Spaghetti functions

Pasta should be a dish in its own right, not just an accompaniment

For several years now, pasta has been the darling of swish restaurants. This is not necessarily to say that it is used as a course in its own right - although a first- course ravioli (or raviolo) of shellfish is one of the most ubiquitous single offerings.

No, swirling pasta towers are the order of the day. Briefly drained and scalding strands of tagliatelle are twirled out of a battered colander (colanders are always battered in a professional kitchen) with a kitchen fork, and then sweaty fingers are wrapped around the flailing strands, simply to fashion a precarious edifice of starchy tendrils on the plate.

I don't happen to think that a leaning tower of tagliatelle is a happy companion to a principal dish, whether it be meat or fish. I muse that this, and the even more intrusive stuffed pasta assemblies, came about simply because it was the next attendant carbohydrate in line to be played around with.

Surely, a singular dish of, say, plumply filled ravioli is something to attend to in its own right - perhaps lubricated with a little juice or some nut-brown butter - rather than playing second fiddle to roasted meat or fowl.

Pasta, or polenta, are neutral foods to which one can add another ingredient or flavour. Potatoes, too, can be used in this way, up to a point (a salad with truffles or a small gratin Dauphinois - rarely served as such but as perfect a first course as one can imagine).

And then there is the question of whether to use dried pasta or to make your own. I am told by reliable sources that it is rare to find home-made pasta in an Italian home - unless it is a special occasion or granny still makes "the best pasta you have ever eaten".

The case, more often, is that pasta will be bought dried in packets. The quality of these can be exceptionally good, with Cipriani and De Cecco brands being particularly fine. And certain dishes, such as the Sicilian spaghetti al aglio, olio e peperoncino (with garlic, olive oil and dried chillies), need the sprightliness of dried pasta to make the dish a success.

Spaghetti al aglio, olio e peperoncino, serves 2

You will note that the quantity of garlic and chilli is relatively high. I like the garlic to almost act as a vegetable here, and cook it slowly in the oil first until it becomes golden and sticky. The chilli, too, I find a pointless inclusion unless it is a definite flavour within the dish. This is meant to be a spiced affair, after all.

8-12 large cloves garlic, peeled and thickly sliced

4 tbsp virgin olive oil

200g/7oz dried spaghetti

salt and 1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 tbsp chopped parsley (perhaps inauthentic, so optional; but I like it)

Cook the garlic very gently in a small pan with a tablespoon of the oil until golden and soft. Lift out with a slotted spoon and put onto a small plate; reserve the oil. Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain well in a colander and rinse with warm water. Now take a roomy frying pan (non-stick is preferable here) and add the garlic-flavoured oil together with the rest of the given amount; it may seem like a lot of oil, but it is an oily dish. Heat the oil until medium hot and add the chilli flakes. Allow them to splutter briefly and then tip in the spaghetti. Turn and toss the pasta around until well-coated with oil and the chilli, then re-introduce the garlic. Reduce the heat a little, and then gently keep turning the spaghetti until it takes on a little colour itself; sort of golden and crusting slightly, which gives the paste itself an interesting flavour and texture. Stir in the parsley, if using, and turn out onto two very hot plates. Eat at once.

Tagliarini with zucchini, serves 2

Any green vegetable can be cooked with pasta, but the beauty of this is that the zucchini (courgette) can be cooked in the same frying pan as the pasta, once it has been boiled. Tagliarini, a thinner version of tagliatelle, would aesthetically be the right one to use here, as it will hold the strips of zucchini better than the more string-like spaghetti; shapes and dimensions are important when it comes to cooking with pasta.

200g/7oz dried spaghetti

2-3 tbsp virgin olive oil

4 medium-sized zucchini, coarsely grated

salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

freshly grated Parmesan

Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain thoroughly in a colander and rinse with warm water. Briefly fry the grated zucchini in a roomy frying pan, in two tablespoons of the oil, with some seasoning and the garlic, until wilted and lightly coloured. Tip in the tagliarini with another tablespoon of the oil and turn and toss together until well mixed, and until the pasta has also taken on some colour, too. Turn onto very hot plates and sprinkle with plenty of freshly grated Parmesan.

Penne pudding, serves 4-5

Originally known to me as macaroni pudding, this milk pudding was a favourite of mine as a child. The ingredients are the same as for rice pudding, with the rice being replaced by the pasta. Penne, apart from being easier to get hold of than macaroni these days, seems to be a better vehicle here, as all the milky sauce that is produced during the cooking flows deep inside the quill-like tubes, making the finished result all the more soft and slippery.

1 litre/134 pints full cream milk

1 vanilla pod, split lengthways

110g/4oz golden caster sugar

150g/5oz penne

150ml/5fl oz single cream

freshly grated nutmeg

Pre-heat the oven to 300F/150C/gas mark 2. Put the milk, vanilla pod and sugar into the sort of shallow oven-proof dish that will also sit happily over a naked flame. Bring to a simmer and then stir around with a whisk, pushing around the vanilla pod, which will help to disperse its little black seeds into the milk. Tip in the penne, stir around and bring back to a gentle simmer. Grate plenty of nutmeg over the surface, to give an even dusting and then place in the oven and cook for approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes. Have a look from time to time, as the surface should remain pale golden throughout; turn the temperature down a touch if it seems to be getting too dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for 10-15 minutes before eating. This sort of pudding is infinitely better eaten warm than piping hot.

Note: the finished texture of the pudding should be very slightly runny when it emerges from the oven. The starch in the pasta serving to thicken the hot milk, which it continues to do as the pudding cools slightly. Clearly, for once, considering the cooking time here, the phrase al dente is redundant: but then I don't believe this recipe has anything to do with Italian cookery, do you? A truly delicious milk pudding, nevertheless

Simon Hopkinson is 1997's Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year for his writing in this magazine

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