Conchiglioni Bake

Today we look at a very easy yet delicious pasta recipe. In the UK, people are very fond of pasta bake and it is a cheap and cheerful way to dress pasta in a cheesy sauce and bake it, turning it into a wholesome dinner dish. Rather than using standard pasta, however, this recipe uses conchiglioni, a large shell-shaped pasta you can easily find in most supermarket nowadays. Faithful to the tradition, this pasta bake recipe is full of cheese, in the form of the comforting Parmigiano Reggiano and the salty Pecorino. Don’t worry, though, as you can easily substitute with your favourite cheese. A good mature cheddar or a soft Emmentaler would do this recipe justice too.

If you don’t want to use cooked ham, bacon (unsmoked, non streaky) is also a good choice. Alternatively, you could try and use Parma ham, sausages or leave the pig component out altogether and make it a vegetarian dish instead. This recipe is also very handy as it can be assembled the day before, then all you need to do is continue from step 8 the day you want to bake it. It also lends itself to freezing quite beautifully.

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Ingredients

  • 300g conchiglioni (pasta shells)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 500g chestnut mushrooms
  • 150g cooked ham, diced
  • 2 courgettes
  • 100g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
  • 50g Pecorino, grated
  • olive oil
  • parsley

Ingredients (for the béchamel sauce)

  • 500ml whole milk
  • 50g unsalted butter
  • 50g plain flour

Method

  1. Start by making the béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan over a medium heat, then take off the heat and whisk in the flour until you can’t see any more lumps. Put the saucepan back on the heat and gently cook until the flour slightly darkens in colour (the roux stage).
  2. Slowly start feeding in the milk and mix continuously to prevent large lumps from forming at the bottom of the saucepan. Always stirring with a wooden spoon, cook the sauce until it thickens and it covers the back of the spoon. Transfer to a jug, cover with clingfilm to prevent a skin forming and leave to cool.
  3. To make the filling, start by finely chopping the mushrooms and the garlic. Add them to a large pan with 8 tbsp of olive oil and cook over a high heat until nicely browned. Turn off the heat and add 2 tbsp chopped parsley. Stir that in, then leave aside to cool.
  4. Dice the courgettes and ham, then gently fry over medium heat in a saucepan with a drizzle of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.
  5. Transfer all but a couple of tablespoon of the mushroom mixture to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment, then add the courgette and ham mixture, half of the béchamel sauce, half the grated Parmigiano and the grated Pecorino. Pulse a couple of times to obtain a coarse but blended mixture.
  6. In the meantime, cook the pasta shells according to packet instructions, but drain them when they are slightly harder than al dente. They will cook in the sauce later on. Set them aside and drizzle them lightly with olive oil to stop them sticking.
  7. Fill the conchiglioni with the coarse mixture, then lay them side by side in an oiled oven dish.
  8. Mix the leftover béchamel sauce with the mushrooms you kept aside, then spread that on top. Spread the remaining Parmigiano on top, then grill in the oven for about 10 minutes or just until the top is golden.

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Tagliatelle With Mushrooms & Mint

Traditionally, mushrooms work well with either garlic, cream, thyme, Marsala – or even a combination of the four. This time, let me suggest a slightly more unusual pairing: mushrooms and mint. Despite being skeptic myself at first, I have to say this idea, as proposed in the latest issue of the La Cucina Italiana food magazine, is one to keep. The mint, with its sharp and pungent flavour and smell, perfectly complements and offsets the darker and more earthy tones of the mushrooms. The Parmesan flakes and the walnuts, casually scattered on top, add both texture and little pockets of saltiness and roundness.

The original recipe asked for porcini mushrooms. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to come across fresh porcini mushrooms anywhere so far, so had to use chestnut ones instead, which worked just as well. Enjoy this dish on a cold winter day as pure and blissful comfort food.

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Ingredients

  • 500g chestnut mushrooms
  • 250g tagliatelle pasta (fresh or dried)
  • 6 walnut halves
  • 2 shallots
  • about 70g Parmesan, finely grated
  • 1 lemon, zest of
  • 10 leaves of mint
  • olive oil
  • salt & pepper

Method

  1. Start by cleaning the mushrooms and slicing them fairly finely. Set aside. Finely chop the walnut halves, then set aside. Finely chop the shallots and add to a large frying pan with a drizzle of olive oil.
  2. Finely chop the mint leaves, then mix with the lemon zest and set aside.
  3. Sautée the shallots over a medium heat for a couple of minutes, until slightly golden and translucent, then add the mushroom slices and cook down for a good 7 minutes.
  4. In the meantime, put a large pan of salted boiling water over high heat and throw in the tagliatelle. Cook them according to the packet instructions (I love them al dente and I think they work better this way for this recipe).
  5. Once the mushrooms have cooked down and they have yielded their water, increase the heat under the pan and let that boil off. Season the mixture with salt and pepper, then add the mint and lemon zest mixture. Cook for exactly one minute, then remove from the heat.
  6. Sprinkle the grated Parmesan over the bottom of another non-stick frying pan (I have indicated 70g above, but the quantity might vary according to what size pan you use), then set that over a medium heat and let it melt to a golden slab. Remove from the heat after a couple of minutes or you will burn the cheese. Let it cool in the pan, then use a rubber spatula to remove it from the pan and break it into shards.
  7. Once the pasta is cooked as you like it, drain it and toss the tagliatelle in the pan with the mushroom sauce. Tumble it onto a serving dish and sprinkle with the walnuts and the Parmesan shards. Serve immediately.

