Quick as you like

With a well-stocked larder and a little foresight, you can knock up sensational pasta dishes in minutes. Mark Hix shows us a few short cuts to fast food
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Indy Lifestyle Online

When I was a kid rigatoni or strozapretti sounded like something the doctor would diagnose. Spaghetti and macaroni were the only types of pasta we'd heard of, and we didn't ever call them "pasta".

When I was a kid rigatoni or strozapretti sounded like something the doctor would diagnose. Spaghetti and macaroni were the only types of pasta we'd heard of, and we didn't ever call them "pasta".

These days clocking the pasta section in any supermarket will broaden your vocabulary almost enough to speak whole Italian sentences. Pasta is probably the best and most versatile larder standby of all, and it's no surprise we don't seem to be able to get enough of it, or enough different shapes and names to fill a medical dictionary.

Every restaurant – whether or not they're Italian – probably has at least a couple of pasta dishes to tempt. If it seems as if chefs aren't taking as much advantage of the huge variety of names and shapes as people at home, that's because diners don't want to stumble as they order, ask for a description of something they've never heard of and then struggle to pronounce it. So in restaurants we tend to stick to tagliatelle, fettuccine and other familiar, trip-off-the-tongue varieties.

But the number of shapes seems to be growing so fast that I imagine pasta companies have continuous brainstorming sessions to dream up new twists and names for their dried dough. In addition to all the ears, shells, twirls and tubes, some recent inventions include gemelli (twins), radiatore (shaped like a car radiator), the green verdoni, bomboloni (little cylinders), bow ties in all sorts of colours to keep the kids happy, and saucy wedding tackle shapes (unlikely you'll find this in supermarkets) to put a smirk on someone's face. If you're wondering, no, I don't have a favourite shape.

I have to admit to a favourite brand, however. Cipriani, available at Sainsbury's and good delis, is the business. It cooks in two minutes and tastes as good as it gets, and as close to well-made fresh pasta as you will find.

The most memorable pasta dishes I've ever eaten have all been cooked by Italian chefs. Funny that. There was Franco Taruschio's cep and truffle lasagne at The Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny, and Giorgio Locatelli's buckwheat fettuccine with potatoes and cabbage. Giorgio also did a baked fettuccine carbonara at Cecconi's when it re-opened a couple of years ago. Nor will I ever forget the cappelletti with broccoli, pine nuts and raisins that I had in Sicily, even though I can't remember the name of the restaurant.

But though pasta dishes can achieve greatness like these select few, the beauty of them is that they're not time consuming or tricky to do at home. Like most good cooking, the key to success is simple ingredients and not too many of them. And it's no wonder pasta is the miracle supper material.

I like to surprise unexpected guests with speedy hunger solutions. I've knocked up a sauce from frozen pre-sliced ceps, which I buy from Booth's in London's Borough Market, with cream or mascarpone and garlic, in the time it takes to cook the pasta. A cheese sauce with mascarpone and Parmesan, the recipe for which I gave a couple of weeks ago, can also be made in the same time.

If you want to be ready to impress with instant pasta suppers, you'll need a few essential ingredients in the cupboard, fridge and freezer, and some of my tricks up your sleeve. Then you're ready for a faster pasta fix.

* Cipriani pasta comes as tagliarelle, tagliolini and tagliardi from Sainsbury's; I. Camisa, 61, Old Compton Street, London W1 (020-7437 7610).

* Ink spaghetti from I. Camisa; Rivington Deli, 28-30 Rivington Street, London EC1 (020-7729 7052 - check).

* Frozen petits pois and frozen tiger prawns from most supermarkets.

* Mascarpone, pesto, and freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano from supermarkets and delis.

* Diced pancetta from Italian delis, Sainsbury's and Tesco.

* Bottarga from I. Camisa; Valvona & Crolla, 19 Elm Row, Edinburgh (0131-556 6066); Maquis, 111 Hammersmith Grove, London W6 (020-8846 3851); Love Saves the Day, Smithfield Buildings, Tib Street, Manchester (0161-832 0777) and 345 Deansgate, Castlefield, Manchester (0161-834 2266).

* Sliced or quartered frozen ceps from L Booth, Borough Market, London SE1. This is where I buy mine from and I haven't heard of anywhere else that sells them.

