No, not that one. The really offensive one: Christmas*. Well, maybe not offensive; certainly stressful. I had a full-blown panic attack last week at the overwhelming enormity of what lies ahead – the list-making, the aimless wandering around shops full of tat, the crowds, the queuing, the walking home with 82 plastic bags cutting off the circulation in your hands, the fighting with the sellotape, the panic and further shopping/crowds/dead-hand-walking-home/sticky-wrestling, the inevitable scrum at Sainsbury’s at 6pm on Christmas Eve, and of course all that joy - and loitered on the edge of sanity until the Man sensibly pointed out that it was only the first week in November. Still, no time like the present to start facing my fears.
So a couple of nights ago I decided to share the
panic joy by blighting the Boy’s innocence. It was time for my first parental conversation: the story of the Night Before Christmas. I must say that it went alot easier than I was expecting; if someone came to me and asked me to believe that a large man with a beard and a flying reindeer was going to break into my house – via the chimney – I think I’d raise a few queries. But the Boy took it all in his stride, his only slight concern being how Santa and the flying reindeer and all the toys were going to fit on an airplane from London to Sweden. That was easy to answer, except now he wants a magic sleigh for Christmas.
In fact it went so well I gave half a second’s thought to sowing the seed of religion, and feeding him the True Story of Christmas – but we’re committed atheist consumerists, and in our house Christmas = foolish drunken behaviour and eye-watering credit card bills only. So we left it at Santa Clause. (Who, incidentally, has now replaced The Man Who Owns the House as the best carrot ever for inducing good behaviour. If only Santa owned the house.)
So that’s one thing off the Christmas list. Another thing I can cross off – hurrah! – is Christmas cooking. I’m a big fan of cooking, but on my own terms, in my own time. Christmas cooking makes me weep. So much so that last year the Man – whose culinary skills don’t extent much beyond a mug of tea (sorry Man) – did most of the cooking (the results of which are STILL in the bottom drawer of the freezer. I told him a 20lb turkey was too big for four people – one of whom doesn’t eat meat). This year we’ve gotten around the problem of having no more room in our freezer by dumping ourselves and our offspring on his parents. This has the advantage of being (a) in Sweden and (b) catered for by my mother-in-law. Tidings of comfort and joy, indeed.
So to repay her the anticipated kindness, while she was visiting this week I dug out “The Silver Spoon: Pasta” book which she gave me a few Christmases ago (see the theme I’m running with here?) and chose a dish completely at random. The Silver Spoon Pasta is an absolute beast of a book. It’s got about four million pasta recipes, almost all of which sound either dull and blah (taglierini with ricotta; mushroom tortellini; vermicelli with eggs and butter) or – worse – just plain weird (macaroni with turnips; bigoli with onions; penne with lettuce). But at the same time you just know they’re all going to be bloody fantastic, in the way that the weirdest, plainest-sounding pastas in Italy always are. (I suspect that the liberal use of several different types of cheese and lashings of cream and butter per recipe also assists in this culinary elevation). The recipe I chose was Bucatini with Mozzarella and Aubergine (the randomness of my choice curtailed somewhat by the availability in my barren cupboards of appropriate ingredients). Needless to say I didn’t really follow the recipe to the letter: Bucatini is a long pasta, so I substituted Linguini. The recipe also calls for pancetta or bacon, which I left out; I suspect that if you’re fond of the piggies, it would have made the dish even better. And I made a few changes here and there to suit what I had. It still worked.
Bucatini with Mozzarella and Aubergine
You need: (For 3, comfortably (without seconds)
- 1 aubergine, cut into julienne strips (ie, matchsticks. This was a pain in the arse and I really wouldn’t bother again. Although it did make the finished dish loook pretty. Just dice it.)
- 5 tablespoons of olive oil (or just lug it in, as much as you think works.)
- About 3 oz of pancetta or bacon OR one clove of garlic
- 4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (Seriously? Just use a standard tin of plum tomatoes. With the juice.)
- 3½ oz mozzarella, diced
- ½ a fresh chile seeded and chopped
- 12 oz bucatini / other long dried pasta
- 1 hard-boiled egg, finely chopped (I know! Completely mad. Do it anyway.)
Start with the thankless task of cutting the aubergine into fiddly little matchsticks – completely pointless, and added nothing to the dish, so really I wouldn’t bother again – then layer them in a colander with salt, and leave to drain for half an hour. (This really isn’t necessary any longer to reduce the bitterness in aubergines, but it’s thought to reduce their tendency to absorb oil, so if that’s a consideration for you, and you have half an hour to hand, by all means hog up your sink as necessary. Otherwise just chop the fucker into cubes and jump to the next step.)
Heat the oil in a pan and add the aubergine pieces for about 5-8 minutes, until lightly browned.
Remove from the pan, and, if using, cook the pancetta / bacon without any oil. Otherwise, slice the garlic, add a glug of fresh oil to the pan, and heat through until the garlic starts to sizzle. (Note - you don't need the garlic if you're using Mr Pig.)
Add the tomatoes and the chopped chilli to the pan, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 mins.
If, like me, you don’t have a hard-boiled egg knocking around your house, now’s the time to do it. Put it in a small pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 7 mins. Plonk it in cold water until you’re ready to use it.
Add the aubergine to the tomato sauce and leave to simmer for a few more minutes.
Turn off the heat, and add the mozzarella cubes. Leave it to sit while you cook the pasta.
Silver Spoon then instructs you to dirty a serving dish by adding the drained pasta, topping with the sauce, and then sprinkling with the chopped egg, before serving. I’d suggest that you just mix the sauce and the pasta in one of the cooking pans, serve up and sprinkle the egg on top.
The egg makes it, by the way.
Which reminds me: egg-nog. Actually, maybe the C-word is looking up...
*There I was, thinking I was all smart and funny with this expression. Then I read this. Clearly I am just as smart and funny as Knackered Mother, not dull and predictable.