I went to a delicious Vietnamese cooking class the other evening, held at “Latteria Studio” in Trastevere in Rome and conducted by the very gastronomically talented and simpatica Alice Adams, who hails from Melbourne but has lived in Rome since 2005 (www.aliceadamsfoodstylist.com/about). We began with Fresh Rice-Paper Rolls and this entailed soaking the round rice paper sheet into some warm water and placing it on the marble top, easy enough. Then placing the filling in the middle, again easy enough. But then we had to wrap the roll – and it was incredibly sticky and gossamer thin and involved a lot of concentration and delicate fingerwork. “A big fiddly, eh Alice, “ I commented as I looked askance at my work, “My roll looks like a huge suppository gone wrong”. Then we dealt with pork and lemongrass dumplings – which are very similar to ravioli in looks and, again, a bit on the ‘fiddly’ side to execute. At which point I was prompted me to comment upon the fact that yet another plus side of Italian food is its relative lack of fiddly components. It is relatively easy to make a three-course Italian meal in under an hour.
Anyone who has been reading me since I began blogging in September 2010 knows that I tend to eschew ‘fiddly’ not out of dislike for the niceties of top level culinary preparations but on account of the more mundane reason that I am not the most patient of people. Funnily enough, back in the days when people used to type on a typewriter and mistakes were corrected with a white polish called ‘tippex’, I was one of those who was surprisingly good at whitewashing the wrong-doing. The whole process was incredibly fiddly and one would think that all that tippexing would have honed my dexterity in the kitchen but no, that is not the case. I tend to be more like Alexander the Great and look for ease of action these days; if I see a Gordian knot anywhere in the kitchen, I either refrain from making that recipe or else look for a cheat’s way of dealing with it. But not last night.
My friend Jack likes the classic clam pasta dish called “spaghetti alle vongole” and since yesterday was his last night in Italy before returning to Canada, I thought I’d make it for him. Sometimes, the devil is in the details that have to do with one’s amour propre – and I do think that the Vietnamese cooking class the other night sort of goaded me into wanting to cook something more sophisticated, more layered, more finished, in other words: more ‘fiddly’. I am glad to say that this extra effort paid off, and can immodestly claim that it was bloody good. Jack was flatteringly approving of this seafood pasta recipe and so I have named it after him.
If you want to try it out, let me tell you what the ingredients are.
Top quality pasta. The best extra virgin olive oil you can muster. Fresh clams, mussels and king prawns. An onion, peppercorns, parsley stems and leaves, a small tomato, some chilli for the fish stock/bisque. Garlic. Basil leaves and toasted pine nuts for the pesto finish. Italian breadcrumbs (or panko I suppose will do) to toast just before serving the pasta. Salt and pepper. Secret ingredient (well, not so secret now): ice cubes.
There are a few steps to be followed. First the bisque has to be prepared. The pesto too. And the breadcrumbs toasted. The clams and mussels need to be steamed in the bisque and olive oil and garlic, and some of their shells removed. Finally, the pasta needs to be cooked first in the pot of boiling salted water and then in the pan with all that delicious steamed seafood in it. Once cooked, the pasta is placed in a nice plate and daubed with the pesto and showered with the toasted breadcrumbs.
Here was my choice of top quality pasta – the Mancini brand spaghettoni.
Venus clams on the left, mussels on the right. The clams need to soak in salted water (at least 20 minutes) and then shaken about and rinsed a few times to make sure there is no nasty sand lurking about. The mussels need to be cleaned too and trimmed of their hipster beards. In terms of quantity: think 200g per person for the clams and as for the mussels, about 6-8 per person.
Here are the king prawns : in terms of quantity, think two per person. They are king sized after all!
The shells/carapace of the prawns needs to be removed. Place the denuded prawns inside a bowl with some cold water in it, enough water to cover them completely (we don’t want them to dry out).
Place the prawn shells in a pan and turn the heat on.
