Fresh from my trip to Milan, I’m still overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the raw ingredients available to the locals. The right way to pizza in Italy is with an almost-uncooked tomato sauce, and the tomatoes here come through loud, clear, and bright. A Milanese trattoria’s bucatini or pacheri might come out of a packet, but even the local brands are much superior. Supermarket balsamico has lovely notes of honey from aging, and a good EVOO here is like crack- fruity, addictive, and you want to sprinkle it on everything. My head is still reeling from sweet and sour agrodolce, summery limoncello, and fizzy Aperol spritz, so it wasn’t long before I busied myself with the flavours of Italy that I’ve grown to love over the last few days.
Pasta, dried or fresh doesn’t need any fancy embellishments to shine, so long as you cook it properly, treat it to a good bit of fruity olive oil, and never ignore the parmigiano reggiano. An aglio olio is the best example of this. The pasta’s success rests entirely on the shoulders of slow-cooked olive oil and garlic. The garlic perfumes the oil when cooked gently, and this oil, when tossed through al dente spaghetti with crushed pepper and anchovies tastes incredible. Simple pastas are usually the kinds I make for myself when I’m snug, and need some quick comfort food. I’d probably make puttanesca at 2 AM if there’s enough tomato puree, capers and anchovies in the fridge, or a carbonara on days I’ve made meringue and there’s a handy yolk lying around. But it’s the festive occasions that really stump me. The question is, can I make pasta fancy? Can I be smug about bringing a bowl of pasta to a party that stops conversation and really wows my guests? The answer is yes. I love a good challenge, and I think this trip to Milan came at the perfect time.
The first pasta, true Sicilian, is low on effort, but hits sky high in terms of flavour. It’s a pasta with fish, actually two kinds of fish- sardines and anchovies which are paired with lots of fresh anise-y fennel tops. Bright tomatoes, saffron and sweet raisins or sultanas cut through these strong flavours and gives the sauce a lovely, rich taste. If you’re squeamish about eating fish in the rains, visit Know Your Fish, an online initiative that helps you understand which fish you should avoid right now, and which ones you should be bringing home. Since Indian oil sardines and Golden anchovies are both fishes you can consume in June, as well as in July, I think this pasta is a great contender for dinner.
Since sardines can be a bit fiddly to cook with, you could swap the sardines for tinned sardines, or even Barramundi, another great fish for this pasta. The choice of pasta too can be a real deal breaker for the final dish. I’ve used bucatini, a tube pasta that’s a bit thicker than spaghetti and has a hole that runs through the centre which helps absorb a bit of sauce and makes the pasta juicier. If you can’t find it, use spaghetti.
Bucatini Con Le Sarde
Yield 2-3 hungry people
I’ve written this recipe in two parts, one if you’re using fresh fish, and the other canned. The latter takes less time to come together, but tastes great too, and can turn out to be cheaper.
Sardines 1 can 180-200g or Fresh sardines 250g, or an equal amount of Barramundi
Fennel fronds 1 cup, refreshed and chopped
Raisins or Sultanas 1-2 tbsp, soaked for 15 minutes in water and chopped
Onion 1, finely chopped
Garlic 4 cloves
Anchovy fillets 4 (I use John West)
Extra virgin olive oil 1/4 cup
Almonds 1/3 cup, chopped roughly
Tomato puree 1 tetra pack, reduced to 2-3 tbsp of thick concentrated paste
Saffron a pinch
Salt and pepper
Breadcrumbs 1/4 cup
Parmesan 1/4 cup, freshly grated
Snap off the head of the sardines, which should separate any intestines as well. Remove the back fin bone of the sardine by pulling at the tail end, then pry it open by pressing your thumb into the sardine along the belly towards the tail and open it up like a book. Pry the spine you see now loose and remove any remaining guts or stray bones you see, then rinse it under water. The sardines are ready to be cooked. If using canned sardines, drain the sardines and pick any bones you can see. Set this aside.
In a large shallow saute pan, heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil and add in the onions and cook till translucent. Add in the garlic and the anchovies, mashing the anchovies with the back of the spoon till they dissolve. Follow this with the chopped fennel fronds and toss them over a medium heat for a few minutes.
If using fresh fish, lay the fish on one side of the pan as the greens are cooking and give them a few minutes to cook through completely on each side, then stir together with the fennel mixture. If using canned sardines, add them in after the next step.
