For some strange reason, nobody ever gives me hampers. Possibly, they have some idea that my house is full of food already and a hamper is the last thing I need. I can’t imagine where they would get such a notion. Fortunately, I have aunts who are, if anything, even more determined to feed everyone than I am, so this Christmas they both gave me hampers! I haven’t actually seen hamper #2 yet, but that’s just fine, because I have by no means exhausted the charms of hamper #1.
And hampers are endlessly exciting – I tend to spend a lot of December eyeing them off in shops. There’s something utterly and compellingly desirable about a big basket of enticingly arranged and interesting foodstuffs that you haven’t chosen yourself. Often, there are things you would not normally eat in there, but you know, if they are in a hamper you have to try them, and you never know – they might turn out to be excellent!
Anyway, this hamper is especially good because it contains Panettone (the Italian New Year’s Eve food of my youth), and a fascinating Sri Lankan lentil curry mix (just lentils and spices and you add water and coconut milk), and a chocolate and aniseed vincotto (which I mistook for something you drink when you get home from the funeral and Really Need A Drink, but turns out to be something you then ladle out of your wine glass and pour over icecream, where it is equally efficacious), and then there is my all-time favourite brand of herbed salt (how did she know?), and jam, and good olive oil, and all sorts of other stuff, but also a bottle of really nice passata and a couple of packets of good pasta. Which, when it comes down to it, is just what you need when you are just exhausted after a very long month and don’t really feel like making an effort for dinner.
The following recipe is just tonight’s version of an endlessly varied pasta meal that I make with passata and whatever vegetables I have to hand. Sometimes, I toss it through pasta, sprinkle it with cheese and bake it. Sometimes, I stir chunks of feta cheese through it. Or bocconcini. Or, if I’m feeling particularly well-behaved, chickpeas. But this is the straightforward version. You should try it.
Your Shopping List (or garden list, ideally – this recipe works best if you start by wandering around the garden, seeing what happens to be ripe)olive oil 4-6 cloves of garlic 1-2 smallish zucchinis, any colour, and hail damage is fine 1-2 capsicums, ditto oregano, chilli, salt and pepper, or Italian herbed salt 1 1/2 cups passata (this is an Italian tomato sauce, which is basically just tomatoes cooked down and pureed into a thick sauce which isn’t quite a paste) a handful each of basil and parsely leaves, chopped 200-300 g good pasta grated parmesan or feta to serve, optional
(this amount serves 2-3 people, I should think)
Now what will you do with it?
Put a big stockpot of hot water on to boil for the pasta. You are supposed to salt the water and I have never once in 35 years remembered to do this, so I have no idea if this improves it or not.
Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan, crush the garlic, and cook gently while you chop your capsicum and slice your zucchini (I tend to halve it lengthwise and then slice it). Add the veggies as you finish chopping, and then add a little herbed salt, and raise the heat a little so that you can sauté the veg a bit.
When the veggies are looking soft and nice, add the passata, bring to the boil, and then simmer gently while you cook the pasta.
Wander off into the study to write your aunt a nice note saying ‘I’m using that passata write now! Thank you!’, but instead get distracted and write a blog post. Oops. I’d better write that email after dinner.
Add the pasta to boiling water and stir vigorously and immediately – this will prevent it sticking to the bottom of the pot (as will the fact that it is a big pot with a lot of water). Leave it alone to come back to the boil and cook until just al dente. This is usually a minute or two shorter than the recommended cooking time.
Drain the pasta well. Suddenly remember that you never added the herbs to the vegetable sauce, so stir them through quickly, which is better anyway, as you don’t want to cook basil or parsley for too long. Toss everything together and serve with grated cheese or crumbled feta if you like. Eat in front of Heston’s Feasts, or at least that’s what I plan to do, and follow it up with the berry ice-cream you forgot someone gave you last week and the leftover flourless chocolate cake which you had also forgotten and which really needs to be eaten now. It’s a hard life…
This will work with almost any combination of vaguely mediterranean vegetables – onions, fennel, eggplant, green beans, mushrooms, even asparagus, would work here. You can also add cherry tomatoes or leftover antipasti such as marinated vegetables or olives. This meal is, of course, vegan without the cheese – and if you add marinated veggies or similar, you won’t miss the cheese anyway – and gluten-free if you use the appropriate pasta. It’s low-GI if you make sure your pasta is al-dente, and even better if you add chickpeas. Though this sauce would also be nice over polenta, if you prefer. And it makes a great basis for a pasta bake, of course. If you must have meat, a little pancetta or soppressa salami at the start with the garlic would be nice, but I’d skip the olive oil, as the fat from the pancetta or salami will render anyway.