Avail yourself of a wooden spoon and just ‘stick it’ to those shells – be brutal and thuggish with them. Mash them up even, because the more you break up their fabric, the more taste will be released. Apologies for the ‘steamy’ photo but it’s hard to cook and take photos at the same time.
Then switch the heat off and … weird, I know … place some ice cubes into the pan.
Use the wooden spoon in a more gentle fashion now, and swirl those ice cubes around until they fully melt. The reason for the ice cubes? Apparently, they activate something called ‘thermal shock’ which stops the heat of the cooking temperature in its tracks, and for some chemistry reason that is beyone my ken enhances the final taste.
Now, at this point, it is time to add some usual suspects … so I have half an onion, a datterino tomato sliced in half (tomatoes add the oft-required acidity to any dish), parsley stems and peppercorns (they are there but are hiding in this photo).
Add water. Enough water to cover all the ingredients and then about another 3 inches on top of that.
Turn the heat on and cook for 10 minutes with a lid on. Then remove the lid and cook the liquid down for about another 10-12 minutes over a medium flame.
Strain all the ingredients and you end up with this fishy tasting water known as bisque. Throw away the shells now but keep the precious bisque, put it in a saucepan which is large enough to contain all the pasta, and place it in a safe place for now.
Toast the pine kernels/nuts, and be careful to do so over a gentle flame – they burn in no time! Remove from the pan and allow to cool.
Then place a large bunch of fresh basil leaves in a bowl, pour a good amount of olive oil over them, add a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper, as well as the toasted pine nuts, and using an immersion blender, magically turn everything into a ghoulish green paste very similar to a pesto. Taste and add more salt and pepper if required.
Put a tablespoon per pasta serving (think of one serving as 100g of pasta) of breadcrumbs into a non-stick pan. Dribble olive oil à la Jackson Pollock over it. And cook over a low heat for a minute or so, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and set aside.
So, at this point: we have made the bisque. We have made the green basil sauce (pesto). And we have prepared the toasted breadcrumbs. We are on a roll. Which reminds me, put the pasta water onto boil. Now is the time. Put a lid on the pan, it boils quicker that way.
Use as much or as little garlic per person to season the olive oil (at least one tablespoon per serving, and I would recommend even slightly more). Add some chilli (again as little or as much as you like) to the pan with the olive oil in it. Turn on the heat and cook the garlic (maker sure it doesn’t burn). It is surprising how much garlic is required to make this dish taste good. Normally, for other recipes, I would use less … but for this recipe, I used two cloves per person, and sliced them lengthwise in half.
Pour this into the big pan.
Time to steam the mussels, clams and prawns.
Place them in the big pan, cover with a lid and cook until they steam open (only a few minutes).
When they have, remove the lid and add a fistful of parsley leaves.
Once the pasta has reached a rolling boil, salt it, and add the pasta. Fiddly Factor: You are going to cook the pasta for only HALF the time recommended on the packet. You will finish off cooking the pasta in the large pan with the seafood in it.
And so now the tempo charges up. This is when one has to keep one’s wits about one’s person and can’t be interrupted bar any emergency.
Looking good and smelling divine but we need to remove some of the shells. Asbestos fingers are required for this job, beware: the shells are indeed hot.
These can be thrown away now.
And this soupy beauty is what we are left with. Turn the heat on now (a strong flame) and …
Add the half-cooked pasta. Now is the time to stir.
A vigorous stirring of the pasta, until it soaks up all the liquid, and Jack’s the man for the job. It might even be that the pasta is still too ‘al dente’ by the time it has absorbed all the liquid: in which case add a ladleful of the cooking water.
Transfer the now cooked pasta into a serving dish. And sprinkle the toasted breadcrumbs over it.
Place the prawns where they can be seen, on top of the pasta. Create a circle and add a daub of the green sauce in the middle.
Always a pleasure to cook for you Jack. Alla prossima.