Ms Marmite Lover: My ‘death row’ meal? It could well be this seaside spaghetti
Kerstin Rodgers is the writer behind award-winning food blog Ms Marmite Lover and the founder of supper clubs. In her new column, she reveals what it takes to make a perfect pasta dish.
I could live on pasta. In fact, I have to make a huge effort not to do precisely that. I do try to vary my grains – cooking rice, polenta, bulgar wheat, millet, couscous, quinoa, freekeh – but I always come back to pasta.
The word ‘pasta’, which only became popular with the British in the 1980s, derives from the fact that it is ultimately a dried paste of flour, water and salt. It has the same root as pastry, made from the same ingredients. Pasta was a feast day treat requiring time and trouble before it transformed into fast food by industrialisation of the process in the mid-19th century. We associate Italy with pasta and tomato sauce, but tomatoes have only been eaten for the last 300 years. Originally, pasta dishes were sauced with meat, cheese or egg. On my recent trip to Prague and Vienna, I discovered interesting sweet/savoury combinations such as gnocchi with poppy seeds and icing sugar.
Let me introduce myself to readers of the Ham&High: like you, I’m a north Londoner. I grew up in Highgate, went to school in Swiss Cottage, lived and partied in Camden during my youth and now reside at the Kilburn end of West Hampstead. My great grandmother Nanny Savino moved to Islington from Naples at the beginning of the 20th century, part of the Italian diaspora. It was from her that I learnt to cook pasta.
I can make a great bowl of pasta with my eyes closed. Perfecting a dish is about repetition, cooking it hundreds of times, playing with ratios and ingredients.
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My ‘death row’ meal is probably spaghetti vongole. It’s not even the clams that are so good, although ideally you want tiny, almost sweet vongole veraci (true clams) as the Italians call them. It’s the ‘liquor’ from the clams; the seeping of sea water combined with olive oil, white wine, crushed knuckles of garlic, slithers of red chilli and a carpet of parsley, an Italian flag of colours and flavour, slickly coating ivory strands.
This summer I camped at the Ile de Ré, a small chic island over a long bridge from La Rochelle on the west coast of France. I made campfire spaghetti vongole, digging up the clams with my hands at low tide, easily spotted by the breathing holes that they leave in the sand. I left the shells in seawater to release their grit, changing salt water a couple of times, until an hour before dinner, when I rinsed them in fresh water. The rule is: they should open in salt water and close in fresh water. Shellfish that doesn’t do this is dead: discard them. You don’t want to take risks with shellfish.
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Ile de Ré Spaghetti Vongole
Takes 30 minutes
200g of clams, cleaned (as above)
Olive oil, for cooking
3-4 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
2-3 fresh bay leaves
1 or 2 red chillis, de seeded, finely sliced
A large handful of flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped, without stalks
2 glasses of white wine
500g of good quality spaghetti or linguine (choose pasta with longer cooking times, e.g. 11 minutes)
Sea Salt (I recommend Maldon’s or fleur de sel, a violet tinged sea salt they sell in the Ile de Ré)
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat up the olive oil in a large saucepan on a medium heat, then add the shallots, cooking them until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, the bay leaves and the chilies. Stir for a few minutes.
In the meantime, fill another large pot with water, bringing it to the boil with a couple of tablespoons of sea salt. Once boiling, add the spaghetti and cook until a minute or two shy of the cooking time stated on the box.
Add the parsley, then the white wine to the sauce mixture then add the clams. Stir every so often, you will see the clams start to open.
Drain the pasta in a colander then return it quickly to the pot, stirring in some olive oil so that it doesn’t stick together. Toss together with the clam sauce and serve hot with freshly ground black pepper.
Kerstin Rodgers blogs at the award-winning site msmarmitelover.com. Her latest book, V is for Vegan, is published by Quadrille for £20. Kerstin will also be hosting a Georgian-themed tea at Dennis Severs house in Spitalfields on August 14 and a Secret Garden supper club on the theme of edible flowers on September 20; visit edibleexperiences.com for details.