Spending several months in Italy last year provided a lot of opportunities to learn a thing or two about cooking – particularly the pasta arts. That said, it wasn’t always easy to squeeze tips out of the real pros.
Maria is the nonna of my cousins (who are half-Kiwi, half-Italy). She’s from The South and really knows her way around a kitchen, having been on galley-duty her whole life feeding a tribe of relatives. She is also the master of making a lot out of very few ingredients; how she is able to draw every drop of flavour out of a few tomatoes and basil leaves and turn them into the most exquisitely pungent fresh tomato sauce remains a mystery to me.
She is also a financial mastermind, the inventor of an economic philosophy both brilliant and simple. The principle? If you don’t go into shops you won’t spend money. Pure genius. In practice it means using up what you have – particularly food stuffs, but also clothes, cosmetics, anything – before heading back to the shop to resupply. With Nonna Economy you waste less and avoid opportunities to impulse-buy.
Back to food, this was clearly the person from whom knowledge of the secret lore of pasta should be sought – but on the few occasions that Andrew or I tried to watch her in the kitchen we were usually turned around pretty swiftly. I’m not sure if we, as guests, were simply not meant to help out in the kitchen. More probably we just got in the way. On one memorable occasion the diminutive grandmother literally chased all six foot of Andrew out of her tiny kitchen brandishing a wooden spoon.
That said, I did manage to pick a few things up, mostly from attempts to reverse-engineer the masterpieces that arrived on the table. One of the best was to use whole garlic cloves in quick pasta sauces rather than diced, sliced or crushed garlic. The whole cloves aren’t in danger of burning and becoming acrid, and they seem to infuse a much sweeter and more aromatic flavour than you get with garlic that’s had a rougher start to its culinary life. Just remember to remove the garlic cloves before serving the pasta!
So, when I came to thinking about Saturday lunch last weekend the cupboard and fridge were beginning to look a bit bare – but with Maria as my inspiration I decided to make use of what I had lying around.
Fresh green beans braised in a tomato-based sauce and served with fresh parmesan cheese couldn’t be called a revolutionary idea, but with some linguine added I was able to up the ante from side-dish to main meal.
Slicing the beans length ways to form lovely green ribbons adds a little work, but the cohesion you get between vegetable and pasta is well worth the effort.
linguine with green bean and tomato sauce
fresh green beans, a handful
400g tinned tomatoes*
2 small cloves garlic, peeled,
1 teaspoon dried oregano,
chilli, salt and pepper to taste
dried linguine 150g-ish
fresh parmesan for serving
Top and tail the beans, then slice them lengthways in halves or thirds – aim for a width similar to that of your linguine.
Get your pasta cooking.
Put a frying pan onto a medium-high heat. Add a splash of olive oil and the whole garlic cloves and chilli (I used sambal oelek because I had it on hand, but fresh or dried chilli would be fine). Once the pan is hot, and the chilli/garlic have just started to sizzle, add the beans to the pan.
Cook, stirring, for a minute before adding the tomatoes and the oregano (fresh basil would be a great alternative). Season with salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer while you cook the linguine. The sauce should reduce a little and the beans should soften but retain their bite.
Drain the cooked linguine, keeping about a tablespoon of the cooking liquid. Add the linguine and the cooking liquid to the sauce in your frying pan (still on a low heat) and mix well.
Serve with freshly grated parmesan.
* I prefer the whole peeled tomatoes, which I then chop myself by sticking a knife in the opened tin and thrashing it about a bit. I find these have better flavour and more body than the crushed ones. In the photos above, though, I’ve actually used crushed as I grabbed the wrong can at the shop – so really the crushed toms are fine.