Saturday, 5 August 2017


Smooth jazz from The Manhattan Transfer

The 1970s were great*. Cooking (since you're probably interested if you're here) was all about Fanny Craddock, The Galloping Gourmet and the new CILF on the scene, Delia Smith. Films mirrored these culinary giants of the small screen in the shape of Alien, Jaws and Princess Leia in Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode VII: A New Hope as it's known now).

Music had a massive shift also, with disco and, most significantly, the advent of punk happening in this decade. It needs stating, though, that while there was a revolution going on in popular music, there was still a major stream of less challenging fare flooding the UK top 40. There was a slew of easy listening and novelty songs throughout the decade, from the cliche-ridden Europop celebration of the package tour to Spain, Sylvia's "Y Viva España"; to the Rupert Holmes cheesy ballad telling the story of a bored married bloke who replies to an ad in a lonely hearts column in order to have an affair, but with an obvious twist, the Piña Colada song. Another one was Chanson D'Amour by The Manhattan Transfer as seen in the video at the top of the page. The latter is a piece of light jazz which includes the actual lyric "Rat-ta-tat-ta-tat". However, as anodyne as that song is, that lyric starts running untrammeled through your head as soon as you hear the name ratatouille. Less ear worm and more ear rat, or maybe it's just me on that. I can guarantee, however, that, if you know the song, the very fact that I've mentioned it means that the tune will now be in your head for at least the next couple of hours. You're welcome.

70s TV chefs and iconic 70s movies. The similarities are mindblowing!
Left to right, top to bottom Fanny Craddock; HR Giger's Alien from the Ridley Scott movie; Graham Kerr, the galloping Gourmet; Jaws; Delia Smith; Carrie Fisher as Star Wars' Princess Leia. Coincidence? I don't think so!

Ratatouille is a classic vegetable stew from Provence and is best described as pure sunshine in a pot. Fresh aubergines, peppers, courgette and tomatoes, they're all there. As a meat free meal it's a great way to use the fresh produce you get in the summer and it tastes fucking amazing, especially if it's with some fresh, crusty bread.

*They weren't. They were pretty shit. We had the Three Day Week. We had Baader-Meinhof. We had flares and wing collars (see here for my take on this). The Cold War was still quietly raging and virtually nobody in the UK had even heard of couscous, let alone eaten it.

Preparation: 15 minutes
Cooking: 60 minutes

4 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 aubergine, cut into 2cm dice
1 courgette, sliced into 1cm rounds
1 yellow pepper, cored, seeded and chopped into 2cm squares
1 red pepper, cored, seeded and chopped into 2cm squares
4 medium-large tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1 tbsp tomato puree
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste
handful of basil leaves

Chopped and ready to cook

Heat the oil in a pan and gently fry the onion and garlic for 10 minutes.

Add the aubergine and fry for 10 more minutes.

Throw in the courgette and fry for another 10 minutes.

Add the peppers and fry for another 10 minutes.

Stir in the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, tomato puree plus salt and pepper to taste before adding 100ml water.

Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes (until the vegetables are tender).

 I smell a rat
And it smells fantastic

Makes plenty for a big bowlful each for two people plus a decent lunch with the leftovers.

Serve with fresh bread.

 Ready to eat
Just add bread

Big, ripe tomatoes work best in this.

Other herbs would work well in this, like oregano or (sparingly) thyme. The fresh basil is sublime, however.

As I mentioned, this dish is from Provence which became the Nirvana favoured by the British middle classes in the late 80s/early 90s, thanks in main to the book A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and the subsequent TV mini-series based upon it. It spawned a load of imitators as people with more money than sense followed through on their French rural wank fantasy, with often limited success and financial insecurity, the gullible cons de chez con, as they might say in France.

There is a little known incident on a teatime programme called Nationwide in the UK which had a cooking piece presented by Fanny Craddock in which she was making meringues. When this piece was finished, the anchor man of the programme, addressing the viewers, said "And I hope all your meringues turn out like Fanny's"

The most famous version of Chanson D'Amour is the one I put at the head of this post. However, this is not the best. That belongs to the version in the video below, as perfomed by the Muppets, which is actually sublime.

