Thursday, 24 February 2011

Parmesan, mozzarella and pomodoro bake – thanks Joanna Lumley


Last night I was gripped by a food memory that I hadn’t had since I was an angst-ridden teenager. I thought I wanted macaroni and cheese for dinner, and while I was going through the list of what I needed to buy, I suddenly recalled a recipe that my mum had made at my 18th birthday party way back in the early 90’s. It was inspired by a Joanna Lumley ad for Sainsbury’s where she coaxed the viewers, in her posh velvety tones, through making a pomodoro pasta bake with mozzarella, parmesan and tomatoes. One sighting of this ad and I was hooked!

The sight of Joanna Lumley tearing fresh basil leaves up with her glossy lacquered fingernails was mesmerising – in the late 90’s I don’t think I had even seen fresh basil outside of a jar of pesto sauce. The mozzarella I was used to was the rubbery grated stuff on top of pizzas, and parmesan came as a dried powder in a tub smelling of sick. Joanna talked through the process of adding chunks of fresh mozzarella and grated parmesan to a tomato sauce, then adding fresh basil to it and mixing with penne (penne? How exotic!) then baking in the oven, topped with more fresh parmesan. By the end of the advert, I think most of the UK was drooling. Sales of those ingredients must have soared.

I begged my Mum to make it for my 18th birthday party, which she did very graciously. I don’t think she was quite expecting that her weird daughter wanted all her friends to come to the dinner wearing drag, and since the majority of my mates were male, we had a few of bearded ladies with comedy makeup sitting around the table. Some of the boys were squeezed into ballgowns with their hairy chests poking out at the top. The few girls that came along had drawn burnt cork moustaches on themselves. (KW do you remember this?!)

Everyone arrived with bottles of cheap booze in carrier bags, which my Mum, horrified, promptly confiscated. We were allowed exactly 1 bottle of Martini Rosso on the table, shared between about 15 of us. Luckily, I managed to ‘release’ the rest of the booze from its prison and we hid it under the table, furtively topping up our glasses. It was a hilarious night. But my most abiding memory was this amazing pasta dish, courtesy of Joanna Lumley, Sainsbury’s and those trusty recipe cards given out at the checkouts – does anybody out there still have this one in an old ringbinder somewhere?

Here’s the recipe, which is entirely cooked from memory, so it won’t be accurate. Not bad recall, though, after such a massive gap of years – it tastes just how I remember it!

Serves 4 – 5 people

You will need:

300g penne shaped pasta, cooked until just underdone. I like wholewheat penne – it has a nice flavour.
2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes (use the best quality you can afford)3 tablespoons tomato puree
2 medium sized balls of fresh mozzarella, chopped into large chunks
100g + 70g fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 small stem fresh rosemary, chopped
3 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano
1 large bunch fresh basil, chopped into thin slices
6 large fresh tomatoes, chopped into large chunks
Olive oil
Salt & freshly ground pepper

Preheat your oven to 180C. Oil a large baking tray. Put the chunks of fresh tomatoes in the tray and whack in the oven while you sort out the sauce and pasta.

Then make your sauce. Gently heat the crushed garlic over a medium heat in some olive oil. Add the chopped rosemary, then when everything is fragrant (but don’t burn) add the tinned tomatoes. Chop them up over the back of a wooden spoon if they’re whole ones. Add the tomato puree and oregano and simmer for about 15 minutes. Then add 100g grated Parmesan and all the chopped mozzarella. Let it melt slowly in, simmer for about 5 minutes, then season to taste with salt and pepper and add the chopped basil right at the end. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Phwoar – tomato-ey cheesy goodness!


Once more with herbs – I could probably drink this like a smoothie:


While you make the sauce you can get the pasta on the go. Don’t cook it through completely – it has to be a little bit hard as it’ll cook more in the oven.

When your pasta and sauce are ready, take the tray of tomatoes out of the oven. Mix everything together in the tray, then top everything with the remaining 70g of grated Parmesan. Bake until the top is crusty and golden – about 20 minutes.

Woah, it’s like food porn – look at those crunchy bits just tempting you:


It’s intensely savoury, cheesy and herby with a lovely rich taste of tomato. Great for a big carbo blow-out!