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Boeuf Bourguignon

When you think of quintessential French cuisine, I bet this recipe comes straight to your mind. And rightly so, mostly because the name is in French – and all it means is ‘Burgundy-style beef’ – and because the recipe dates back to a time where farmers could not afford the most expensive cuts of meat and came up with a clever way of making even the less noble cuts tender and tasty – stewing. The recipe was then made famous by the likeness of Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child to the French and English-speaking audiences respectively and it has become a flagship dish ever since.

Let me start by saying that there are a few things you should bear in mind when making this. First of all, the meat should be lean and not excessively fat. Also, it should be cut in big chunks and not in small ones like you would for a British stew. Secondly, you need a big cast iron casserole which you can use both on the hob and in the oven. The meat needs to slow cook for at least 3 hours in a very low oven, so the better quality your pan is, the better. I have been asked to make this using a slow cooker, but as that does not involve much cooking at all, I refused to do so. I do however understand you might be pressed for time sometimes, so you could decide to use that instead. Last, but not least, the wine: the traditional recipe obviously asks for a good Burgundy red wine, but should you not be able to afford/get your hands on one, then a full-bodied red would be just as good.

You can serve this dish à la Française, that is with either tagliatelle or rice cooked in beef stock, or you can opt for a simpler approach and have it with either mashed potatoes or on its own. This recipe comes from the GialloZafferano website.

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Ingredients (for the beef stew)

  • 1.5 kg lean steak beef, cut into 6cm pieces
  • 1 litre Burgundy wine
  • 1 litre beef stock
  • 50ml olive oil
  • 200g pancetta or rindless streaky bacon, cut into small chunks
  • 200g carrots, chopped
  • 200g onions, chopped
  • 30g plain flour, sifted
  • 2 cloves of garlic, pressed/finely chopped
  • 25g tomato puree
  • 3 sprigs of rosemary and thyme, tied together to make a bouquet garni
  • 3 bay leaves
  • salt and pepper

Ingredients (for the onions and mushrooms)

  • 300g small onions or shallots
  • 500g button/chestnut mushrooms
  • 100ml beef stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Method

  1. Once you have cut the meat in big chunks, lay some kitchen paper on a surface and put the pieces of meat on it, then cover with some more kitchen paper to pat dry the meat prior to searing it. This ensures the meat does not stick to the pan and forms a nice crusty layer on the outside, keeping all of the juices inside.
  2. Drizzle some olive oil in the cast iron casserole and put it on a medium heat, then add the cubed pancetta/bacon and fry for 10 minutes, until nicely browned. Use a slotted spoon to remove it from the pot and set aside.
  3. Now get rid of the kitchen paper, turn the heat to high and sear the meat chunks in batches of 4 or 5 pieces at a time (if you crowd the pan too much the meat will steam), then remove to a dish and continue until you have seared all of the meat.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium and add the carrots and onions, stirring frequently. Make sure to scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the casserole while stirring, then cook for about 10 minutes, until softened and golden.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 250C and turn the fan on.
  6. Return the pancetta to the casserole together with the meat, then cook over a medium heat for about 5 minutes, until all of the juices have evaporated. Add the flour in two batches and stir well after each addition.
  7. Transfer the casserole to the (really) hot oven WITHOUT the lid and leave it for 10 minutes, mixing well every 5 minutes. This ensures the meat browns well on the outside and forms a slightly charred and harder crust, which will seal the juices inside and make the meat extremely tender.
  8. Remove the casserole from the oven and put it on a medium heat. Turn the oven down to 130C (no fan) or 110C (fan-assisted).
  9. Add the wine to the casserole and mix well, then add all of the stock, but reserve about 2 tbsp to melt the tomato puree in a small bowl, then pour that in as well. Add the bouquet garni and the bay leaves, then bring to a simmer.
  10. When the liquid is gently simmering (do not boil it!), clamp the lid on and put it in the oven for 3 hours. Once that is done, turn off the oven and leave the meat inside to gently cool down until stone-cold.
  11. In the meantime, prepare the onions and mushrooms. Peel the onions and remove the hard bit at the bottom, then drizzle some olive oil in a shallow pan and gently fry the onions until slightly browned. Add the beef stock, put a lid on and gently cook until softened.
  12. In another pan, prepare the mushrooms. Clean the mushrooms, then slice them in halves (or quarters). Drizzle some olive oil in the pan, then add the clove of garlic and gently pan fry it (do not burn it!). Add the mushrooms and pan fry them until golden but still firm. Add the chopped parsley, salt and pepper.
  13. Now take the big casserole with the meat and the juices. Using a slotted spoon, transfer all of the meat to a plate. Also remove the bouquet garni and any other herbs you might have used.
  14. Place a sieve over the casserole and pour the onions and the mushrooms into the sieve, so that the juices would run straight into the casserole. Transfer the juices to a blender and blend until smooth or transfer to a bowl and use a liquidiser to blend them.
  15. Place the meat, onions and mushrooms back into the casserole, then pour the gravy-to-be in a shallow pan and reduce by at least half its volume. You need to reach a velvety consistence, thick enough to cover the back of a spoon. Once that happens, pour the gravy over the meat and vegetables and serve at once.
  16. If you are feeling very French, you can serve it the original way, that is with some tagliatelle seasoned with a pinch of cracked black pepper.

