiced with paprika. This makes it slightly moister, and gives it a wonderful rich, punchy flavour.  Whilst I’m not averse to simply frying it and eating it straight out of the pan with my fingers, it’s even better when it’s cooked with love, care, tomatoes and smoked paprika.

I first saw this recipe at Eat Like a Girl, and  immediately bookmarked it, intending to make it as soon as I had a chance and some spare black pudding at my disposal. Me being me, I’ve tweaked a few of the elements – added a few more chillies, a bit more smoked paprika, and simmer the sauce rather than roast it, as my morcilla melted into my sauce pretty quickly, and I was scared that cooking it in an oven may lead to Mr. Cay moaning at me because he has to scrub the carbon stains off yet another casserole dish.

What you’re left with is a saucepan full of something which (I’ll be honest) isn’t the most attractive looking sauce in the world, but which yields a plate of comfort – full of warmth and flavour, comfort and spice. The best thing about it is that it takes no time at all to pull together – an hour tops if you count the time it takes to open a bottle of wine and glug a glass whilst you’re waiting for your pasta to boil.

So, here’s to blood, to offal, to everything dark and cheap and delicious. You may not be pretty, but boy, you sure are tasty.


Adapted (slightly) from Eat Like a Girl 

You will need:

  • 200g morcilla
  • 2 shallots, finely sliced
  • 2 fat cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tsp red chilli flakes
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 200g (good) white spaghetti
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Make It!

  1. Sauté the shallots and garlic in a good glug of olive oil for around five minutes. They should turn soft, but not brown.
  2. Chop your morcilla into large chunks, and add it to the pot. Cook for around five minutes until it begins to soften and fall apart.
  3. Add the tomatoes, chilli flakes, smoked paprika and red wine vinegar to the mixture. The morcilla will melt into the sauce, so keep tasting it to ensure it’s all to your liking. Needs more chilli? Or perhaps a touch more red wine vinegar? Throw it in there!
  4. Simmer the sauce for twenty minutes. After ten minutes, boil your pasta until it is cooked al dente. Drain and add to the sauce.
  5. Serve immediately with a smattering of parsley.
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Oxtail Ragu Lasagne

“Remember, if it doesn’t work, I still love you.”

This was Mr. Cay’s reaction when I cheerfully informed him on Friday night that I intended to spend my weekend making an absolute beast of a lasagne which would take me two days, involve me using practically every saucepan we own and require me to make everything but the mozzarella from scratch. I am sure that any lesser (read: sensible) human being would probably have tried to talk me out of the whole affair, reminding me that I had a) never made fresh pasta before and b) have an uncanny knack of swearing and threatening to set kitchen equipment on fire when things don’t go my way. Thankfully, I am blessed with a supportive – if long suffering – other half, who doesn’t mind me destroying our kitchen in the name of culinary experimentation, so long as something edible results from it.

So, on Saturday, after a rather invigorating run down the tar-and-rotting-grain scented Dock Road, a visit to my favourite butcher’s in the St. John centre, and an unexpected run-in with an owl, I set to work. I slow cooked my oxtail joints in some chicken stock for eight hours until the meat swooned off the bones, and then left the mixture to cool overnight. Oxtail is notoriously fatty, and you don’t want all of that to go into your ragu, so you’ll need to skim the globs of fat off your braising liquid before you create your sauce. I added a tin of tomatoes, a good whack of wine and let the whole thing simmer gently whilst I tackled my pasta.

Ah the ‘joy’ of making pasta from scratch. I tell you what, it’s really not as easy as they make it look on TV. Creating the sheets for my lasagne led to me panting, puffing, grunting and swearing, meaning that my kitchen sounded like the set of a very low budget porno. It took me 35 minutes to realise that I wasn’t putting enough dough through my rollers, by which time I was threatening to throw my pasta maker out of the window and set fire to it.

Finally, after a lot of legwork – and more than one gin – I finally managed to create some relatively decent pasta. I’m fairly sure that if any Italian person had seen them, they’d cry at what I’d done to one of their most famous food creations, but I’ll be honest – after an hour of rolling the stuff, I was past the point of caring. My arms still hurt from cranking that bloody roller.

Eventually with a lot of sweat, a few tears and numerous threats of blood being shed, I managed to create something beautiful. OK, so the pasta may have been a little thick but I couldn’t have been prouder of my creation than if I’d actually managed to give birth to it myself. Would I recommend that you make this at home? Well yes – but only if you have a few days spare and greater upper body strength than myself. But, in the end, it was definitely worth it. Even if I will be running around the block for the next week trying to work off the leftovers from my thighs.

