As promised, this is my first installment in my spotlight on five books from my recipe collection. I'll devote three entries to each book.
I came across the television show The Best when flicking by a BBC Canada preview one long weekend. Starring Ben O’Donoghue, Paul Merrett and Silvana Franco, the premise of the show was simple – two separate theme ingredients/meals would be set up as a challenge for each episode. The three would then prepare and present their interpretation to a cloistered group of judges. Some examples were; the best sweet summer tart, the best lamb lunch, and the best simple sandwich.
Though this may sound rather like an episode of Iron Chef – The Best could not be further from the Kitchen Stadium of Chairman Kaga. The hosts, two classically trained chefs (O’Donoghue and Merrett) and one experienced cook and food stylist (Franco), worked together with an easy competitive camaraderie. Each took on the duties of sous chef for the others, and there was frequent tasting and joking along the way.
It was the charm of the series that made me seek out the cookbook by the same name – which has fast become one of my favourite books for inspiration. The three authors, with their diverse backgrounds and influences, support and encourage my somewhat schizophrenic interests in cooking.
Merrett’s Perfect Cheese Soufflé and sublime Watercress and Mushroom Soup appeal to the part of me that likes a bit of fuss over a meal. His recipes can be a bit labour (and time) intensive, but the results are nothing short of show stopping.
O’Donoghue, proud of his Australian roots and classically trained, tempts me with fresh ingredients presented in laid-back style. His Summer Berry Compote and Braised Tuna Salad epitomize his philosophy on food – elegant yet gutsily straightforward, uncompromising in its quality.
Franco is a woman after my own heart. An accomplished food writer and stylist who has worked with the likes of Ainsley Hariott, she has not let acclaim change her views on food. Simplicity itself, relying on cupboard staples and no-nonsense preparations, dishes like her Chinese Style Barbecue Pork and Goat’s Cheese and Cranberry Toast offer immediate satisfaction.
The first recipe I’ve chosen to highlight is Ben’s Tomato and Herb Spaghetti from “The Best Quick Pasta Supper” episode. I love the combination of the velvety robust sauce against the herbaceous crunch of the pan gritata (toasted breadcrumbs) – all slurped up with perfectly cooked spaghetti. In the midst of summer I will admit that I sometimes substitute the canned tomatoes with peeled fresh ones, whenever I find myself in possession of some just about to pass their prime.
Ben’s Tomato and Herb Spaghetti
The Best by Paul Merrett, Silvana Franco and Ben O'Donoghue.
For the pan gritata:
4 tablespoons roughly chopped thyme leaves
4 tablespoons roughly chopped parsley
2 tablespoons roughly chopped majoram
1 small dried-out or day-old chibatta, made into rough crumbs
8 tablespoons sunflower (or other neutral) oil
For the tomato sauce:
1 garlic clove, crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil
800 g jar of San Marzzano plum tomatoes, or 2 x 400 g cans of plum tomatoes in their own juice, drained
1-2 bird’s eye chilies
500 g (1 lb 2 oz) pack best-quality durum wheat dried spaghetti
1 garlic clove, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
To make the pan gritata, first process the herbs in a food processor. Empty into a bowl, add the ciabatta crumbs and blend together using your hands.
Heat the sunflower oil in a frying pan and shallow-fry the herbs and breadcrumb mixture for 3-4 minutes, until crunchy. Drain on kitchen paper.
Make the tomato sauce by gently frying the garlic in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil for 30 seconds, until sticky. Add the tomatoes and chilies and cook for 30 minutes over a very low heat until broken down and the tartness has gone from the tomatoes.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente (according to the packet instructions) and drain. In a large frying pan, heat the remaining olive oil and add the chopped garlic. Toss through the cooked spaghetti. Then serve the spaghetti in a bowl with the tomato sauce surrounding it and season with salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Sprinkle the pan gritata all over and serve.
• In the case of the dish in the photograph, I happened to have fresh, finely crushed breadcrumbs around from another recipe. I opted to use them instead of the ciabatta, and tossed some through with the cooked pasta. For your first time making the recipe, I recommend using the ciabatta as instructed – the coarser texture adds another dimension to the dish.
• I choose to season the sauce with salt and pepper while it is cooking, rather than at the end.
• When I use fresh tomatoes, I reduce the cooking time for the sauce to about 15 minutes, as I like to preserve a bit of the freshness of the tomatoes.
• Although not mentioned in the recipe, I find that a bit of freshly grated Parmesan never hurt anyone.