I was so hungry I couldn’t be bothered to make the bowl look smear-free for the camera:


Does anyone else remember the Joanna Lumley Sainsbury’s ad?

Friday, 4 February 2011

Food sharing anxiety

I have long harboured a realisation which I’ve felt too ashamed about admitting for years, but now I’m going to come out into the open with it. In a nutshell, I absolutely HATE sharing small plates of food with other people – ie tapas style dishes. It really drives me round the bend and ruins many an eating out experience. It just won’t do for me!

I think it probably stems from university days. I would be minding my own business eating my beans on toast, or tuna and cheese toastie, and then from out of nowhere my annoying housemate C’s fork would plunge into my plate from across the table as she cheerfully helped herself to my dinner. I would cry out ‘Oi what the hell are you doing’ and she’d retort with ‘Oh stop being so uptight’ while plunging her fork in for a second time with complete impunity. I would feel almost murderous rage at what she’d done – she had violated my dinner. It amounted to a complete lack of respect for my personal space and annoyed the crap out of me.

Then began my first forays into Spanish-style tapas eating. I would find the whole process unbearable – people umm-ing and ahh-ing about how many plates of food to order: did we have too much, did we have too little? Then I’d find that the plates that I’d ordered would be placed at the opposite end of the table to where I was sitting, and by the time I’d get it passed to me, someone else would have polished off most of it. There would never be enough tapas for everyone, but no-one would really speak up and order more. I would find the whole thing an ordeal and leave feeling disgruntled and still hungry, cheated out of a proper dinner. I still can’t get the memory of an unbearable tapas meal I experienced in Bloomsbury out of my head – there were at least 20 people around the table, and tapas is only bearable for two people at most, perhaps a maximum of four, but 20 is sheer insanity. How I hated the ridiculous dance of forks around the last morsel of chorizo or mushroom, and the fact that a lot of the food came in portions that were impossible to divide among more than two people. Spanish tortilla, I rest my case.

I have two good friends who have a habit of always ordering two separate dishes when we eat out and dividing them down the middle to share them with each other. I find the whole thing incomprehensible – imagine if you are really enjoying your plate of food to know that halfway through you have to surrender it and swap over to something that you might not like as much? It's like they don't want to commit to anything. I’m clearly far too impatient and greedy. I like nothing more than to have my plate of food in front of me, safe in the knowledge that I’ll get to enjoy the whole thing, without someone’s fork plunging rudely into it for a taste. Unless I give them permission first…

The only real exception to my dislike of sharing food is in Asian cuisine, where you traditionally order a lot of plates between you and share. It just isn’t really the done thing to order one dish for yourself. For some reason this experience is really satisfying as the portions tend to be larger, and you get to try a lot of different things. (Actually I've just thought of one annoying thing: there are four of you dining, but three spring rolls arrive on the plate. Trying to carve them in half with chopsticks is SO annoying!) But I’m afraid tapas, and all those small trendy plates of food that seem to be cropping up everywhere in gastropubs and Soho Italian tapas restaurants just make me feel on edge and perpetually irked. How on earth are you meant to share a soft boiled duck egg and soldiers between four hungry diners? Gah!

Are you as intolerant as I am, or do you think I should just mellow out? I’d love to hear from some similarly picky diners…

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A working lunch


We all have different experiences of the working lunch. Above is my typical lunch in the office: lentil soup eaten while hunched over the keyboard. The soup was lovely but the scenario is pretty dire huh? In an ideal world I’d be sitting in the sun in some kind of picturesque piazza, wolfing down a homemade baguette filled with rustic ham and gherkins, delighting at the vibrancy of passers by. However, the mediocrity of my weekday lunchbreak is nowt compared to whoever has to eat lunch in this thing:


See how both toilet and canteen are in cheek-by-jowl proximity? Just imagine - your colleague sitting on the khazi while you heat up a cup-a-soup in the illustrious ‘canteen’ end, mere centimetres away. Shudder!

What’s your typical working lunch like? A travesty like the two examples mentioned above, or a lovely civilised affair? Go on, make me jealous.