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Salmon & Mushroom Parcels

I did find inspiration for this recipe in one of the many Italian cookbooks (cooking encyclopedia, more like it) which I stole from my mum’s house last time I went home. They are full of interesting ideas and I like having a look at them as they remind me of Italy, with its vibrant food scene and great variety of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. I have to say it would be impossible for me to recreate most of the recipes in there, mostly because I can’t find the necessary ingredients here in the UK. I did manage, though, to settle down on a couple of substitutes. For instance, I usually use German or British smoked cheese instead of fontina, an Italian cow’s milk cheese with a pungent and intense flavour, and shallots (although not difficult to find in the UK) can be easily substituted with spring onions.

I settled down on this recipe because I happened to have some leftover puff pastry in the freezer (who doesn’t?), but the same parcels can also be made with more conventional shortcrust. If you don’t like salmon, then cheese can be a good substitute or, maybe, why not try chicken?

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Ingredients

  • 1 x quantity of puff pastry (about 500g)
  • 3-4 salmon fillets, deskinned and deboned
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, sliced
  • Marsala wine
  • salt
  • pepper
  • olive oil
  • oregano
  • thyme
  • 1 egg, beaten (to glaze)

Method

  1. Start by preparing the mushrooms. First of all, drizzle some olive oil in a frying pan, then add the shallots and gently fry for a couple of minutes until softened. Tumble in the mushrooms and cook for another 5 minutes. 
  2. When you see that there is very little liquid left on the bottom of the pan, drizzle some Marsala wine in the pan, then scatter some oregano and thyme. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and cooked all the way through, but not mushy. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool completely.
  3. In another pan, gently fry the salmon in some olive oil on both side until slightly coloured. Turn it frequently and don’t let it catch on the bottom. Remove to a plate and gently flake with a fork until shredded. Leave to cool completely.
  4. Roll out your puff pastry to a big sheet on a slightly floured working surface. Using a knife, cut about 8-10 squares, ensuring half of them are slightly bigger.
  5. Take one of the smaller squares and pile some mushrooms on top, then add some of the salmon. Try not to overfill these or the pastry will collapse. Lightly wet the edge with some water, then cover with one of the bigger squares and press the edges to seal. Brush with some egg wash, then place on a prepared baking tray. repeat until you have used all of the filling and the pastry.
  6. Bake the parcels at 200 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes, by which time they will have puffed up and will be nice and golden. Remove to a sheet of kitchen paper to drain of the excess oil, then eat wither warm or cold.

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Mushroom, Ginger and Blueberry Stir-fry

The other day I was scouring the Internet on the lookout for new flavour combinations and I came across this recipe. Needless t0 say, my first reaction was probably the same as everyone else: disgust. I am not a big fan of mixing sweet and savoury. I don’t like salted caramel (in fact, I think it’s an abomination) and therefore using fruit in a stir fry was something I would have never even thought of. Until now.

I am not claiming this is the best combination ever. It probably is an acquired taste or rather something you either love or hate at first sigh (taste, more like it). However, as we did enjoy the stir fry, here is our little adaptation of the recipe. It is a simple stir fry, after all, so just use what you have!

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Ingredients

  • 180g soba noodles (which equals two nests)
  • 70g sugar snaps
  • 250g button mushrooms, roughly sliced
  • 3 spring onions, sliced
  • 140g can of water chestnuts, drained and roughly sliced
  • 150g fresh blueberries
  • 1 thumb-size piece of ginger, grated
  • soy sauce
  • toasted sesame oil

Method

  1. Start by drizzling some sesame oil in a wok or big frying pan and put on a medium to high heat.
  2. Add the spring onions and the ginger and stir frequently until fragrant and the onions are beginning to turn golden. Stir in the water chestnuts, mushrooms and sugar snaps and drizzle some soy sauce on top.
  3. Meanwhile, bring a pan of salted water to the boil and add the soba noodles. Cook according to packet instructions, then drain and tumble in with the rest of the ingredients.
  4. Add some more soy sauce and stir frequently, then tumble in the fresh blueberries and stir for another 3 minutes.
  5. Serve and enjoy.