Pasta and Beans

I haven’t gone shopping for ages for various reasons  – lousy weather (Perth is in the middle of winter and while usually mild, this year’s temperatures seem to be much lower than usual), bunged up leg, lockdowns, pandemic – and instead of the usual weekend indulgences of monstrous roasts  and endless leftovers, I decided to just use whatever I could find in assorted cupboards, pantry and fridge. I didn’t realise I had so much – tins of this, packets of that, spices and herbs galore, veg, celery cunningly wrapped in foil-lined bags to preserve their crispness (I didn’t do that, of course), carrots, a capsicum and some tired French beans in a damp brown paper bag.
I remember eating something similar, – no, not the paper bag but ‘Pasta e Fagioli’ in a basement lunch restaurant in Milan somewhere near Via Manzoni back in the late 70’s – similar anyway, in the sense that tonight’s dinner (and tomorrow’s as well by the look of things) has pasta and has beans (tinned, admittedly) in it too. But after that, I am sure my pasta and beans will have no resemblance to anything a Milanese restaurant could come up with.

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Anyway, here’s the stuff I came up with. A 500g box of pasta shapes, (I used about half), an onion, a few carrots and sticks of celery, a handful of tired green beans, a green capsicum, garlic, ground Coriander, Fennel seeds, a tin of Borlotti beans and a tin of whole tomatoes and a bag of shaved Parmesan!

I cooked the pasta in boiling salted water for a few minutes less than the suggested time on the box and while that was simmering away and filling a cold kitchen pleasantly with steam, I sliced the capsicum and the carrots, not too thinly, diced the celery and chopped the onions and the green beans. I heated some olive oil  in a large frying pan and sautéd the lot with a good spoonfull of the Fennel seeds and the remains of whatever ground Coriander remained in the jar and gave everything a good stir.

I drained the pasta and threw it back in the same pot along with the tin of drained Borlotti beans and put the lid on to keep it warm while I continued sautéing (messing, stirring and tossing) the veg. Next I tipped in the tin of toms and poured a cup or two of water and two  large spoonfuls of tomato paste (it came in a handy foil packet), along with a stock cube over the veg and brought the pan to a gentle simmer.

At this stage i realised I was going to need a bigger pot to hold all the pasta and beans along with the full pan of veg and spices. Anyway, I found a larger pot, gave everything a stir and let it simmer for a few more minutes until both carrots and pasta were ‘al dente’.

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Then in the garden, braving the cold for Basil and Parsley. Finally, a deep dish, freshly torn Basil leaves and Italian style parsley, shaved Parmesan awaiting the result.

Gorgeous!

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A few flakes of Parmesan and a pinch of pepper. I particularly liked the mild aniseedy flavour the Fennel gave the mix. Would go particularly well with a robust red wine (but I have just launched myself, for my sins, on Dry July!)

Ratatouille

A (very) long time ago, when I was a student, I ended up working nights in a small French, basement restaurant in Leeson Street in Dublin – La Belle Epoque. I have no recollection of either how I got the job – dishwasher à la kitchen hand and general dogsbody- or retained it for most of the academic year because the restaurant never seemed to have any customers. Jack, one of two full time chefs, said something about the previous owners not having paid their telephone bill so the service was suspended and the new owners – my employers – refused to pay the outstanding charges. So, no phone and hence no reservations and the only customers we used to have were the very occasional punters dropping in on the off chance and, sometimes, the music group Dubliners and that was only because Jack, I think, was one of their mates.

Anyway, among other delights, like unlimited access to ice cream sorbet and gargantuan meals that the chefs would prepare every night – for themselves and the other staff – I fell in love with a simple, rustic-style vegetable dish – ratatouille that always seemed to be available.

Years passed and it slipped, like so many other things, from my memory until recently, travelling along the south shore of the Black Sea, I came across variations on a theme and fell in love with it all over again.

Back home I made it myself for the first time but my wife was aghast at the amount of olive oil I used and I may very well have been a little bit heavy handed there, I admit.

Anyway, jump to the present and, foolishly perhaps, after a sustained and concentrated boozy December, I decided to abstain from all alcohol for the month of January and while I was considering the difficulties that might impose upon me, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and become vegetarian for the month as well, in addition to submitting myself to some form of daily exercise – it is summer here after all and the beach is only a few kilometres from where I live. Anyway, casting around the other day, bored and listless – Day 10 alcohol free – I decided to cheer myself up with a succulent dish of summery vegetables of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.

Taking advantage of my wife’s temporary absence I commandeered the kitchen and all the paraphernalia I would need and decided to cook the vegetables separately first, then combine them to cook to a glorious creamy stew.img_2568

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil,

1 large eggplant, roughly diced,

5 garlic cloves, chopped,

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,

2 zucchini, sliced into rounds about as thick as a doubloon or a sovereign (!),

2 large onions, diced,

4 red capsicums, roughly diced,

1 kg tomatoes, seeded and chopped,

1 400g can of tomatoes,

Bunch of thyme, parsley and basil, chopped,

1 Tablespoon of sugar

img_2570I decided to cook the veg separately. But, as an alternative to frying the eggplant, which would soak up a huge amount of oil, I decided to toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown, before tipping the lot into a large bowl.img_2579

img_2574I heated a generous splash of oil in a heavy-duty casserole dish over a low heat and lightly fried the chopped garlic along with a generous sprig of rosemary. I scooped out 2/3 of the garlic and discarded the rosemary before adding the zucchini and sautéing until tender, then added it to another bowl.img_2575

Next up, I returned the pan to the heat and added just a splash more oil, another third of the garlic, and sautéed the onion, and capsicum until tender. Once again I dumped the lot into a dish as before. By this stage I had too much stuff for my casserole dish so I img_2587combined all the cooked vegetables into a large pot and added the seeded and chopped tomatoes along with a tin of toms which I whizzed in the blender before simmering the lot gently for about 1½ hours. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning and stir in the chopped basil. I also used dried thyme and marjoram as I had forgotten to pick up some fresh stuff.

img_2591Serve with a soft-boiled poached egg, so the yolk can anoint the delicious vegetables.

As I mentioned, I seem to have made rather a lot but leftover ratatouille has many possibilities – fill a long, crusty bread roll with it or slather it on a slice of sour dough toast. A small amount of ratatouille makes a lush filling for an omelette or scrambled eggs along with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat’s cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan. Yum-oh!