In seven years of this blog, pasta, the ultimate ‘daily solution to an eternal problem’, has only ever featured as a footnote to recipes designed for use with gnocchi. Thirteen years ago, thanks to a very stressful job (180 newly branded and packaged books to press in six months…yay!) my diet went a bit haywire and I suddenly couldn’t eat anything wheat-related. I left the job, relaxed tenfold and slowly went back to eating normally. However, pasta, even the freshest River-Café pasta, which I was lucky enough to try once, made me unwell. And, after many messy attempts to make it part of my diet, I made my peace with its absence.
Not long after this, I started working on cookbooks. I edited or proofread my way through the likes of Made in Sicily, trullo, Anna Jones’ excellent The Modern Cook’s Year and Brindisa, always knowing that alla Norma, one-pot pasta and fideuà were never going to enter my repertoire. Or appear in blog posts. Since pasta is the base ingredient of some of the quickest, cheapest and, generally, easiest meals on the planet, this has always been a very obvious gap but, as I couldn’t eat it, then I wasn’t going to cook it.
About six months ago, I decided that this was ridiculous. I happily eat couscous, egg noodles and bread, so feeling ill after eating exactly the same ingredients in a different form had to be some kind of psychosomatic, not real, reaction. What’s more, my niece and a friend’s daughter, both newly arrived at university kept complaining that they were sick of pasta with pesto every night and did I have any suggestions? Finally, my partner’s Desert-Island dish was slow-cooked ragù with nutmeg and every time he made it the flat filled with delicious aromas, none of which quite made sense with gnocchi instead of spaghetti. So, one weekend, when I had absolutely nothing to do, a rare moment in itself, I decided to risk a dish of pasta, for the first time in more than a decade. If I was ill, then I had the whole weekend in bed to recover; if I wasn’t, then I had a whole world of new recipes to try. Reader, it was, as I suspected, spectacular and, most importantly (to me, at least), I was perfectly fine.
Little by little, pasta has become a staple again. And it’s like rediscovering a really wonderful simple pleasure, as well as all my recipe books. Not only can I eat old favourites (puttanesca! carbonara! aglio, olio e peperoncino!) but also all the recipes I have skimmed over in the last ten years are suddenly worthy of Post-Its and I no longer have to apologise for having the most inexplicable food aversion ever. Oh and I can join the queue at Padella which, if you haven’t witnessed in person, you can see rather brilliantly filmed on their website (non-London foodies, put it on your next to-visit list).
At first, I was a bit nervous of cooking it again – pasta, like rice, should be simple but often isn’t. Then a special-occasion visit to trullo and brown shrimp and courgette tagliarini inspired me to try something from their book. Full of lovely dishes, none of which are too time-consuming for a weeknight dinner, it reminded me that far from being difficult, pasta is one of the most democratic of ingredients: it is really easy to cook something special, without too much expertise or expense.
This crab recipe is a fantastic example: a handful of ingredients and about 15 minutes transforms 50p-worth of spaghetti into restaurant-quality food. The most extravagant part of the dish, 80g of ready-prepared crab meat for two portions, is easier to source in 100g packets (it’s available at Tesco’s and Waitrose) so I use that amount. That 20g extra can’t hurt…I’ve not yet tried it with tinned crab, which is cheaper, but it’s rare to find a mixture of brown and white meat sold like that so, for now, I’m sticking to the fresh stuff. I have made it three or four times, both as a proper planned dinner and as an afterthought post a night out and it has already become one of my favourite things; once you try it, I am sure it will become one of yours.
Spaghetti/linguine with crab, lemon and chilli (adapted from trullo)
Makes enough for two
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
olive oil, ½-1 tablespoon
dried spaghetti or linguine, 250g
unsalted butter, 25g
salt and pepper
Thai bird’s eye chilli, ½
fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, 1 tablespoon
white and brown cooked and picked crab meat (buy it here or here), 100g
lemon, about ¼-½ (you need 1 tablespoon of juice)
1. Finely chop the chilli and parsley and put in a bowl. Add the olive oil, crab meat, tablespoon of lemon juice, mix together and season to taste. Put in the fridge until needed.
2. Fill your biggest, biggest pan with cold water and bring to the boil. Add salt and taste the water (be careful!) until it resembles mild sea water (this is my favourite learning from the whole book).
3. Add the pasta to the pan and cook until it is al dente (my version of this is cook it for half/two-thirds of the time suggested on the packet, so 6-8 minutes if it says 12, then keep testing it until ready).
4. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large frying pan on a low heat, add a large splash of the pasta cooking water then stir in the crab mixture.
5. As soon as the pasta is cooked, remove it from the water, drain (reserving some of the cooking water) and add it to the crab pan. Now stir and toss the pasta with the crab mixture (this ‘works’ the gluten apparently) for about 30 seconds or so, adding a little more cooking water if it looks at all dry, until the strands are completely coated in the mixture. Serve immediately.