The Muppets do Chanson D'Aamour
They weren't only just about mna mna

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Pasta with aubergine, basil, chilli and pine nuts

Pasta is funny stuff. On the one hand, it's been the staple of student diets, in one form or another, for years. Often just served with grated cheese as it's cheap, filling and quick. At the other extreme, it's the lynchpin of the cuisine of an entire country where it can be covered in all sorts of over-priced shit, like truffles or caviar for fuck's sake. Yet another example of the gentrification of what has been a peasant food for centuries, a subject I've already ranted about.

Let's face it, pasta is usually nothing more than wheat and water, pressed into some fancy shapes. Obviously this belies the long culinary history of pasta. all the way from Italy. There are estimated to be over 350 varieties of pasta, many of which named after a dizzying array of things. Body parts seem a common theme with ears (orecchiette), tongues (linguine), moustaches (mostaccioli, another name for penne) all having pasta shapes named after them. Invertebrates get a bit of a look in too, with snails (lumache), squid (calamarata), worms (vermicelli) and butterflies (farfalle) all having a starring role. Then there is the really odd like bibs (bavette), cooking pots (lasagne) and thimbles (ditalini). Sadly there aren't any obviously rude official regional pasta varieties, as would fit the nature of this blog, though, as I pointed out previously, the word penne is just one "n" too many away from meaning penis. Then, I consulted everybody's friend Google and found that there is actually a dick-shaped pasta variety.

Al dente

Anyway, moving back to the recipe in hand, when considering vegetarian dishes, pasta is a perfect base and the Italian love of fresh vegetables make for some delicious possibilities. This concoction is no exception and really is a cracking little recipe. Aubergines, garlic, chilli, basil and a few crunchy pine nuts mean it's stupidly simple and quick to put together. 

Preparation: 5 minutes
Cooking: 30 minutes

4 tbsp olive oil plus additional for pouring on
2 tbsp pine nuts
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 large aubergine (around 300g in size), chopped into 2cm dice
2 tbsp tomato puree
1 tsp dried chilli flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste
Handful of fresh basil leaves
150-200g dried pasta (penne or fusilli work)

Heat the oil in a large pan and throw in the pine nuts

Fry them for a couple of minutes, until they are golden brown before removing them with a slotted spoon

Add the garlic to the hot oil and fry for 2 minutes before adding the aubergine.

Fry for another 10-15 minutes until the aubergine pieces start to colour

Add the tomato puree, black pepper and salt to taste and continue to cook for another 10-15 minutes, adding the odd tablespoon of water if it gets too dry

Meanwhile, cook the pasta and drain.

Turn the pasta into the pan with the cooked aubergine, mix, and add the pine nuts.

Finally, tear the basil leaves and add to the pasta and aubergines and stir, adding additional olive oil to give the dish a glossy look.

Serve up with some nice crusty bread.

Probably because my pedigree is more factory-made by Clarks in northern England than hand-made in Milan, I don't have much time for the whole idea that a certain shape of pasta must be served with a certain type of sauce. In this instance, the dried penne and fusilli I used (there was half a portion of fusilli left so had to add some penne from a new packet) held onto the sauce well. I've also served this with fresh tagliatelli and it works just as good.

The basil and pine nuts really make this dish. Dried basil is not a substitute for fresh leaves as the taste is very different. Pine nuts could possibly be swapped for other nuts, perhaps peanuts or cashews, but the dish will be missing the subtle coniferous fragrance that they impart.

One rare problem with pine nuts is pine mouth syndrome. This can happen after eating some pine nuts when, as I found out one time, you end up with a bitter taste in your mouth for a few days after eating the kernel. It does fade, but you don't enjoy your dinners for a few days as a result.

Contrary to urban myth, pasta was not brought to Italy by Marco Polo coming back from China, but by Arabs from North Africa. Is nothing sacred? Next thing you know they'll be claiming Arabs gave the world mathematics like algebra or made early advances in astronomy. Oh, wait, they did.