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Italian job: Traditional recipes are so simple





I love Italian cuisine. The Italians have such a wonderful flair with simple ingredients, and dried pasta is so convenient -- it just sits there in the press until you need it, and it requires no peeling or chopping.

You just plunge it into boiling water and cook it. And the great thing is that the traditional recipes are so simple. I like to add a stock cube to the pot of boiling water to give it a hint of flavour.



A light and quickly made pasta dish, loosely inspired by the traditional macaroni cheese dish (see the next recipe). Serves 3-4.

You will need:

225g (8oz) penne pasta

1 chicken or vegetable stock cube (optional)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small onion, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

4-5 back rashers

110g (4oz) button mushroom, quartered

200g (7oz) small or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

250g (9oz) creme fraiche

75ml (3fl oz) fresh cream

110g (4oz) feta cheese, chopped or crumbled (or cheese of your choice, eg cambazola)

50g (2oz) white or red Cheddar

Cook the penne pasta in plenty of boiling water according to the instructions on the packet. If you are using it, crumble the chicken or vegetable stock cube into the cooking water, otherwise use salt.

Meanwhile, fry the chopped onion and garlic in the olive oil to soften them. Add the back rashers and the quartered button mushrooms and fry them until they are cooked nicely. Then stir in the halved or quartered tomatoes to soften them a little and heat them through.

Drain the penne. Rinse out the saucepan and put in the creme fraiche and enough of the fresh cream to thin it slightly. Now add the drained penne, the contents of the frying pan and the chopped or crumbled feta cheese, or whichever cheese you're using. Season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper and mix in a little of the white or red Cheddar, whichever you are using. Stir gently to heat everything through and then turn all the contents into a heated dish. Sprinkle the remaining Cheddar on top and put into a preheated oven -- 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6 -- for about 15 minutes to slightly brown the top. If you are in a hurry, simply pop the ovenproof dish under a hot grill.


This classic recipe is inspired by Delia Smith's version, where the delicious, unctuous cheese sauce is lightened by the addition of beaten egg whites. This makes a wonderful light lunch accompanied by your favourite salad, or it can be served alongside a light fish or meat dish. Serves 2, generously.

You will need:

175g (6oz) macaroni

25g (1oz) butter

1 medium onion (about 110g/4oz), peeled and finely chopped

25g (1oz) flour

275ml (10fl oz) milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 whole nutmeg, freshly grated

75g (3oz) mascarpone

2 large egg yolks

50g (2oz) Gruyere, finely grated

50g (2oz) Parmesan, freshly and finely grated

2 large egg whites

Use a shallow ovenproof dish, about 20cm by 15cm (8in by 6in). Preheat the oven to 200 C, 400 F, Gas 6 and put the ovenproof dish in to heat up.

Cook the macaroni in plenty of boiling salted water. When the water returns to the boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 4-6 minutes until the macaroni is soft but still has a bite to it, as it is going to be cooked a second time in the oven.

Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the finely chopped onion and cook it gently to soften it without browning it. Then add the flour to the onion and butter and stir everything to make a paste. Add the milk gradually, but make sure you stir briskly -- ideally using a balloon whisk -- to make a smooth sauce. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and the freshly grated nutmeg.

Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring all the time -- do not let the sauce get brown at the base of the saucepan. Draw the saucepan off the heat and leave the sauce to cool a little. Then whisk in the mascarpone and the egg yolks, followed by the finely grated Gruyere and half the freshly and finely grated Parmesan.

Next, add the well-drained macaroni to the sauce and stir gently to mix everything evenly. Whisk the egg whites in a bowl until they are stiff enough to make soft peaks, and fold them gently through the macaroni mixture, using a cutting and folding movement to retain as many air bubbles as possible. Turn the mixture into the heated dish and scatter the rest of the Parmesan over the top. Bake in the hot oven for about 12 minutes or so, or until the top is puffy and golden brown.


Hot out of the oven, the crusty top of breadcrumbs covers a delightful combination of ragu -- Italian-style meat sauce -- sandwiched between two layers of cooked penne, sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan. A layer of white sauce completes this wonderful medley of flavours. Ragu improves with long, slow cooking, allowing the flavours to mingle and develop deliciously. If possible, make it a few hours in advance, or the day before. Serves 4.

You will need:

2-4 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

6 streaky or back rashers, preferably smoked, finely chopped

450g (1lb) minced beef

150g (5oz) mushrooms, chopped

400g tinned chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon tomato puree

1/2-1 glass red wine

1 beef stock cube dissolved in 300ml (?pt) hot water

1/4-1/2 teaspoon oregano

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

250g (10oz) penne

25g (1oz) Parmesan, finely grated

Tossed salad, to serve

Crusty bread, to serve

For the white sauce, you will need:

40g (1 1/2oz) butter

40g (1 1/2oz) flour

425ml (3/4pt) milk

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon mustard

For the topping, you will need:

40g (1 1/2oz) fresh white breadcrumbs

25g (1oz) melted butter

1/4 teaspoon oregano

A few small pinches of nutmeg or allspice

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put some of the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the chopped onion and garlic until they are soft. Lift them out with a perforated spoon and put them into a heavy saucepan.

Next, fry the finely chopped streaky or back rashers, whichever you are using, until they are golden. Lift them out and put them in the saucepan with the onion. Now, fry the minced beef in 2-3 lots until it is lightly browned and then transfer it to the saucepan. Fry the chopped mushrooms until they are lightly golden and tasty.

Transfer the mushrooms to the saucepan along with the tinned chopped tomatoes, the tomato puree, the red wine, the beef stock, the oregano and the salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and bring to the boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer gently for about an hour until the meat is really tender and all the flavours have mellowed together. The sauce will thicken as it evaporates -- there is no need to cover it with a lid; only do so if you think that it is evaporating too quickly.

Meanwhile cook the penne in boiling water until it is bite-tender, or al dente, and drain it well.

If you are preparing the pasta in advance, then toss the cooked penne in 1-2 teaspoonfuls of olive oil, as doing this will prevent the cooked pasta pieces from sticking together.

Just before assembling the dish, make the white sauce as follows. Put the butter, the flour, the milk and the salt and freshly ground black pepper into a saucepan.

Add the mustard and, over a medium heat, bring everthing to the boil, whisking constantly, to make a smooth white sauce.

To assemble the pasticcio, use an ovenproof dish about 25 by 33cm (10 by 13in). Spread half the penne over the bottom of the dish and then scatter it generously with some of the finely grated Parmesan.

Spoon all of the hot meat sauce over the penne. Spread the remaining penne over the meat sauce and sprinkle with more Parmesan. Pour the white sauce in an even layer all over the top.

For the topping, mix together the fresh white breadcrumbs, the melted butter, the oregano, the nutmeg or the allspice, whichever you are using, the freshly grated Parmesan, the salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Scatter this mixture over the top of the white sauce and bake the dish in the oven -- which you have preheated to 190 C, 375 F, Gas 5 -- for about 25-40 minutes, or until the pasticcio is golden and bubbling.

Serve with a tossed salad and maybe some crusty bread.