OXTAIL RAGU LASAGNE (Makes 5-6 large portions)

Oxtail ragu recipe adapted from Hollow Legs and Skye Gyngell

You will need:

For the oxtail ragu

  • 1 medium sized oxtail, jointed (your butcher should be able to do this for you)
  • 1 medium sized carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, diced
  • 3 fat cloves of garlic, diced
  • 1 medium sized white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 springs of fresh rosemary
  • 1 tsp of dried sage
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 500ml chicken stock
  • 250ml red wine
  • Salt and Pepper to season

For the fresh pasta

  • 250g 00 pasta flour
  • 3 medium sized eggs
  • A large pinch of salt

For the béchamel sauce

  • 40g butter
  • 30g plain flour
  • 500ml milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 30g parmesan cheese, grated
  • A large crack of black pepper
  • A ball of good quality mozzarella

Make It!

  1. First, brown your oxtail in a large pan. Once browned, remove the browned meat from the pan, top up with olive oil, and sauté your onion, celery and carrot and sweat for 10 minutes until soft. Add the chopped garlic to the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.
  2. Place the oxtail and sauteéd vegetables into a large saucepan (or slow cooker if you’re using one), and cover with the chicken stock. Add the tomato purée and bay leaf and simmer for four hours or so (or for around 6-8 hours if you’re using your slow cooker). Once the meat is cooked and beginning to fall off the bone, switch the heat off and allow the mixture to cool.
  3. Take the meat out of the pan, and shred it with your hands – taking care to remove any small pieces of bone you may find. Pour the fat off the sauce, heat it up, and then add the shredded meat, chopped tomatoes, wine, rosemary and sage. Let the sauce simmer for around half an hour until it has turned thick and glossy. The sauce can be made up to two days in advance.
  4. Now, it’s time to make your pasta. (I suggest that you drink a large glass of wine before you do this if you’ve never made pasta before. You will swear. You will sweat. And you will need a drink). Mix the flour and salt together into a volcano shape in the bowl. Make a well in the middle, and add the eggs. Wet your hands, and knead the mixture for around 10-15 minutes until it develops a silky texture.  Allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
  5. Flour your pasta machine and your dough thoroughly. Roll the ball of dough out on your kitchen surface until it is about 1cm thick (it should feed through your pasta machine comfortably). Put it through each setting twice, fold it back on itself, then repeat the process. Once it gets too long for your kitchen countertop, cut it in half. Cut the pasta into sheets the length and size of the dish you’re using for the lasagne, and store under a damp cloth until you’re ready to use it.
  6. For the bechamel: Pour the milk in a small saucepan and bay leaf, nutmeg and black pepper. Place over a low heat and let it come very slowly up to the simmer, which should take around 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and strain the milk into a jug, discarding the bay leaf.
  7. Now, make the roux. Begin by melting the butter gently. As soon as it melts, add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to make a smooth, glossy paste. Now begin adding the infused milk a little at a time, whilst stirring vigorously with a small balloon whisk. When the milk has been fully incorporated into the sauce,add the next amount. Continue doing this until there is no milk left – stirring vigrorously all the time.
  8. Turn the heat down and let the sauce cook for 5 minutes , whilst continuing to whisk it occasionally. While that’s happening, add the parmesan, taste, and season with salt and freshly milled black pepper.
  9. Assemble your lasagne: Still reading? Good good. Assemble your lasagne by spooning a third of the bechamel sauce into your lasagne dish. Then add a third of the ragu, and a sheet of pasta. Repeat until all of the ingredients have been used up. Dot with the mozzarella, and bake on 200 degrees centigrade/Gas Mark 4 for 30-45 minutes.
  10. Once baked, remove from the oven and admire your handiwork. Cry slightly. Serve with a green salad, lots of wine, and a glow of approval from friends, family and admirers.
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Pork Meatball Ragu

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a deep and unerring THING for meatballs. I mean, look at them – who doesn’t like small meaty spheres of deliciousness? I can easily shovel down great handfuls of the things in one go, especially now I’ve finally figured out how to make them so that they don’t a) lose their shape whilst being cooked and b) don’t turn out like little protein bullets made of failure.  There’s also something very soothing about the act of rolling meatballs. It’s the kind of simple repetitive action that a person can easily lose themselves in on a Sunday afternoon whilst their mind is concentrating on other, higher pursuits. Like the football.

Over the past few months, I’ve been experimenting with making them from any and all types of meat I can get my hands on – from lamb meatballs flavoured with coriander and ginger, to beef & veal meatballs heady with oregano and rosemary. So, whilst wondering what I could make for Sunday lunch this weekend that wouldn’t require me to leave the house (don’t look at me like that, it was cold and I may have been hungover),  I rummaged around the back of my freezer to extract a rather sad looking portion of pork mince, and the idea of a Pork Meatball Ragu was born.

