Potato Pierogies (Ruskie)

My friends know very well I love cooking and baking, and that I particularly enjoy trying out different cuisines. What with having lived in Russia, I am particularly fond of Eastern European and Russian food. You don’t necessarily find a great deal of Polish or Russian restaurants in the North of the UK. When you do, moreover, they tend to be hit and miss (or tourist traps). Therefore, I would much rather cook my own food than venture outside to try and find someone who could do it to a decent standard. Some good friends of mine recently gave me a book on Polish food called, quite tellingly, Authentic Polish Cooking (by Marianna Dworak). Broadly speaking, I think the book starts on a very good basis, but unfortunately misses a few details here and there.

There are some great recipes, but the details provided tend to be too vague at times (e.g. ‘use a cake tin’ – what size?). Also, I am not a massive fan of very meaty dishes, which probably goes against everything I have said earlier. Pierogies (or dumplings), however, are a classic I never tire to make. First of all, the dough (and filling) is very easy to make. And secondly, you can tailor the filling to your own liking. Here I have gone for a fairly traditional take, although I have heavily amended the recipe for the dough.

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Ingredients (for the dough)

  • 450g plain flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 250ml warm water

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 900g potatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 250g soft goat’s cheese
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1-2 tsp nutmeg
  • salt and black pepper

Ingredients (for the sauce)

  • 150g pancetta cubes (or diced bacon)
  • black pepper (to taste)

Method

  1. Start by making the filling. Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Add to a large pan of salted boiling water, then cook until soft (but not falling apart). Drain in a colander and set aside to cool slightly.
  2. In the meantime, peel and finely chop the onion. Melt the butter in a frying pan over low-medium heat, then add the onion and cook for at least 15 minutes, until nicely browned and caramelised.
  3. In a bowl, mash the potatoes to obtain a slightly coarse texture. Add the gently fried onions and crumble in the cheese, then add the nutmeg, season well and mix to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Set aside.
  4. To make the dough, combine the flour with the salt in a bowl, then make a well in the middle. Gently pour in the warm water and either use a wooden spoon or your hands to combine the dough, drawing all of the flour in as you mix. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth.
  5. Roll the dough out with a rolling pin into a thin sheet (slightly thinner than a pound coin). Use a cookie cutter (or a glass) about 6cm in diameter to stamp out as many circles as you can. Put about 1 tablespoon of filling in one half of the circle, then fold over the other half to make a crescent shape. If the dough is not sticking well, moisten the edges with water before you seal them.
  6. As you roll and fold, place the prepared pierogies on a floured cloth or a tray lined with baking parchment. Bring a big saucepan of salted water to the boil.
  7. Reduce to medium heat, then drop in the pierogies making sure not to overcrowd the saucepan. Stir once or twice so as to ensure they do not stick to the bottom. When they come up to the surface, wait one more minute, then fish them out with a slotted spoon.
  8. To make the sauce, fry the pancetta cubes in a frying pan with no oil/butter (the pancetta is fat enough) until nice and crispy. Remove the cubes with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the boiled pierogies to the pan and pan fry over a medium heat on both sides until slightly golden. Serve with the pancetta cubes and some black pepper. Enjoy!

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Green Store Cupboard Pasta

Picture the scene. You had a terrible day at work, your boss has probably shouted at you a couple of times and you clearly couldn’t see eye to eye with that client you were trying to help. It happens to all of us. I was stuck in a dead-end job for 2 years before embarking on a more exciting career and believe me, I had plenty of these days. Rather than coming home, pouring yourself a large glass of wine and ordering a take-away to drown your sorrow, I will ask you to cook. ‘Not a chance,’ I hear you say. Think again. Cooking has a therapeutic effect, it helps to make you relaxed and you get to feel like a child again while pottering away and turning the kitchen into a battlefield.

In addition, this pasta dish requires no more than simply blanching the vegetables and cooking the pasta. Surely that isn’t asking too much? I have made this dish with whatever I had in my frozen garden (a Nigella-esque way of referring to the freezer) and in tins stashed away in my store cupboard. It couldn’t get any simpler. The goal here was to show you that with minimal effort, no real recipe and a lot of love, even comfort food can aspire to be a jaw-dropping beauty. I certainly hope I have succeeded.

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Ingredients

  • 500g pasta (tortiglioni or maccheroni would do)
  • 250g king prawns, shelled and deveined
  • 1 x 340g tin of sweetcorn (frozen is also good)
  • 300g frozen peas
  • 100g ricotta (creme fraiche/cream cheese/mascarpone also good)
  • 250g green beans
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely minced
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • bunch of parsley, chopped

Method

  1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, tumble in the pasta and cook according to packet instructions. 5 minutes before draining, add the green beans, so that they can cook with the pasta but still retain their crunch.
  2. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a frying pan over a medium heat, then tumble in the frozen peas. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the minced garlic and a splash of water. Leave to simmer for 3 minutes, then add the frozen prawns and cook until pink. Don’t overcook or they will be too rubbery.
  3. Take the peas and prawns off the heat and add the ricotta and lemon juice, mixing well to combine. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Drain the pasta and green beans, then transfer to a large bowl. Add the prawn mixture and tumble in the sweetcorn, then mix to combine. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed.Arrange on a serving platter and decorate with the chopped parsley and the lemon zest. Enjoy!

