Eating In

Besieged by abundance

Enliven dull staples with fresh vegetables says Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

The pasta shelves are bare! Only Loyd Grossman’s sauces are left!” I responded with optimism to my wife’s report from the supermarket. Virus panic condemned the intemperate to long weeks of meals of dried pasta, but at least some shoppers were willing to make their own sauces.

Readers of The Critic, I guess, are too discerning to succumb to panic, but for any who have larders overstocked with dry goods, I have consoling counsel. Fresh vegetables abound and make perfect dressings for otherwise dreary products. Unlike fresh pasta, which overcooking wrecks, the dried variety can withstand distrait timing.

Fresh vegetables abound and make perfect dressings for otherwise dreary products

I have learned to appreciate a slight flabbiness in my pasta, as a result of long residence in the United States. People there, who call themselves “Italian” on the basis of remote and largely forgotten ancestry, think that al dente is the name of a curse; they cook their spaghetti until it wilts or sags and serve it with meatballs or, in an abomination peculiar to Cincinnati, with chili, mince and viscous cheese.

The folk in Ohio go too far, but one can relax over the timing if the garnish is right: simple, fresh, and in need of no more cooking than is achieved by stirring raw ingredients into the drained noodles. Finely chopped tomatoes are unbeatable if enlivened with a tiny pinch of cayenne pepper and swirled with a clove or two of crushed garlic. If the tomatoes are not sweet enough to complement the acridity of the garlic, a touch of muscovado sugar is in order. The juice the tomatoes yield makes other liquid superfluous. Tiny young peas are also an admirable dressing, but need a dollop of mascarpone to lubricate and enrich the dish.

Other vegetables demand appropriate adjustments. Broad beans? Chop roughly and stir in with olive oil. Cauliflower? Grate with a pinch of cinnamon or nutmeg, add strips of red peppers for colour, and anoint with oil. Courgettes? Slice into almost diaphanous slimness, add plenty of paprika and grated parmesan to butter or mascarpone for unction. Sprouts usually need shredding and a little cinnamon and honey in olive oil. Broccoli? Don’t bother. The stalks are too crude and the florets too delicate for the required treatment.

Did the emptying pasta shelves drive any readers to the perilous reaches of the sections for farro, buckwheat, barley, basmati rice, couscous, quinoa, et hoc genus omne? Most people think these demand elaborate dressings or exoticist hype to elevate them from the modest status they occupy in their home cultures.

But even the most impenetrably self-isolated, who cannot get fresh deliveries, can concoct a store cupboard dressing that suits such foods. I make it occasionally in the chaotic months I spend every year en garçon in the wilds of northern Indiana — in a form of isolation imposed largely by my inefficiency. Gently, in olive oil, I sweat crushed garlic and chopped onions, in unstinting quantities, with generous pinches of ginger and cinnamon, and a sprinkling each of cayenne and muscovado sugar. The drained grains need nothing more to garnish them. If you can get more ingredients delivered, choose those — for purposes of dishes of this kind — of only slightly yielding consistency: prawns go well, as do slices of monk fish or other firm, white fish, or quarters of hard-boiled egg.

Shoppers who over-indulged in dry pulses should, I think, leave them until the winter, when a revisitation or mutation of Covid-19 or some impishly intrusive new virus may immure us all again. The likes of chickpeas, lentils and dried beans are best as fortifiers against foul, icy weather, in hearty stews with fatty meats and robust sausages. I think much the same of polenta — another ingredient panic-buyers prize for its longevity: boiled, it is best with butter and parmesan, or fried in the form of cold, coagulated tranches, with onions and mushrooms.

If you did buy embarrassing quantities of siege food, pardon my derision. I am spending the time of virus in a Northamptonshire village, enjoying unwonted quiet, unseasonal sunshine and local abundance. My complacency makes me feel ashamed of myself, uneasy about others less happily placed, and apprehensive about protracted or recurring emergency measures.

Perhaps — I fantasise — enforced leisure will drive cooks back to the golden age of recipes, experimenting with the costly, fastidious grande cuisine of the era of Escoffier, the “Emperor of chefs”, whose renown terrorised his rivals, and whose sauces ruined the digestion of the élite. Since, despite the crisis, I have all imaginable ingredients still to hand in Northamptonshire, I resolve to concoct sylphides à la crème d’écrevisses or cuisses de nymphe aurore. My wife forbids it. “You make too much mess. But, as a special treat, and as you seem to have nothing better to do, I’ll let you clarify the consommé.” Now there’s a challenge.

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