To make the meatballs, I spiked the mince with fennel seeds and chilli flakes so that they were redolent of aniseed with a short, sharp bite. I always use Food Stories excellent method of combining the mince with damp bread because it produces the best results –  perfectly juicy, featherlight specimens which are ridiculously moreish. I based the sauce on Felicity Cloake’s excellent recipe for bolognese with a few little tweaks here and there, such as initially cooking the meatballs in a mixture of milk and nutmeg, which not only makes them soft and sweet, but has the added bonus of making your oven smell like Pernod.

The end result was sensational – unctious meatballs in light, tasty sauce which wrapped itself around the pasta like a lover. I served mine simply, with a lick of grated parmesan and plenty of black pepper, although I imagine this ragu would go just as well over some cheesy polenta or even slapped between two slices of ciabatta and served up as a sandwich. If you’re looking for something to serve your sweetie this Valentine’s Day, I suggest you say it with meatballs.

PORK MEATBALL RAGU (Serves 2-3 people)

You will need:

For the meatballs (makes roughly 14 meatballs)

  • 250g (not too lean) pork mince
  • 2 slices of white bread
  • Half an onion, finely diced
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp dried chilli flakes

For the sauce

  • 1 medium sized carrot, finely diced
  • 1 medium sized onion, finely diced
  • 1 stick of celery, finely diced
  • 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 150ml white wine
  • 150ml milk
  • A pinch of nutmeg
  • Salt & Pepper to season

Make It!

  1. First, make your meatballs. Slice the crusts off the bread, and place it in a bowl with a few tablespoons of water until soaked through. Squeeze all of the moisture out until you have a fat ball of bread. Add the pork mince, diced onion, fennel seeds and chilli flakes and mash together with your hands until combined. Season well.
  2. Wet your hands well and make your meatballs. I do this by taking teaspoons of the mixture and rolling them into small balls which puff up whilst cooking. Once done, refridgerate your balls for at least an hour before use.
  3. To make the sauce, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and cook the onion, carrots and celery on a low heat until they turn soft and golden (this should take around 10-15 minutes).
  4. Pop the vegetable mixture into a casserole dish along with the meatballs, milk and nutmeg. Cook at 180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4 for 30-40 minutes until the milk has just evaporated.
  5. Pour in the chopped tomatoes & wine, and stir well. Cook for around an hour and a half until the sauce has thickened and the meatballs are soft and tender.
  6. Serve over short pasta or polenta with plenty of parmesan.
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A Simple Tomato Sauce

I am notoriously terrible with money. Always have been, and (probably) always will be. Back when I was a student, I practically had a hotline to my bank manager who would often tut at me when I asked to extend my overdraft.  Somehow there was always too much month left at the end of my money – and who wants to spending their last tenner on sensible things like food when it could be used to go out dancing ?

In my younger days, I’d regularly go shopping with the loose change that I found down the back of my sofa. Indeed, back in 2003, I spent most of the Summer surviving on a diet of 15p ramen noodles which were pimped up with a bit of soy sauce, the bagels my housemate would bring home from the café she worked in at the time, packs of dried spaghetti and tins of tomatoes. As a result, I still can’t look at a pack of instant noodles without shuddering. However, there is a lot to be said for being thrifty. Mainly because it makes you inventive. And hey, what is cooking without a bit of invention?

I remember my Bubbie telling me about Marcella Hazan’s simple tomato sauce back when I was eighteen and preparing to leave home and move to big bad London. Although she’s not so well known in this country, Marcella Hazan is a bit of a phenomenon in the USA, and is deemed to be largely responsible for introducing the American public with many of the cooking methods that so many of us take for granted nowadays. She’s also been credited with starting the craze for balsamic vinegar – rather a poisoned chalice when you think of all the times you’ve been to an Italian restaurant and found your food smothered in the stuff. (If you’d like to find out more about this very inspiring woman, be sure to check out Steamy Kitchen’s excellent post detailing her meeting with Marcella, and her very suave wine writer husband, Victor).

Hazan’s methods emphasise the benefits of simplicity. All of her recipes are a celebration of how you only need a few store cupboard ingredients to create something satisfying. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you should always use the best ingredients that you can afford. And hey – is anyone really going to notice if you make one of her recipes out of some wilted basil you find at the back of your fridge, or some overripe tomatoes you find being sold for 5p in Sainsbury’s  at the end of the day?