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Drunken Spaghetti (Spaghetti ‘mbriachi)

No, I haven’t completely gone mad. This is an actual recipe I found in the March issue of La Cucina Italiana, an Italian food and cooking magazine I sometimes manage to get my hands on. This dish comes from the so-called Roman Castles area (Castelli Romani), a set of small towns on the Alban Hills, not far from Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, many wealthy and noble families decided to leave the ransacked capital to build themselves a fortified castle on the hills surrounding Rome and start over. Now the Castelli Romani is one of the biggest residential areas outside Rome and a very popular tourist destination too. Every year tourists flock there to take in its history and try its food and, most importantly, the local red wines.

This extremely simple recipe combines a few local ingredients, namely red wine, parsley, pecorino (a hard goat’s cheese) and chillies. The wine is slowly reduced to an almost syrupy consistency, while the pasta should be slightly undercooked so that it can absorb the deep red grape juice while cooking. The result is a non-alcoholic dish (the alcohol evaporates during cooking) which boasts bold and simple flavours without trying to mask them with unnecessary embellishments. If you can’t find pecorino, don’t worry. A strong cheddar or another cheese along those lines would do just fine.

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Ingredients

  • 500ml red wine (choose a good one)
  • 350g spaghetti
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 bunch of parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 red chilli, finely chopped
  • pecorino, grated
  • salt

Method

  1. Pour the wine into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer. Cook for a good 20 minutes, until reduced to approximately 50ml or the liquid takes on a slightly syrupy consistency. Remove from the heat and set aside.
  2. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, then add the spaghetti and cook until slightly harder than al dente.
  3. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large pan, then add the finely chopped parsley (reserving some for decoration later), red chilli and garlic. Cook over a gentle heat for 3 minutes, then remove from the heat and add the boiled down red wine.
  4. Drain the pasta reserving a ladleful (2-3 tbsp) of water, pour that into the saucepan then add the pasta and continue cooking, tossing frequently, over medium to high heat.
  5. To serve, plate the spaghetti and grate some of the pecorino on top, then sprinkle with some of the leftover parsley and enjoy!

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Cocoa Ravioli Stuffed with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

I won’t take any credit for this recipe. It comes from Venice, a wonderful book by Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi on the secret cuisine of this romantic city. As it happens, the recipe was in turn taken from the Pastificio Serenissima in Castello, so at least I cannot be blamed for outright stealing. Mixing cocoa in the pasta dough might sound a bit odd, although Italy (and not only) has been manufacturing coloured pasta for a long time now. I am sure you have all seen it, it’s usually found in tourist shops all over the country. Pasta usually comes in red, green, brown and black, made with beetroot, spinach, cocoa and squid ink respectively. As the book says, the cocoa lends a certain depth of flavour and nuttiness to the pasta, which then complements the filling perfectly.

If you don’t have a pasta maker, please consider investing in one. I rolled this pasta by hand and I can tell you that, on top of being extremely hard and tiresome, the process takes a huge amount of time and gives you results which are in no way similar to the almost transparent pasta you can get with a good pasta machine. In Italy, these devices are usually called Nonna Papera. The name is probably derived from the character by the same name (in English, Grandma Duck) which appears in Disney cartoons together with Donald Duck and his family. Etymology and history aside, I do think such a device would make your life a lot easier. Otherwise, be my guest and allocate plenty of time to roll the pasta by hand.

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Ingredients (for the pasta)

  • 200g ’00’ pasta (you can easily find this in major supermarkets)
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 15g cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp water, if necessary

Ingredients (for the filling)

  • 50g walnuts, finely chopped
  • 200g Gorgonzola (Stilton or any hard blue cheese is also fine)
  • 100g ricotta
  • 30g Parmesan, finely grated
  • salt and pepper

Ingredients (for the pasta sauce)

  • 75g butter
  • a sprig of rosemary
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  • 30g Parmesan, grated

Method

  1. To make the pasta, pour the flour and cocoa in a mixing bowl and combine. Make a well in the middle, then crack the eggs and the egg yolk into the well. Using a table knife, gradually combine the flour into the eggs starting with the flour around the eggs and working your way out. Keep mixing until you form clumps of mixture.
  2. Use one hand to incorporate the bits together. Lightly wet your hand to bring the dough together if the mixture is too dry and won’t hold,, but be careful not to add too much water. Remove the dough from the bowl and place on a lightly floured work surface. Knead the dough by flattening and folding it for around 5-7 minutes, adding a little bit more flour if the dough is very sticky. Ultimately, you want to reach the consistency of a very soft and pliable dough which doesn’t stick to your hands or the work surface. Leave the pasta to rest covered in clingfilm for at least 20 minutes.
  3. To roll it out, either do it by hand or put it through a pasta machine to obtain long sheets of very thin pasta.
  4. To make the filling, combine all of the ingredients together and season with salt and pepper. The original recipe stated to use soft Gorgonzola, but I believe it’s best to use the harder variety.
  5. To make the ravioli, use a biscuit or a ravioli cutter to cut round shapes on the sheets of pasta you have rolled out. Dollop 1 tablespoon of filling in the centre of each ravioli round, then cover with a second round and press the rim together to seal it properly. You can also dab the rim of the ravioli with some water to ensure the dough sticks together. Proceed until you have run out of filling or dough.
  6. To cook them, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, then tumble the ravioli in and cook for approximately 5 minutes. Drain.
  7. To make the sauce, melt the butter in a large frying pan with the rosemary for a couple of minutes. Add the lemon juice and shake the pan to blend it together. Discard the sprig of rosemary. Add the pasta to the pan and shake it to cover the ravioli evenly with the sauce. Dust with the grated Parmesan and serve immediately. Enjoy!

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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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