A series of recipes for this lockdown would not be complete without including sourdough. It seems like the entire country is making bread at the moment, but it’s not due to lack of it on the supermarket shelves, I think it is due to boredom more than anything else. We are spending more time confined indoors than ever before, and baking is an excellent way to occupy one’s self. It’s pretty satisfying, too, to be able to create something as beautiful and delicious as a loaf of sourdough bread.
My sourdough journey started after a visit to my aunt, who makes award-winning bread. Using a sample of her starter as a basis, after a few attempts I achieved reasonable successes. The bread was not quite like the glorious loaves you can buy in artisan bakeries, but it was OK. After three years of making mediocre bread, through numerous experiments and variations on the original recipe, I had a bastardised version of my aunt’s recipe that I was becoming more and more dissatisfied with. I was determined to improve the quality of my loaf, so I decided to broaden my horizons and do some research. I bought the book Super Sourdough, by James Morton; a former Great British Bake Off winner. It was highly acclaimed.
This book has literally revolutionised my breadmaking. I began again from scratch, starting with throwing my existing sourdough starter in the bin (one of the points James makes in the book is that he doesn’t understand the strange obsession people have with their sourdough starters, being proud to have used the same one for years on end. There is no reason for this, they are very easy to create from scratch, and he has had dozens of them, experimenting with different flours and different fruit juices). That was 6 months ago, and now my bread is almost indistinguishable from the professional artisan variety that you can buy in your local neighbourhood bakery. I couldn’t be happier.
I’ve deliberately omitted any recipe from this blog post. I could, arguably, put James Morton’s recipe here, with the minor modifications I’ve made for it (I make the dough a bit wetter, and add linseed), but it wouldn’t be feasible for me to write down instructions for creating this bread in the format of a blog post. I would need to copy out most of the book (the recipe I’ve been using, for the standard rye-wheat sourdough loaf, is 33 pages long). Even with a 33-page immensely detailed recipe, it took me 6 months to get even close to a point of mastery. The reality is, there are so many contributing factors to sourdough bread that it’s almost impossible to prescribe a method that is guaranteed to work every time. The book teaches you the fundamental principles and then guides you through the processes of autolysing, folding-and-stretching, proving, pre-shaping, shaping, scoring and, finally baking in a hot oven. It will likely take many attempts before you reach anywhere near perfection; in fact you will probably never get there, but I guarantee it’ll be a thoroughly enjoyable journey! I’m not being paid by James Morton for this blog post, but genuinely, if you want to make good quality sourdough bread at home, buy the book.
Lockdown Pasta: Spinach Puttanesca
While this lockdown is still in place I’m working on the theme of tinned fish. Previously, I pointed out how well mackerel works as a preserved, tinned product. Part of the reason for this is that it’s a particularly oily fish and it doesn’t tend to be dry when cooked. It’s also one of the most abundant fish in the ocean – especially around the british isles – so it’s sustainable. Another fish which ticks these boxes is the anchovy. Anchovies are one of the most abundant fish in the entire world. For sustainability points, they are hard to beat. They are also, of course, really really tasty.
This recipe combines two things I’ve always been very fond of: 1) pasta, and 2) bold, powerful flavours. Pasta puttanesca combines these in glorious fashion, so it’s no surprise that it makes it to my list of all time favourite pasta dishes.
Technically, this recipe isn’t really a true puttanesca (check out my previous post for a more traditional recipe). This is a bastardized version of sorts, where tomatoes have been switched for spinach. So we have a combination of spinach, anchovies and garlic, which is nothing new; these ingredients would be excellent partners to a roast leg of lamb, for example. The addition of two different types of chilli flakes, including smoky chipotle, makes for a really powerful flavour combination.
- 180g pasta, preferably rigatoni
- 2 handfuls spinach
- 1 tsp capers, chopped
- 4 fillets anchovies
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/2 tsp arbol chilli flakes
- 1/2 tsp chipotle chilli flakes
- 2 tsp butter
- parmesan cheese, to serve
- sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Get a large pot of water boiling for the pasta. Season the water, then add the pasta, removing it when about 1 minute from being cooked. Remember to reserve the cooking water as you will need it for making the sauce.
Heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the garlic along with a pinch of salt. Stir once, and cook for 20 seconds before adding the chilli flakes. Turn the heat to low and simmer gently for 2 minutes. Add the spinach, and stir-and-fry until wilted.
When the pasta is drained, add it to the pan with the spinach along with a ladleful of the starchy cooking liquid. Add the capers, anchovies and butter at this point, along with a generous pinch of cracked black pepper. Mix everything together vigorously for a couple of minutes: the pasta will finish cooking and some of its starch will be released into the water to thicken it. Add more of the cooking water if it’s getting too thick.
