I am on a bit of a pasta jag at the moment. Let’s be honest though -when, with kids am I not? I say: “Eat pasta and be proud!”. Since going back to school we have been through a Ragù phase, a pesto revival phase, an orecchiette ai broccoli phase (and all the brassicas in between), there is never a week that passes that I don’t have classic red sugo in the fridge ready to furnish my kids’ hot pots for school… I have done pasta al forno and all manner of seafood pasta. But even I recall that here in England there was a time when pasta was considered exotic. When I started being served it at playdates in the 80s in place of meat and two veg it was seen as groundbreaking, modern and sophitiqué yet also practical, tasty and quick to prepare. It was a true case of how did we ever manage without it. It was basically the denim jean of culinary traditions. There were also aberrations like alphabetti-spaghetti and spaghetti hoops which would make my parents recoil in horror, but which I remember all of us kids universally liking at the time. Those mass-produced tinned monstrosities were proof that pasta was hitting the mainstream, that it was a ‘legit’ food. But then, along with sun-dried tomatoes (bleurghh!!), low-fat diets and white processed carb-based meals, pasta kinda lost its A-list celebrity status (outside the family-cooking arena at least). Just like how the mum-jean ushered in the combat trouser uniform, suddenly we all turned against the tide, saw fault in it becoming suspicious of pasta, bread, all types of starch. But just as jeans will be with us forever, just in reworked and improved, more lightweight iterations, I think there is a place for pasta, not just classic wheat past, and it is here to stay. Even in Italy (if you ask me – and Massimo Bottura – one of the most gastronomically conservative countries in the world) I see change. Pasta still features very regularly on my relatives’ tables but it is not necessarily served up every single day (revolutionary I know!), and when they do indulge, they now try and savour it and are quite careful to limit their serving size. The spectre of type II diabetes and diet-led disease is top of mind across all cultures it seems. Even more recently I have been amazed how such a closed culinary tradition has allowed kamut and gluten-free pasta in to the mainstream – no-one even bats an eye when these are available at restaurants these days.
Really I wanted to write this post because I am an advocate of the intelligent adoption of healthy eating. I am fed up with dietary ascetism, the snobbery of the food police, sad self-deprivation from not just pasta but from comfort food, the odd cake and cheese toasty, and old-school foods in general. These days, all we seem to see are snapshots of green smoothies and smashed avocado on Instagram and – apart from being a yawning cliché – it is also a bit of a shame really. There may be a place for that way of eating and I don’t think you have to be a yogi or Buddhist monk to adopt it. I too use a juicer and eat kale and quinoa without irony when the time is right, but I also eat butter and cheese and occasional meals focused on red meat. I was walking on the Heath yesterday when this very young, hippy, New Age dog-walker piped up with unsolicited tech-advice as she heard me cursing the rapidly extinguishing life of my iphone battery mid Autumn-leaf picture. Within 30 seconds she had lived up to her very own cliché, offering that she was vegan. In her sing-songy voice she extolled the virtues of raising one’s vibration through the avoidance of dairy and animal products, how they made her feel sad, how she didn’t miss bread, how bread “blocks a drain if you put it down a drain, it does the same to your body”. I didn’t offer up my response that I would wager that an apple or wad of quinoa and kale would have a similar effect on my house’s plumbing. Can you really tame a child’s hunger with raw food and limited protein? Can you fend off exhaustion following a string of sleepless nights with no caffeine and only plant matter? I find that if I suppress the urges brought on by the seasons and my circadian rhythms and I deny my biological messaging system, it will backfire horribly at some point. There are parents who never let refined sugar cross their kids’ lips and yet they are surprised by their offspring’s hedonism at other children’s parties. I generally let my kids pick one sweet from their going home bag and save the rest for trick-or-treaters. Teach moderation not deprivation is my motto. I can override unhealthy urges but there is a pay-off somewhere. A small slice of cake here or square of cheese there. For me the shortening days, cold weather and tiredness provoke the need for warming foods and hot drinks so just quaffing rice milk and avocado on toast when the clocks go back just isn’t going to hit the spot like it did in May. I am going to enjoy that stimulant tea and good quality biscuit and move on. Nigella was promoting her new book on Radio 4 the other day and I couldn’t agree more with her rejection of “clean eating” as if anything that does not involve juice cleanses and kale is shameful and darkly conducive to an impure body. Eating bread is one of life’s most basic pleasures and underpins my European heritage and a life without eating cheese or pasta is a very sorry prospect too. One thing is for sure: our ancestors never spent this amount of time deliberating what went into their bellies. Personally, I am just trying to hit the right compromise and figure out how to not blanket-banish entire food groups but how to integrate things like pasta into our daily lives in the right quantities, in the form of suitable alternatives and incarnated in refreshed and reworked recipes.
Even the most hardened ‘can’t /won’t cook’ types will generally be able to pull off some kind of pasta dish under duress. This is because pasta is a lifesaver: unless you are a purist paleo follower or carb-avoider (and even then you’d still involuntarily salivate over it) pasta is universally adored by everyone, children adults, vegetarians, all races all tastes. Now most traditionalist Italians would disagree with me but I think the best way of avoiding dietary “fallout”(bloat, heartburn, guilt, weightgain) is by being clever about not eating purely wheat pasta every time you feel like a pasta fix. Since we stripped wheat from my daughter’s diet (in an attempt to tackle apparently inexplicable and permanent rashes, tummy pains etc.) we have investigated all manner of pasta shapes and grains. Our favourite seems to be Kamut (khorasan) pasta, but brown rice, corn, millet and buckwheat all put in an appearance. This is has been hugely liberating as now I can make pasta 3-4 times a week and not feel like I’m not providing the kids with a varied and balanced diet. It is also a great option for those with very restrictive diets. Even the pickiest vegan won’t turn down brown rice conchiglie with kale and basil pesto:
The non-classic pasta we buy is admittedly more expensive (£3 for 500g on average) but having said that, it is way cheaper than feeding the kids fish fingers or meat or any cheese-based dishes and still very healthy. All you need is a handful of go-to sauces and the week’s menu is sussed. These wheat, gluten-free and alternative paste have come a long long way in the last 5 years. I find that Kamut pasta is very similar to regular wheat pasta (although not gluten-free yet much more tolerable by the gut than wheat) with a satisfying bite, rounded and ever so slightly nutty flavour and pleasing ‘mouth feel’. The cooking time and method for it is identical too. Brown rice pasta requires some change in cooking however as it can become very sticky and cloying if the water isn’t switched half way with fresh salted boiling water and stirred very regularly to avoid clumping. For a foolproof pasta-cooking method click here.
So here we go, let’s kick off with the series I am working which in my mind I call Culinary Basics. I am going to share with you how to cook pasta, make tomato sauce and the ultimate ragù. You will know how to make stock and soup and rolling family menus. I am going to classify these in the “Recipe Vault” section and the first of these simple building blocks is my go-to saviour dish that satisfies everyone. Watch this space.