Pasta is one of the most comforting suppers at this time of year - but it's up to you how you want to play it. You can either choose to knock up a quick and adaptable supper with dried pasta from your store-cupboard; or you could go entirely the other way and decide to have a go at making your own, which takes time and practice but which can also be a deeply satisfying exercise.
Almost any seasonal ingredient can be turned into a delicious pasta sauce, and if you get really stuck, then the trusty old tin of canned, chopped tomatoes will get you out of a spot of bother, too.
Two of my favourite authorities on Italian food, Anna Del Conte and Giorgio Locatelli, have both recently brought out great new cookbooks. Anna's book is a collection of her favourite recipes from the inspirational cookbooks that she's written over the years, and Giorgio's is a great big hunk of a book that he's been writing for what seems bloody years; it covers every single romantic aspect imaginable of making, rolling and cutting the pasta dough, and includes every conceivable home tip, too.
For the purposes of these recipes, I got my partner Clare to make it using my Imperia pasta machine, which needed a good dusting off before we got started. The Imperia is one of the most popular and well-known pasta machines and will make a trusty addition to any gadget collection.
If you don't have the time to try making your own, then try to pick a good dried pasta. One of my favourites is Cipriani, which cooks in no time and is particularly light and delicate.
Giorgio's basic pasta dough
Makes enough pasta for about 4-6 servings
You can use this pasta recipe for the pheasant ravioli and the butternut squash tagliatelle recipes which follow, and if you're feeling adventurous you could always try to create other pasta shapes. I'm not pretending that this recipe is simple; it does require concentration, but for me it's worth the effort.
500g pasta flour (you can buy it in good Italian delis)
3 large eggs, plus 2 extra (large) yolks, (all at room temperature)
Pinch of salt
Preferably make the pasta by hand, especially if you're making a relatively small quantity like this which might prove difficult to mix well in a food processor. Sieve the flour into a clean bowl, then turn it out into a mound on a clean surface and make a well in the middle (in Italy this is called the fontana di farina, fountain of flour). Sprinkle the salt into the well and then crack in the eggs and egg yolks.
Have a bowl of water on one side so that you can wet your hands to help bring the dough together if it's a little stubborn towards the end of kneading. To begin, break the yolks with your fingertips of one hand, and then begin to move your fingers in a circular motion, gradually incorporating the flour, until you have worked in enough to start bringing it together in a ball. Then you can start to work the ball of dough by pushing it with the heel of your hand, then folding the top back on itself, turning it a little clockwise, and repeating, again and again for about 10 minutes, wetting your hands if it helps, until the dough is springy, but still firm enough to work.
If you're using a food processor, sieve the flour into a bowl, add the salt, then start the machine, and slowly add the egg yolks followed by the whole eggs. Keep the motor running slowly, or it will heat up the pasta too much, and also "beat" rather than mix. Once the dough has come together, take it out and put it on a clean work surface.
Roll the first ball of dough with a rolling pin (keep the remainder of the dough covered by a damp cloth) until it is about 1cm thick and will go through the pasta machine comfortably (if it is too thick, you will have to use so much force to get it through the pasta machine that you'll squeeze out too much moisture in the process, and the pasta will end up dry).
Put the machine on the first (thickest) setting to start with, then feed the piece of pasta through the machine, turning the handle with one hand and supporting the dough as it comes through with the other. Then change to the second setting, and put it through again. Repeat another 2-3 times, taking the setting down one step each time. Don't worry if the pasta appears slightly streaky, this should disappear as you carry on rolling it. (There isn't an exact number of times you need to feed the pasta through the machine; just use the next few steps as a guide and, after a while you will get the hang of rolling the pasta and feel your own way.)
Next, fold the strip of pasta back on itself, put the machine back on the first setting and put the pasta through. Repeat 3-4 more times, again taking the setting down one each time, and you will see that the pasta begins to take on a sheen. As it begins to get longer, you will find that you will have to pull it very gently, so that it doesn't begin to concertina. You shouldn't need to dust it with flour, unless you feel it is too soft and likely to stick and stretch too much.
Now you need to cut your strip in half lengthways. Put one half under a damp cloth, then fold the length of the other strip into three, bringing one end in and the other over the top of that, so that the pasta is the same width as the machine. Roll it with the rolling pin, so that it is no more than 5mm thick, then put the machine back on the first setting and feed the pasta through, this time widthways not lengthways. The idea of changing direction is to create elasticity and strength throughout the pasta. Keep feeding it through this way, taking it down two or three settings as you go.
Finally fold the pasta back on itself, then put the machine back on the first setting, and take it down again through the settings until it is about 1.5mm thick. By now, the pasta should be nice and shiny, with no lines in it, and you are now ready to cut it into strips - either by hand or using a cutter attachment on your machine - or to use it to make filled pasta. It is best to use each sheet as soon as it is ready, before rolling the remainder of your dough.
This is also from Giorgio's new book and is a perfect way to use a game bird that can sometimes end up being a bit dry.
For the filling
40g pancetta, finely chopped
1 banana shallot or 2 shallots
50ml dry white wine
2 tbsp Parmesan, grated
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp double cream
Remove the breasts from the bird, remove the legs and cut in half, leaving a thigh and drumstick. Use the bones to make a stock and reduce it down to use as a sauce for the ravioli.
Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7, then cut the pheasant breasts in half and season with the thighs. Heat an ovenproof sauté pan until it smokes, put in a tablespoon or so of vegetable oil and add the pheasant, skin side down. Cook it quickly until the skin turns golden, then add the finely chopped pancetta and 1 finely chopped banana shallot (or 2 ordinary shallots). Turn the pheasant over and continue to cook for a couple more minutes.
Add the wine and cook for a minute or so to let the alcohol evaporate. Transfer the pan to the pre-heated oven for 2-3 minutes, until the meat is cooked through, but not overcooked, as it will continue to cook as it cools down and you don't want it to dry out. Let everything f cool a little, but while still warm place in a food processor and blitz to a rough paste.
Spoon a little of the mixture at a time on to a chopping board, and run over with a spatula or table knife, just to feel whether any shot is left in - if so, remove it. If you are really worried you can also put it through a very fine sieve.
Put the mixture into a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of grated Parmesan cheese and an egg, and season if necessary. Slowly mix in the double cream and put into the fridge until it is cold. Then you can take small quantities, roll them with your hands into balls (you should have enough mixture for about 32 or more) and place on a tray or large plate, ready to make and cook the ravioli.
Mark the halfway point of your first strip of pasta (which should measure about 30cm x 10cm) and brush one half with a little beaten egg. Then place the balls of filling two abreast on the half brushed with egg, leaving a space of about 3-4cm between each. Fold the "unegged" half of the pasta over the top, carefully matching the long edges down one side and pressing them together, then do the same on the other side. Gently press down around each raviolo (don't worry if you compress the filling a little as you go).
Using a fluted or straight ring cutter at least 1cm larger in circumference than the balls of filling, cut out each raviolo and discard the trimmings. Seal each one and press out any air trapped inside by taking each raviolo and pinching around the outside carefully with your thumbs. If you hold each raviolo up to the light you can see where the filling is, and whether you have smoothed out all the air pockets. Repeat with the rest of the pasta.
Cook the ravioli in boiling, lightly salted water for 3-4 minutes then carefully drain.
Finish off with some melted butter and rosemary - which is a herb that has a special affinity with pheasant, or mix with the reduced stock if you've made it with the pheasant bones.
Tagliatelle with butternut squash
This is Anna's recipe from her new book, Amaretto, Apple cake and Artichokes (Vintage £12). Pumpkins and squashes are so versatile, although as Anna points out, some can be rather watery. I find butternut the most consistent in flavour, texture and colour.
300-400g fresh tagliatelle (or about 250g dried)
120g shallots, peeled and finely chopped
60g unsalted butter
Pinch of sea salt
800g butternut squash or pumpkin, peeled and seeded
Good pinch of grated nutmeg
2tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
200ml double cream
4tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra Parmesan for serving
Put the butter and shallot into a heavy pan and heat very slowly until the butter has melted. Sprinkle with a little salt. This will make the shallot release its moisture and thus cook without browning. Cover the mixture with a piece of buttered paper and put a lid on top. Cook over a very low heat for about half an hour, stirring frequently, until the shallot is very soft.
Meanwhile peel the pumpkin/squash and cut into chunks and then into short matchsticks.
Add the squash to the shallot, sprinkle with nutmeg and cover the pan. Cook very gently for 40 minutes or so, until the squash has become a purée. Stir in the parsley, the cream, the cheese and the black pepper, check the salt and then draw off the heat.
Cook the pasta as usual in plenty of salted water, remembering that if it is home-made, it will take no longer than 2 minutes to cook.
Drain, reserving about a cupful of the pasta water. Transfer the pasta immediately to the pan with the sauce, add a couple of tablespoons or more of the reserved water and heat for 1 minute, lifting it out of the pan to stir so that the sauce does not become too thick. Serve at once with the rest of the Parmesan in a bowl.
Spaghetti with scampi, chilli and olive oil
I always like to keep good quality frozen prawns, or scampi tails in the freezer; you never know when you may need to knock up a luxury pasta dish in a hurry. You can also defrost them fairly quickly in some lukewarm water without losing too much flavour.
250g good quality dried spaghetti
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped, seeds and all
120ml extra virgin olive oil
300-400g scampi tails, defrosted (any juices reserved)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
A couple good knobs of butter
1tbsp chopped parsley
Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water, according to the cooking instructions, then reserve a cup of the cooking water and drain. Meanwhile, gently cook the shallot and chilli in half of the olive oil for 2-4 minutes until soft and then remove from the heat. Heat the rest of the olive oil in a pan, season and cook the scampi tails on a high heat for 2-3 minutes then add to the shallot mixture and mix with the spaghetti, parsley and any liquid from the scampi. Heat gently, stirring well, season and add the butter. If needs be, add a little of the spaghetti cooking water to moisten the spaghetti and serve immediately.
'Amaretto, apple cake and artichokes: the Best of Anna Del Conte' (Vintage £12); 'Made in Italy: Food and Stories' by Giorgio Locatelli, Fourth Estate (£27.99)Reuse content