Add in 2 tbsp of the tomato paste with about 1/3 cup of water and crumble in the pinch of saffron. Add in the chopped raisins/sultanas, some salt and pepper and continue cooking this mixture over a medium heat. Add in the canned sardines once the mixture feels less liquid-ey in the pan and give it a few minutes more in the sauce before taking it off the heat.
This sauce can be made in advance and simply tossed with hot, just-cooked pasta and some reserved pasta water to thicken immediately.
Bring a large stockpot filled with water to a boil. Salt the water generously and add in the bucatini. Cook according to packet instructions. Drain the pasta when al dente (when it has a bit of bite to it) and reserve a little more than 1/4 cup of pasta cooking liquid on the side.
As the pasta merrily boils away, in a frying pan over low heat, toast 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs and set aside. Toss together the cooked pasta, reserved pasta water and the sardine and tomato mixture together over a low flame to combine till thick and a tad bit saucy. Grate over parmesan and serve.
My second pasta is more of a tapas-type dish, rather than a pasta. It’s phenomenal because of the many elements, which by themselves can be quite meh, but put it all together and it’s quite the party. This Jap-Italian dish has classic gnocchi on a bed of Brown butter seaweed puree, finished with a tempering of shichimi togarashi and garlic. Sounds fancy, yeah? That’s because it is. Owning a potato ricer will save you a lot of muscle power and time when it comes to gnocchi. Oh, and make sure you don’t overwork the dough. That’s very important. You have to move quickly while the potatoes are still hot to get it nicely incorporated into the flour.
Gnocchi With Brown Butter Nori Puree and Togarashi Topping
Yield 6-8 as a small plate
You can double the recipe for all of the elements below quite easily. If you don’t have a potato ricer, use a fine mesh sieve to press the potato flesh through.
For The Brown Butter Nori Puree
Nori 6 sheets
Salt and pepper
Lemon 1, juiced
For The Gnocchi
Egg yolks 2
For The Garlic and Togarashi Topping
Butter 2 tbsp
Garlic 3 large cloves, chopped thinly
Shichimi Togarashi 1/2 tbsp (available at gourmet stores in Crawford Market)
Kewpie Mayo to serve
Start on the brown butter nori puree. Soak the nori sheets in 1/2 cup water for five minutes or until soft. In a frying pan, melt the butter and cook it for 5-8 minutes over medium heat till it begins to foam and smell nutty and sweet. Take it off the heat and in a mixer grinder, combine the brown butter, soaked nori and the soaking liquid with the salt and puree it till creamy. Let it cool.
For the gnocchi, begin by roasting the potatoes in a very hot oven (180-200 degrees)for 45 minutes, or until fork tender. Slice the potatoes into two when they are still hot and try the pry the skins off. Work quickly as you want to do this while the potatoes are still hot. Pass the flesh of the potatoes through a ricer or a fine mesh sieve onto a clean work surface.
Lightly beat the egg yolks and coat the potatoes over the work surface. Now sieve 3/4th of the flour over this mixture and using a dough scraper, cut through this mixture and combine it, working it as quickly as possible without kneading it. Fold and press down at the most. Dust with the remaining flour and begin forming it into a thick log.
Next slice off a portion of the log and using just your palms on the work surface, try to roll the portion into a thin long roll. Chop this up into little bite-sized gnocchi pieces. Repeat for the rest of the log
Bring a stockpot of water to the boil. Salt the water generously. In batches, lower the gnocchi taking care to see that they don’t stick to each other. Once the gnocchi floats to the surface, count till about 20-25 and taste one for any raw flour taste. Drain it from the water with a slotted spoon and drizzle over a bit of oil to prevent the gnocchi from sticking to one another.
In a frying pan, melt 2 tbsp of butter and add the thinly chopped garlic. Once the garlic browns a bit, add in the shichimi togarashi, the gnocchi and toss for a minute. Serve immediately on the bed of seaweed puree, with a spritz of lemon juice and a dollop of kewpie mayo.
Pasta number 3 is the brunch dish of your dreams. It brings together a pseudo pistachio pesto with bacon, spring onions and green chillies. If that’s not luxurious enough, balls of herbed labneh are tossed in to add an element of cream that really binds the whole thing together. This one is a favourite.
Spaghetti With Pistachios, Spring Onions, Bacon and Herbed Labneh
Yield 2-3 hungry people
This pasta sauce can be made in advance and just tossed together last minute if you're short on time. The pesto-like mix of pistachios, bacon and spring onions is also good enough to eat by itself.