Serve in bowls immediately, with grated parmesan on top.
Lockdown Mackerel Salad
When this lockdown started, almost 2 months ago, everyone rushed to the supermarkets and started panic-buying. There was virtually nothing left on the shelves, and sundry items like pasta, rice, flour and tinned-goods were completely sold out. It was like a weird version of Christmas eve, where instead of brussel sprouts and parsnips being sold out, it was tinned tomatoes and tinned fish. And it lasted for 2 weeks! Now the supermarkets have recovered from that crazy period of panic-buying, things are available on the shelves again, and although the situation is far from being normal, at least we can buy the ingredients we need.
I wanted to write some recipes for this lockdown, using ingredients that people are likely to have in the house and don’t have to make a special trip to the shop for. I had the idea of making a ‘what to eat in an apocalypse’ series of posts, using only store-cupboard ingredients. The reality is, I think most people are managing to get to the shops at least once per week and nearly all the produce you want is available. If you’re organised, you can still eat a meal every day made with a nice variety of fresh produce. Nevertheless, it’s nice to find a theme and go with it.
So, you might be surprised to hear that I’ve been eating a lot of tinned mackerel recently. Not out of necessity, just because I discovered some fine quality tinned mackerel that is basically just a smoked mackerel fillet, cut in half, marinated in olive oil. The fish has been salted to cure it before smoking, too, which makes it a perfect product to be preserved in this way – not unlike marinated artichokes or sun-dried tomatoes. It would be just fine to eat on its own, which I do on occasion, but it also combines with some shredded red cabbage, torn basil and chopped lemon to make an excellent salad.
- 2 fillets smoked mackerel, tinned or otherwise
- 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
- 150g red cabbage, chopped or shredded
- 1 small carrot
- 2 handfuls basil, torn
- 2 small handfuls baby spinach, roughly chopped
- 1 lemon
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- sea salt and cracked black pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
- Place the red cabbage in a bowl with the onion, ground cumin and spinach. Peel the carrot and cut in half lengthways, then slice thinly at an angle. Cut two 3mm slices from the lemon and cut into dice. Add the lemon dice and the sliced carrot to the bowl. Juice the other half of the lemon into another bowl and set aside. Pull the smoked mackerel into flakey pieces and roughly tear the basil. Add these to the bowl along with a generous glug of olive oil and mix. Finally, season to taste with sea salt, cracked black pepper and lemon juice. Serve and eat immediately.
This recipe has been through a number of alterations since I started making carbonara many years ago. This is the most recent update, and I think, is as pretty close to perfection as a plate of pasta could be. Spaghetti carbonara is still my favourite meal of all time – I don’t think I will ever grow tired of it. My more recent changes include a reduction in the amount of egg; I now include one whole egg per person which, when combined with the starchy pasta water and a knob of butter, makes for a beautiful silky sauce.
This dish is Italian cooking at it’s best; simple, quick and with an emphasis on quality ingredients. It can be deceptively tricky to perfect however; too much heat when adding the eggs can result in scrambling them instead of gently cooking them to get the desired silky smooth sauce. If you can, get a hold of some good quality spaghetti that’s been made with a bronze die, as it’ll hold the sauce much better.
- 75g pancetta, diced into lardons
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 180g spaghetti
- 2 generous pinches of cracked black pepper
- 2 eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 30g parmesan, finely grated
- sea salt
- olive oil
Get a large pan of water boiling to cook the pasta in. Add a couple of generous pinches of salt.
In a frying pan or sauté pan, heat a glug of olive oil and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the diced pancetta and fry until lightly caramelised. Turn the heat to low and add the chopped garlic, along with a pinch of cracked black pepper. Cook gently for 2 minutes, being careful not to burn the garlic, then remove from the heat and set aside.
Add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes less than it says on the packet’s instructions. This is because after draining the pasta we’re going to heat it again as we make the sauce, so it’ll continue to cook.
While the pasta is cooking, start to prepare for the sauce; place the eggs and egg yolks into a jug or bowl and add most of the finely grated parmesan (leaving some for garnish at the end), along with a small pinch of sea salt.
When the pasta is about 2 minutes away, drain it over another jug or bowl, making sure you reserve about 200ml of water. Whisk the eggs and cream together to make a thick paste, then pour about 4-5 tablespoons of the pasta water in, while still whisking. Now add the pancetta and garlic, pasta and egg mixture back into the pasta pan and place over a medium-low heat. Add about 100ml more of the pasta water and, using a plastic spatula, stir continuously, scraping the bottom of the pan until it’s the texture of custard. Be very careful not to overheat it as the eggs will scramble. If it gets too thick, add a little more water - you should have a nice sauce consistency that just clings to the pasta.
Divide into pasta bowls, garnish with the remaining parmesan and eat immediately.