Since early Monday and up until last night, I was in quite a mood. By early, I mean truly very early. And by quite a mood, I mean a doozy of one.

It might have been the fresh start of a new week, or maybe it was my recent birthday, but whatever the reason I have been in a clean-out-the-closets-get-rid-of-the-clutter-oh!-should-I-start-the-flower-beds-there-is-laundry-to-be-folded-hey!-does-that-window-need-cleaning-air-out-the-curtains sort of mood. I felt like a squirrel riding the swell of a caffeine high, skittering between task to task, caught just between busy and absurdly frantic. More often that I would like to admit I veered recklessly into the latter category.

What finally brought this careening momentum to a halt was, to the surprise of no-one I'm sure, food. A nibbly sort of snack, the most modest of things really. Scorch-grilled bread, a mound of oven dried tomatoes, creamy bocconcini, and a healthy spoonful of lemony, herby, capery, chili-spiked olive oil was enough to stop me in my tracks.

All laid out on a big plate, it was the sort of thing to be lingered over.

A combination of flavours and textures well-suited to this in between time when Ms. Spring can still be a tad temperamental; substantial without being heavy. Rich and unctuous, creamy and mild, astringent and fresh - all piled together on top warm, crusty slice of garlicy bread.

True, I am one that would happily munch on my left shoe if it was topping a fat wodge of freshly-baked bread, but take my word, this is something rather good. Put down the to-do list and pass the wine.

Cheers.

LEMON AND PARSLEY SAUCE

A pared-down, rustic variation of the Italian classic, salsa verde. This recipe is for the amount I needed for our snack, but the (estimated) quantities are intended as only a guideline. You can also add some toasted pine nuts and plumped up raisins for a sauce to serve over griddled slices of salty haloumi.

INGREDIENTS

  • 3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon capers, roughly chopped if large
  • 1-2 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
  • Zest of one lemon, cut in thin strands
  • 2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/8-1/4 teaspoon dried chili flakes
  • flaked sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

METHOD

In a small bowl, combine the parsley, capers, anchovy fillets and lemon zest. Stir in the lemon juice. Slowly add the olive oil until you have a loose, chunky vinaigrette. Check for the balance of acid to oil, adjusting if needed. Season to taste with chili flakes, salt and pepper.

Makes around 1/2 cup.

 

OVEN DRIED TOMATOES

Making oven dried tomatoes is hardly new and not at all demanding, but the results are so rewarding it garners another mention. They are juicier than sundried, with a texture I far prefer. You can also control the level of roasting to best suit your needs, which is a bonus, and slow roasting coaxes a bit of summer sweetness from the hothouse varieties available to those of us waiting for local field tomatoes.

I basically use Nigella Lawson's recipe for Moonblush Tomatoes, with a few changes:

• I use fresh thyme instead of dried and add a few grinds of black pepper.

• More often than not I add a head's worth of unpeeled garlic cloves to the pan.

• Upon putting the tomatoes in to roast, I turn the oven down to 350°F (175°C). After about 10 minutes, I turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes to finish drying. Keep in mind that the total roasting time will depend on the size of tomatoes you use. Rarely do I leave them overnight.

• I often make these after baking bread, to take advantage of the already-heated oven.

Growing up, my best friend was right next door. It was one of those friendships where sleepovers were weekly, staying over for dinner was almost daily, and company was constant. We were lucky enough to live on a street where everyone knew everybody, where children ran freely from yard to yard wreaking havoc and laughter. It was a great place to live, with pool parties and backyard barbecues crowned with sparklers at the end.

Beyond the fun we had, my most vivid memory of these childhood friendships was the food. I think of those barbecues and I can taste the juice of sticky sweet watermelons, I think of strawberries picked from the bushes in the backyard, and of fingers stained a myriad of rainbow colours from Fun Dip.

But most of all I think about the kitchens - ours and the one next door. While our house was filled with the flavours of India and England, theirs was bursting with those of Italy. So as much as my Grandmother's shepherd's pie and my Mother's chicken curry figure largely in my remembrance of childhood, so do jars and jars of pickled red peppers, tender veal cutlets, and handmade breads for the holidays. The alchemy of homemade wine was a mystery to us. I was fascinated by the yearly ritual, and the enormous glass carafes that would take up residence in the basement. Oh goodness, and Nutella - that wonderful dark chocolate and hazelnut spread that is nothing short of ambrosia to a 6 year old.

As kids, we ate all meals at home, walking home from school at lunchtime. As far as I can recall, the business of meals was simply part of the daily ritual. I never had the impression that it was a bother, or that it was a chore (though it must have been, sometimes).

I cannot help but think that it was this assumption of good, fresh food that has shaped how I cook today. Even when tired or frustrated, it is not often that I am too tired to cook. I may be vexed about my day, but I am not vexed about the food. Sure, it may sometimes be simple, but the process of preparing food is integral to the routine of my day; I feel I have forgotten something without it.

I am thankful for those early influences, and that food and philosophy are remembered fondly - and often. As with most of us, I am sure, pasta has endured as a comfort food in our household. In its preparation, I sometimes stop to remember those meals from years ago, hoping I can come close to those tastes.

While this vegetable bolognese is far from traditional, and nothing I had as a child, it still brings me that sense of comforting nostalgia. Slowly stirred aromatic vegetables cooked until deeply flavoured and tender, then served with hot pasta and a snowfall of Paremsan - how memorable is that?

Vegetarian bolognese
My version was a combination of recipes; as I did not write down quantities as I cooked, I thought it best to simply provide the same guides I used. If anyone would like specifics, please feel free to contact me.

Sources:

Pappardelle with vegetable bolognese from Epicurious
Rigatoni with vegetable bolognese from Giada de Laurentiis

Specific changes and notes:

• Added 1/2 a large eggplant and 1 medium zucchini to the vegetables called for. As I prefer my mushrooms and eggplant to be well caramelized and golden, I cooked them separately from the rest first, then added them to the soffritto as per the recipe.
• 6 oil packed sundried tomatoes were puréed and added along with the tomato paste.
• The wine was replaced with vegetable broth and a splash of red wine vinegar.
• The photograph featured does not include marscarpone, as I intended to freeze a portion; the dairy is added just before serving, and I do believe the sauce needs a bit of richness at the finish. Full fat cream cheese can be used if mascarpone is unavailable.
• This sauce is particularly nice when thinned with a bit of pasta cooking water, then tossed through with your favourite medium tube pasta and chunks of fresh mozzarella.