Pistachios 100g, unsalted, divided
Bacon 3-4 slices
Spring Onions 4-5, white parts only, chopped
Extra virgin olive oil 100ml
Olive oil for frying bacon
Green chillies 2-3, slit lengthwise and chopped
Parmesan 75g, grated
Herbed Labneh 80g (find the recipe here)
Salt and Pepper
Begin by parboiling two-thirds of the pistachio. Drain the pistachios and rub the nuts between a towel or use your hands to slip the pistachios out of their slippery skins. This bit takes time.
Toast the remainder of the pistachios lightly in a frying pan and blitz briefly, but not too finely. Set this aside.
Heat a bit of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add in the bacon, green chillies and spring onion whites. Let this mixture cook for a bit, but don’t let the bacon crisp up. Transfer this mixture to a mixer grinder with the parboiled nuts and blitz to a pesto with the help of a bit of the extra virgin olive oil. Add this pesto to the herbed labneh with the remaining oil, half of the parmesan and the crushed nuts. Stir.
Bring a stockpot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Add in the spaghetti and let it cook as per packet instructions, or till al dente. Drain the spaghetti, reserving a few tablespoons of the pasta cooking water. Add the spaghetti to the herbed labneh and pesto mix and stir thoroughly with the help of the reserved liquid over a gentle flame. Season generously, top with the remaining parmesan, wait for it to melt a bit, then serve.
The last one is not a pasta, but a risotto, and an expensive one at that. It uses almost 1/2 tbsp of saffron, but the results are so worth it. I’ve included lots of tips and tricks that I have picked up making risotto over the years, so if you’re a risotto noob, don’t be shy to try this recipe. Risotto Alla Milanese like most good risotto is meant to be taken off the hob a bit creamy and wet. It dries out as it sits, but is best eaten immediately. I serve this golden bowlful with mutton chops cooked in a simple agrodolce reduction of balsamic vinegar and honey, finished with a few tablespoons of butter. You want to pick a dry white wine to add to this risotto, and can drink the rest alongside it later.
Risotto Alla Milanese With Mutton Chops Agrodolce
Yield 2 hungry people
Using a rich red meat stock as opposed to a white meat in Risotto Alla Milanese will yield a better tasting risotto. You can make the stock well in advance and freeze it.
Arborio Rice 1 cup
Olive Oil 1 tbsp
Onion 1, roughly chopped
Garlic 1 clove
Dry White Wine 1/2 cup (I used a Charosa Sauvignon Blanc)
Mutton stock 4 cups
Saffron 1/2 tbsp
Parmesan 1/4 cup
For The Mutton Chops Agrodolce
Mutton chops 1/2 kilo
Salt and pepper
Raw papaya 1/4 cup, grated
Balsamic vinegar 1/3 cup
Honey 2 tbsp
Garlic 1 large clove
Butter 2-3 tbsp
Start the night before. To make the mutton chops, wash the chops and season them liberally. Add the grated raw papaya to the chops and keep them overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, thaw the chops when you're up. Next, in a small saucepan, reduce the balsamic vinegar, honey and grated garlic together till syrupy and thick. Add in the butter and take it off the heat.
Heat a grill pan with a bit of oil till quite hot. Add the chops to the pan and brush with the agrodolce sauce on one side and let it cook for a whole minute before flipping it and cooking it for a whole minute on the other side, basting continuously. Check for doneness and take it off the heat.
Begin by putting the mutton stock on a slow simmer.
Take a flat-bottomed saute pan with long sides and heat it over a medium flame. Add in the butter and olive oil and let it melt. Add in the chopped onions and garlic and let it cook till the onions are translucent.
Add in the arborio rice and saute it over medium heat to toast it and coat each grain in the fat completely. Once the rice starts to look a bit whiter, splash in the white wine and continue to cook over medium heat till the wine has almost evaporated.
Splash in a ladle of the mutton stock around the sides of the rice and let the rice absorb the stock, flattening the rice out in a neat layer as you go. Once the first ladle of stock has been absorbed, follow with another ladle. By ladle number three of four, crumble in the saffron and continue till the rice reaches al dente. Finish with the 1/4 cup of parmesan and take it off the heat while the rice is still creamy and a bit wet. A dry risotto in the pan will only get drier once it’s out.
Tip the risotto into a plate and tap the bottom to even the rice out in a layer. Lay on the mutton chops and serve.