Thursday, 16 February 2012

Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino (Per Uno)

Quick and easy Italian comfort food at it's best.

It's extremely rare that I end out cooking an evening meal just for myself. Tonight, as it happens has been one of those nights. It's half term week and my family are off staying with relatives or away for work, and there I was, working away and wondering what to eat. For a house that's usually full of people it's a strange place when it's just me. I cook most evenings for all of us, but tonight I needed something quick and something that would fill the void created by an empty house. The last time this happened to me was three and a half years ago (!), and what did I cook? Aglio, olio e peperoncino.

I don't know of anything simpler that packs as much punch as this delightful dish. Ordinary dried spaghetti, good olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, chilli, butter and parmesan. Intensely aromatic, seriously 'peppery' and immensely satisfying.

I checked out the fridge and the pantry before walking to the the shop to pick up the last bits and pieces. Basil: check, garlic: check, chilli: oh yes, still plenty of my chilli bounty in the freezer -  but olive oil, parmesan and spaghetti? No.

Nice and frosty, straight from the freezer

This meal takes as long is it takes to boil spaghetti. Like ten minutes in total if you are organised. I do it like this:

Boil 1.5 litres of water in a kettle and transfer to a large pot with a good dash of salt. Add 100g of spaghetti to the boiling water. Roughly chop 4-5 cloves of garlic and as many chillies as you can handle. Finely grate a decent chunk of parmesan cheese (2-3 tablespoons works for me) and roughly break up a handful of basil leaves.

In a large frying pan, heat up 2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and toss in the garlic and chilli. Turn off the heat immediately as you do not want the garlic to brown, you just want it to infuse the hot oil.

When the spaghetti is cooked (it takes only 8 minutes or so), remove it from the water with tongs and toss it into the hot oil. Put the heat back on gently while you stir the garlic, chilli and oil through the spaghetti. Add a dollop of butter, half the parmesan and half the basil, give it a good toss and plate it up. Once on the plate add the rest of the basil and parmesan, crack open a super chilled bottle of white wine and go for it. You won't regret it. I promise.

Spaghetti Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Perfect Poached Eggs - It's All In the Planning

Whether it's a breakfast treat for overnight guests, a hangover cure or just a naughty little snack, to me the perfect poached egg is where it begins and ends. I measure the quality of a restaurant kitchen by it's poached eggs and always order eggs poached when given the option. It's an anxious moment as more often than not I end out disappointed. They are usually either two hard or worse, have unset whites.

I get annoyed when asked 'how do you like your eggs poached?'. Perfectly of course! A perfect poached egg should have a hot creamy yolk and a fully set white. You can see the difficulty, a few seconds can make all the difference. In order to have a fully set white, the outside edge of the yolk must also be just set, leaving an nice steamy runny centre.

I'm proud of my poached eggs and I think I deserve to be. I've perfected the method over decades and no longer feel anxious when preparing as many as 8 or 10 breakfasts for guests. So today I share with you my little tips and hope you can enjoy the same feeling as I do because, there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of delivering perfect poached eggs.

1. The eggs:

Fresh fresh fresh and organic is all I can say. We eat so few eggs so what is the difference in a few pence per egg when it comes down to it. Always choose the ones from the back of the shelf with the latest use by date. If the egg is not really fresh, the white will go to pieces in the water. Yuck. Some say you shouldn't keep eggs in the fridge (supermarkets don't) but then I don't think it really matters and what are the egg holders in the fridge for anyway?. To be honest, if they are cold there is less risk of overcooking them.

2. The kit:

A ladle (to break the eggs into first) and a saucepan with at least 5cm (2 in) of gently simmering water with a serious dash of vinegar. I normally use white wine vinegar but I had run out so used malt vinegar instead. The only difference is the darker vinegar leaves a slightly coloured residue on the finished egg. Use a slotted spoon to check and remove the eggs. A bit of kitchen paper is useful to remove any last bits of water before they go on to the plate.

3. Preparation:

Timing is what it's all about, so get prepared. Make sure all of the other breakfast ingredients are cooked and ready to serve before you start poaching the eggs. Make sure the plates are hot, and make sure your condiments and garnishes are all ready to go. And don't forget the coffee.

4. Timing:

Use the ladle to 'roll' the egg into the water. As the egg sinks it will plume as the white starts to set and create just the right shape. Now this is where it all gets a bit weird. I don't time poached eggs because there are too many factors involved. For example the temperature of the egg, the number of eggs being cooked and the volume of water. So, I invented the 'wobble test' instead. Pick up the egg with the slotted spoon and gently wobble it. If it looks like a bag of water, it's not ready. If it doesn't wobble at all it's overdone. It should wobble just like a set jelly. With a bit of practice you'll work this out in no time, it's intuitive. This tells you the outside is firm enough to hold it together and the inside is still liquid. It's weird , but it works. Roughly it takes about as long as the toast takes in the toaster, so I always put the toast on immediately after the last egg goes in the pan.

Two eggs is obviously easier than 8 or 10 eggs. When I do a large batch, I use a large pot and remember the order that the eggs went in. When serving, I remove the pot from the stove and continue to check each egg and remove them the moment the pass the wobble test. Everything else must already be plated up or you'll get into a right flap.

5. Make them pretty:

Fresh coriander (cilantro) and fresh chillies are my favourites plus lashings of freshly ground black pepper. I raided my chilli bounty in the freezer and finely chopped a mild red one, a pretty purple one and a little green bomb; super hot and full of flavour. It looks like a pea with a fuse and wow, it really does explode!

So there you have it. That's how simple and stress free it can be.

And last of all, the leading photograph is one of those happy accidents we all hope for. The word 'EGG' on the Emma Bridgewater dinner plate has somehow landed perfectly above the egg itself! It wasn't until I copied the photo on to my laptop that I even noticed. Priceless.

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