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Mark Hix - pasta master: pasta bonanza, part one

In a two-part special, Mark Hix turns his attention to the Italian staple.This week: classic trattoria treats. Photographs by Jason Lowe

Saturday 08 March 2008 01:00 GMT

Pasta has to be one of the meals most frequently knocked up at home the length and breadth of the country. It satisfies practically everybody (including children) – and it can be as simple or as complicated as you wish to make it. There is no end to what you can match with pasta, although you should take care not to use it as an excuse just to empty the fridge and bung in the contents with tinned tomatoes – the results could be terrifying.

There are a few simple classic pasta dishes that we all adore, and if they sound a bit naff, that shouldn't put you off cooking them once in a while for family or dinner guests; the classic pasta bolognese is one example. Popular in the Seventies, it has survived the test of time and deserves to be given special attention, as I have done below.

My view is that you should never take short cuts with classics like this – a cheap can of chopped, processed tomatoes in the wrong hands can ruin the dish. Again, it's all about the quality of the raw products you use in cooking. There are good canned tomatoes, and there are shockers; in general, you get what you pay for.

The same goes for the type of pasta you use. There are a confusing number of shapes and sizes on the market – who comes up with names such as acomo pepe and ziti rigati? – so it's important to find a brand that you like and trust, and to stick with it. De Cecco is one good quality example that is readily available in many supermarkets.

This week I've given you my interpretation of some simple classic pasta recipes. The perennial favourite, bolognese sauce, can also be converted into lasagne, cannelloni and ravioli – or you could alter the meat and use boar or venison mince to create a different sauce altogether. Next week I'll be creating more unusual pasta dishes for you.

Spaghetti with meatballs

Serves 4

This is not your average British trattoria dish, but you'll almost certainly find it on a menu in Italian family restaurants in the US; the kind of place you'd expect to bump into the Sopranos. You can also turn it into something quite sophisticated by using, say, wild boar, lamb or even veal. Or you can use other types of pasta, such as spaghettini, for this dish.

4 servings of spaghetti or spaghettini

For the sauce
1 onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp olive oil
A good knob of butter
1tbsp flour
100ml red wine
400ml beef stock
1 x 400g can chopped tomatoes

For the meatballs

1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped marjoram or oregano leaves
1tbsp olive oil
350-400g minced pork
4-5tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp flour
2tbsp vegetable oil

First make the sauce: gently cook the onion and garlic in the olive oil and butter for a couple of minutes until soft, stir in the flour, then slowly add the red wine and beef stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming. Add the tomatoes, bring to the boil, season and simmer gently for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the meatballs: gently cook the onion, garlic and marjoram (or oregano) in the olive oil for a couple of minutes until soft, then remove from the heat and leave to cool. Mix the onion mixture with the minced pork and breadcrumbs in a large mixing bowl and season well. Mould into about 28-32 balls, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan, lightly flour the meatballs and brown them evenly in the oil in a few batches. Drain on some kitchen paper, then add to the sauce and continue simmering for about 15-20 minutes, topping up with water if the sauce is becoming too dry.

Cook the spaghetti or spaghettini in boiling salted water, according to the manufacturer's cooking instructions, then drain in a colander. Transfer the spaghetti to a warmed serving dish and spoon the meatballs and sauce on top.

Serve with grated Parmesan, if you wish.

Pasta all'arrabbiata

Serves 4

This is a very basic pasta sauce; you can use fresh chillis, but the flavour will be more consistent if you use the dried variety. The word arrabbiata means "angry", hence the little kick of chilli.

You can finish this by scattering some fresh basil leaves over the top or even tearing some mozzarella (or ricotta) as I have here.

Penne or macaroni always work well with this dish; or stick with a straight long pasta.

4-5tbsp olive oil
1 onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
1/2-3/4tsp dried chilli flakes, plus more if you wish
2tsp tomato purée
400g can of good quality chopped tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
250ml vegetable stock
4 servings of pasta of your choice

Gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli in the olive oil for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes and stock, season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring every so often. Add a little water if the sauce is getting too thick, as it needs to be a good coating consistency for the pasta. Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to manufacturer's cooking instructions then drain, reserving a little of the cooking liquid for adjusting the sauce, and toss into the sauce, adding a little more olive oil and cooking liquid if necessary.

Cannelloni bolognese

Serves 4 as a starter

Bolognese sauce is one of the great comfort staples of Italian cooking. It's also got the advantage of being a master of disguise. You can use dried cannelloni shells for this – or I sometimes use fresh lasagne sheets and roll them up around the chilled sauce and just slightly overlap them.

4 cannelloni tubes or 4 sheets of fresh lasagne

For the meat sauce

1 small onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme or oregano leaves
2tbsp olive oil
400g lean coarsely minced beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tsp flour
2tsp tomato purée
100ml red wine
750ml hot beef stock

For the cheese sauce

50g butter
50g flour
500ml hot milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
4tbls freshly grated parmesan
2-3tbsp double cream
1 egg yolk

First, make the meat sauce: heat half the olive oil in a large frying pan then season and fry the meat on a high heat, stirring every so often until it's lightly coloured. Drain the meat in a colander, then heat the rest of the oil in a saucepan and gently cook the onion, garlic and thyme for 2-3 minutes. Add the meat, flour and tomato purée and stir well, then gradually add the wine and beef stock, bring to the boil, season and simmer for about an hour until the sauce has thickened and is just coating the meat. Leave to cool.

Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter in a pan and stir in the flour then gradually whisk in the hot milk to make a smooth sauce. Season and simmer very gently for about 30 minutes, giving it a good whisk every so often (a diffuser plate will come in useful here). Stir in the Parmesan and cream and re-season. Remove from the heat, leave to cool a little and stir in the egg yolk.

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7.

Stuff the cannelloni with the meat or roll into a lasagne sheet. Spoon a little of the sauce in the bottom of a large gratin dish or individuals then place the cannelloni in the dish, coat with the cheese sauce and bake for 15-25 minutes or until it has glazed nicely.

Pasta frittata

Serves 4

This is a great way to use up pasta leftovers, although I did try it on my daughters Ellie and Lydia once and they asked my why I was serving last night's dinner in an omelette, so make sure you don't serve both to the same people! You can tart it up a bit by adding, say, shredded wild garlic (see Charles Campion's Real Food on page 57) or herbs.

2-3 eggs per person
Olive oil for frying
Pasta leftovers such as pasta in tomato sauce, carbonara, etc
A couple of tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan

Beat your eggs and chop up the pasta, then mix with the eggs. Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan and stir in the pasta mixture. Continue stirring over a medium heat until the mixture starts to set. Leave over the heat for a minute or so, then invert the pan on to a plate and slide the frittata back into the pan so you can brown the uncooked side. Cook on a medium heat for a minute, then slide on to a serving plate. To serve, cut into slices and accompany with a fresh green salad.

To see Mark Hix's exclusive cookery videos, see

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