good enough instructions + anchovy pasta

I have been learning to let things rest,
actually in a number of ways… here I mean cooking, where I have been most successful. 

Not steak or a roasted Sunday joint, because, while true in my experience, we’ve been told about those often enough using *science* and Heston Blumenthal has even injected cooking juices back into meat with a syringe on TV like some kind of vampiric  inseminator. 

I am thinking about an instruction with no explanation — and then you don’t need one anyway. 

Sometimes a bare but thorough instruction is best, giving just enough information. The rest materialises when you carry it out, and then do it better again and again and your muscles get the gist. 

Mary Taylor Simeti issues the order to allow pasta to stand for 10 minutes before serving on page 150 of Sicilian Food, Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle (Grub Street). The recipe is Pasta con i Broccoli Arriminati (pasta stirred up with cauliflower, Simeti’s translation). It’s a recipe that benefits from something often complained about in British food, namely, cooking vegetables until they are so soft they disintegrate.  Here the disintegration of the cauliflower allows the emergence of a sort-of-sauce from cauliflower, onion, anchovy, currants, saffron and breadcrumbs. I first made it last September and now it is one of my favourite things.

The sauce tasted different after the ten minutes of resting. Before resting it tasted like all of the ingredients and after resting it tasted greater than the sum of its parts. It shifted from a divisible list (the written recipe, the abstractness of language, the meanings of separate words) and had undergone an alchemical change into an intense, delicious synthesis (the words’ physical e/affect). Having followed the instruction and then eaten it, I knew precisely why it was issued. 

Other places I have recently read about leaving food to rest include: Rachel Roddy’s  excellent recipe for sausages and grapes in her new book Two Kitchens: Family Recipes from Sicily and Rome (I made it twice in 3 days) and in MFK Fisher’s essay ‘The Anatomy of a Recipe’ in With Bold Knife and Fork where Fisher discusses the evolution of recipe writing from infuriatingly vague to rather more useful. On page 18 of the UK Vintage paperback edition Fisher suggests the improvement of an archaic recipe with the words : “I think the curry broth would profit from standing, for one thing…”  Like Simeti and Roddy, Fisher doesn’t give an explanation of the need for the broth to stand, and yet the instruction is quite clear and would be easily followed. 

What Fisher complains of in useless recipes, is an extreme level of unhelpful vagueness  and presumption on the part of the recipe writer: “The fact that no crusts are mentioned proves that Sir Kenelm trusted his cook, to whom he read the instructions, to know that anything called a pie, and certainly a pie in England, had/has crusts above and below, perforce, of course.” Travel through space and time from that kitchen in 1669 and the knowledge of the implied actions in the recipe have disappeared – perhaps no-one could follow it successfully at the time, either.

The need for written recipes arises (I guess) when oral traditions fade for various reasons – the invention of the printing press, travel, literacy, alienated labour, migration away from a recipe’s originary context, divided families, feminism.  To be effective, recipes have to give enough information to enable a stranger to re-enact the preparation of a dish. They are hopeful.  Because text can be so widely interpreted, a recipe is kind to the Anybody who might be following the recipe and imaginative of her/their/his life and circumstances and prior knowledge.  A good recipe is empathetic (I think).

And at least now there is the internet so we can tell a recipe writer if something doesn’t work…

This is a recipe I have made regularly for myself for lunch. I first cooked it for a gluten free person using some gluten free pasta in a 15 minute half-drunk rush before my friend’s birthday party.  The rest of us were eating pizza. The best brand of gluten free pasta I have tasted is Rummo. I think it’s really nice and happily eat it with friends who can’t eat wheat. 

Anchovy pasta 
for 2-3 people

4-6 anchovies or a tablespoon of anchovy paste
1 garlic clove, pounded to a paste or very finely chopped
1/2 inch of unsalted butter from a 250g block
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon of chilli flakes (optional) 

100g of pasta e.g. penne, per person 

parmesan to serve (optional)


Boil a large pan of water (roughly 1 litre of water per 100g of pasta, or failing that, just what seems like a lot) with 1/2 tablespoon of salt. 

When the water is boiling furiously, add the the pasta and cook until it’s still a little chewy, but not inedible. Look at the packet instructions and see how long it says – taste a piece a couple of minutes before the time it states. 

While the pasta is cooking melt the butter in a large frying pan, add the anchovies and fry on a medium heat (don’t allow the butter to burn). Help the anchovies disintegrate by prodding them with a wooden spatula. After a minute, add the garlic and the tomato paste and if you are using them, the chilli flakes. Stir this around until the garlic is lightly golden and the tomato paste is distributed in the butter. Add a pinch of salt (not too much as the anchovies are salty!). Turn off the heat and let is stand while the pasta finishes cooking. 

Before you drain the pasta, remove a cup of the cooking water. Then drain the pasta in a colander. Put the drained pasta in the frying pan with the sauce, and toss it like you would a pancake until the pasta is coated with the sauce. Add in a few tablespoons of the cooking water as you go and keep tossing so it emulsifies with the butter sauce, if it seems a little dry, add another know of room temperature butter and keep tossing until it melts.

Serve as soon as the pasta is coated, top with a little parmesan if desired. 





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