This recipe is so easy to make, it feels almost shameful to write it down – it being more a combination of common sense and knowing what works together rather than any mastery of tastes and textures. If you’re using fresh tomatoes, you’ll need to skin them first by popping them into a bowl of very hot water for ten seconds before leaving them to cool off in a bowl of iced water for another five seconds. Then, the skins should easily slip off the flesh. Once you’ve done this, chop your tomatoes finely, making sure to remove any seeds which you feel might get stuck between your teeth at an inopportune moment. (Of course, if you’re using tinned tomatoes you can skip this bit altogether). Next, place your tomatoes in a medium sized saucepan with a whole onion and five tablespoons of butter (I used Lurpak Sea Salt Butter which is officially my new favourite ingredient. No, I’m not being paid to say that, Yes, I am open to all offers), and simmer the whole lot together for about 45 minutes, until the drops of fat from the butter start to float on the surface. Then, you can take the onion out (I like eating it with a knob of butter and some salt and pepper, because I’m strange like that) and stir the sauce through some cooked pasta.

I like to adulterate the sauce slightly with some fresh basil and a teaspoon of oregano, but, to tell you the truth, it’s just perfect as it is. Comforting, delicious and ever so slightly creamy (that’ll be the butter), you can feast like a king, safe in the knowledge that no one need ever know that you only spent a quid on ingredients. If my student self was reading this, I know she’d approve.

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Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Roast Chicken, Shredded Brussels Sprouts, and Parmesan

Every time I see brussels sprouts, I always think of that scene from Bottom. ‘Why do we have to have sprouts? BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS!’ For a long time I saw them as being the kind of vegetable that was only wheeled out during the festive season. Not that I ate them of course. Why waste them on my unappreciative belly when they could be pelted across the dinner table at my siblings? Christmas Dinner at the McDermott residence, after all, was a battlefield – and these incongrous mini cabbages made perfect bullets.

However, as I’ve grown older, I’ve seen the error of my ways and come to realise that brussels sprouts have been unfairly maligned by my good self. After all, I’ve always been drawn to things which have bad reputations, and these are no exception. A sprout caramelised in foaming brown butter is a thing of great beauty. They make your tastebuds sing with joy when crowned with parmesan, black pepper and lemon juice. And let’s just save the noises I’ve been heard to make when they’ve been served up to me creamed and teamed with bacon (after all, this is a family blog).

Sunday lunch last week saw me  roasting a rather large (and rather fine) chicken. After gnawing on a leg of it in the manner of Henry the 8th, stripping the carcass clean of meat and boiling up its bones to make a mighty fine stock, I got to thinking what I could do with the leftovers. And, seeing as I had a load of brussels sprouts hangoing around rather forlornly at the back of my fridge, it only seemed right and proper that I throw them into the mix too. Thinly shredded and sautéed with a knob of butter and some olive oil, they added a delicious, almost musky flavour to complement the herby hit of shredded chicken, golden fried slices of garlic, and loads of grated Parmesan. On a cold March Monday night with Lent (and my pledge to give up both booze AND carbs) around the corner, it was perfect lick-your-plate-clean comfort food.  And when served up as breakfast the next morning, it was even better.


Adapted from Serious Eats

You will need (although do bear in mind that most of these measurements are approximate):

  • A large handful of brussels sprouts, topped and tailed with the discoloured leaves discarded
  • 2 tablespoons  butter
  • 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (I used some lovely smoked garlic that I got from The Quarter)
  • Half a pack of whole wheat spaghetti
  • 240ml  chicken stock, (preferably homemade), heated to a simmer
  • As much shredded roast chicken as you can handle
  • A large hunk of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • Salt and Pepper

Make It!

  1. Bring a large saucepan of well-salted water to the boil.
  2. Slice the brussels sprouts into thin shreds. Heat the butter and 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large pot until the butter is melted and starting to foam slightly. Add the brussels sprouts and a generous pinch of salt.
  3. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Add 50ml of water and continue to cook, covered and stirring occasionally, for a further 5 minutes or so until the sprouts are tender but still firm to the bite.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the garlic and remaining oil in a small frying pan or saucepan over a low heat, swirling the pan occasionally, for 5–6 minutes until fragrant and lightly golden. Remove from the heat. When the sprouts are done, let them to stand, covered, off the heat.
  5. Cook the pasta in the boiling water until al dente, then drain and transfer  to a large serving bowl. Immediately add the sprouts, stock, garlic and oil, and toss together. Add the chicken and the grated parmesan. Toss together.  Serve the pasta immediately, drizzled with extra oil and sprinkled with ample black pepper, the remaining parmesan and a sprinkle of salt.
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