Spaghetti with bottarga

Serves 4

Bottarga is dried grey mullet roe, and it comes pre-grated or whole in a vacuum pack. It doesn't sound that appetising but has an amazing rich, slightly salty and bitter flavour. It's expensive but so intense that a little goes a long way. Keep grated and whole in stock for adding to pasta or salads; use grated in the sauce and the whole roe to grate or shave on top.

320g fresh or dried spaghetti, fresh cooks quicker
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3tsp grated bottarga
40g piece of bottarga
2tbsp white wine
80ml extra virgin olive oil
80g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a pan and warm the garlic through. Add the white wine, butter, grated bottarga and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Simmer on a low heat for 1 minute to let the flavours infuse. Meanwhile, having cooked the spaghetti according to the cooking instructions, drain in a colander. Toss the spaghetti with the sauce and re-season if necessary. Divide between the plates, grate the bottarga over the pasta and serve immediately.

Tagliardi with porcini

Serves 4

If you can't find tagliardi, which are odd shapes of pasta a bit like broken pieces of pappardelle, then just use regular pappardelle. If you are lucky enough to be able to get to Borough Market in London on a Friday or Saturday, buy fresh ceps or meaty wild mushrooms like pied de mouton or girolles in season. Slice them up and freeze them flat on trays. Transfer into freezer bags so you can take as many or as few as you like when it's time to use them. Another good addition to this is cep flour, sometimes called porcini powder; it gives this dish a real fungi boost.

Allow 60-80g tagliardi per person
250g sliced ceps
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp olive oil
250g mascarpone
1/2 tsp porcini powder, optional
2tbsp chopped parsley, fresh or frozen

Take a good large non-stick, trustworthy frying pan and heat it with the olive oil until almost smoking. Sauté the ceps, from frozen, with the garlic in a couple of batches on a high heat until they begin to colour. Remove the pan from the heat, spoon out the ceps and put them on a plate to one side.

Return the pan to the heat, add the mascarpone and porcini powder and heat gently until it has melted. Simmer on a low heat until it thickens then add the ceps with any juices, and the parsley, and season. Bring back to the boil and simmer for another minute until the sauce thickens – the juices will have thinned the mascarpone down. Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water, according to the cooking time on the packet, and drain in a colander.

Mix the sauce with the pasta and re-season if necessary.

Ink pasta with prawns

Serves 4

The ink the cuttlefish fires to repel attacking predators is used to turn pasta black and give it a faintly fishy taste. Frozen raw prawns are always a good standby. Tiger prawns, the ones usually found in supermarkets, come peeled or unpeeled. They don't take long to defrost in cold water and are normally frozen individually so you can take out as many as you need.

Allow 60-80g ink pasta per person as a starter
100ml olive oil
2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
16 medium-sized tiger, prawns, peeled, de-veined and halved lengthways
3tsp tomato purée
100ml water
2tbsp chopped parsley
60g butter

Heat the olive oil in a thick-bottomed pan and fry the shallots, garlic and prawns for a minute. Add the tomato purée and water and bring to the boil. Cook on a high heat for a minute or so until the sauce has reduced by half and thickened. Meanwhile put a pan of salted water on to boil and cook and drain the pasta.

Add the butter and parsley to the sauce, stir well and toss the sauce in with the cooked pasta.

Tagliolini with peas and pancetta

Serves 4

Ready-diced pancetta, and good quality pesto; now these are what I call proper convenience foods. Unless you're lucky enough to have an Italian deli nearby it's difficult to buy a large, whole piece of pancetta to dice. Even then getting it perfectly skinned and diced can be tricky without a super sharp kitchen knife or electric slicing machine. Pesto comes in various qualities, you'll find the best in Italian delis or refrigerated in supermarkets. In summer when there is plenty of basil around you can make your own and freeze it for the winter.

Allow 60-80g tagliolini per person
80g diced pancetta or cut up some sliced
1tbsp olive oil
80g frozen petits pois, cooked for 2 minutes in boiling salted water
2tbsp pesto
40g butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Gently cook the pancetta for 3 or 4 minutes in the olive oil on a low heat without colouring it. Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the cooking time on the packet and drain in a colander.

Add the pesto, butter and peas to the pancetta, mix well then toss into the pasta and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If the pasta looks a bit dry add a little more pesto or a tablespoon of water.

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