Cold comfort

Pasta and noodles don't have to be hot to be cool - they're perfect for salads with substance and style, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If the thought of cold pasta - or worse, a slimy pasta salad - makes you shudder, it's time to think again. At the height of summer, when you don't want to be standing over a bubbling pan before lunch or supper but want a salad with a bit of substance, pasta does have a part to play. With the right dressing, pasta and noodles are the perfect backdrop for a multitude of ingredients, and there are so many influences from around the world to draw on. So banish the memory of cold fusilli with chopped up leftovers, tinned sweetcorn, ketchup and mayonnaise and look elsewhere for inspiration.

If the thought of cold pasta - or worse, a slimy pasta salad - makes you shudder, it's time to think again. At the height of summer, when you don't want to be standing over a bubbling pan before lunch or supper but want a salad with a bit of substance, pasta does have a part to play. With the right dressing, pasta and noodles are the perfect backdrop for a multitude of ingredients, and there are so many influences from around the world to draw on. So banish the memory of cold fusilli with chopped up leftovers, tinned sweetcorn, ketchup and mayonnaise and look elsewhere for inspiration.

Asia is an important source of warm or cold noodle dishes. So is Italy. Although the Italians must be appalled by what we do to pasta, and the way we pass it off as salad, they do actually have loads of inspiring cold pasta recipes up their sleeves. If you don't believe me, let me tempt you with Giorgio Locatelli's simple but memorable example.

Last year five of us chefs went on a culinary adventure to France, where we were let loose in the château belonging to the Dom Perignon champagne house. The deal was that each of us would cook a course for the Saturday evening dinner, and the rest of the time we'd drink vintage champagne. Some of the vintages we sampled dated back to the years we were born. It was incredibly good fun, as you can imagine, and we all cooked up a storm to impress the winemaker Richard Geoffroy.

Courses ranged from champagne jelly with wild strawberries, David Thompson's Thai lobster curry, oysters fried in shredded filo with wasabi mayonnaise, and a dessert of foie gras with crystallised roses from Club Gascon's Pascal Aussignac. Plus cold pasta.

That was Giorgio's contribution. OK, it was really spaghettini with caviar. And although simple it was perfect. Just fine spaghetti, cooked just right, with very good olive oil and a dollop of Beluga. If that can't change our ideas about cold pasta I don't know what can.

Every pasta cook knows that before serving it's best to let the pasta sit in the sauce for a while to absorb the flavours. This applies equally to cold pasta and tossing your hot pasta into a dressing or cold sauce and leaving it to cool will definitely improve the flavour.

Fregola with crab, lemon and herbs

Serves 4

Fregola is a Sicilian toasted wheat pasta that looks like cous cous but bigger. You can get it from good Italian delis and special sections in some supermarkets. Freshly picked crab is essential for a dish like this, so do go to the trouble of buying a freshly cooked crab or cook one yourself and make a soup with the shells.

Approx 200g freshly picked white crab meat
40g fregola
50-60g purslane or corn salad, or other similar small salad leaves
2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and chopped

for the dressing

Juice of 1 lemon
5tbsp olive oil
A few sprigs of fresh parsley
A handful of soft herbs, such as chervil and dill, picked into sprigs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cook the fregola in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, then drain and refresh under the cold tap. Arrange the salad leaves on plates with the chopped tomato and fregola. Make the dressing by mixing all the ingredients together. Dress the salad generously then scatter the crabmeat over and serve immediately.

Five spice duck and Asian mushroom salad

Serves 4

This dish makes a nice, light summery main course, or you could take it on a trip as a packed lunch. You should be able to get your hands on Oriental mushrooms from a good supermarket or Oriental food shop. Shiitake seem to be the most common these days in fresh or dried form, but you will find others like enoki and shemegi in specialist shops.

4 duck breasts weighing about 160-180g each
2tsp Chinese five spice
2tbsp clear honey
150g fresh oriental mushrooms like shiitake, enoki, shemegi
15g dried black fungus, soaked in cold water overnight
3tbsp light soy sauce
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1 stick of lemongrass, trimmed and finely chopped
30g root ginger, scraped and finely chopped
1 mild red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1tbsp chopped fresh coriander
250-300g soba noodles or similar
6 spring onions, trimmed and finely shredded on the angle
1tbsp rice wine or cider vinegar
3tbsp sesame oil
3tbsp vegetable or corn oil

If you are using shiitake, trim off the stalks and quarter the caps before putting them in a saucepan. (If you are using enoki they can be put in the salad raw at the end.) Add the drained black fungus, soy sauce and garlic. Cover with water and simmer gently for 10 minutes. Drain in a colander over a bowl and return the liquid to the pan.

Simmer the liquid until it has reduced to about three tablespoons. Put the liquid into a bowl with the rice vinegar and the two oils and whisk well. Add the ginger, lemongrass, chilli and coriander and put to one side.

Mix the honey with the 5 spice and rub over the duck breasts and season them with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy-bottomed or non-stick frying pan and cook the duck breasts with the skin side down for 2-3 minutes and then turn them over and cook for another 3-4 minutes. Turn them over and cook them for another 3-4 minutes on the skin, then remove from the pan and put them on a plate to catch any juices. The duck should be medium to rare otherwise it can be a bit dry.

Meanwhile cook the noodles according to the cooking instructions, drain and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer them to a large bowl. Shred the black fungus and add to the noodles with the other mushrooms, any cooking juices from the duck and the dressing and mix well.

Season the noodles and arrange on 4 serving plates. Slice the duck breasts as thinly as possible and arrange on the noodles.

Spaghettini salad with prawns and samphire

Serves 4

Further proof that pasta salad doesn't have to be a bowl of sludge like the ones you find in sandwich bars. This makes a great summery starter or main course, or can form part of an antipasti or buffet. Using the shells to infuse the oil gives the dressing a more flavoursome base than you'd get just with oil. Try to buy raw tiger prawns with their heads on which are available from most good fish mongers or supermarkets, fresh or frozen. Depending on what's to hand you can add other seafood such as mussels, lobster or lightly cooked, sliced scallops.

Allow 300g spaghettini as a starter, 500g as a main course
400g raw tiger prawns, preferably with their heads on
2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and finely chopped (add the skins and seeds to the oil)
150g samphire, trimmed
1/2tbsp chopped dill
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the dressing

150ml olive oil
150ml water
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp black or white peppercorns
2tsp tomato purée
1tsp salt

Remove the prawn heads and shells, leaving the tails on. Put the shells and heads into a saucepan with all the ingredients for the dressing. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until almost all the liquid has evaporated from the oil. Strain into a clean pan large enough to accommodate the pasta, add the prawns and cook on a low heat for 2 minutes then remove from the heat.

Meanwhile cook the spaghettini according to the cooking instructions then drain in a colander. Cook the samphire in boiling water (without any salt) for 30 seconds, drain and add to the oil and prawns. Add the spaghettini, dill and tomatoes, season and mix well. Leave to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, giving it a stir every so often. Serve in pasta bowls or on flat plates.

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