‘Stop bullying anchovies. They’re wonderful’.
Italians have always done it better than us when it comes to food. That’s with no disrespect to our fish and chips, bangers and mash, stews and what not – but when it comes to resourceful cooking, Italians just get it. I have always found this. I mean, I’ve never been there so all of my Italian cuisine experience have been through stories, books and imagination but in my head, Italy does it better. Well… maybe ‘better’ is a little strong, but what I can say, is that Italian’s are a lot smarter than us when it comes to food. This is something I definitely can agree with.
What I find Italian cuisine to be is very trustworthy. Italian food trusts its ingredients. It trusts that the ingredients you use come with their own fantastic flavours and therefore do not need as much meddling as you think. A lot of Italian cooking relies on a few simple ingredients that are not tampered with too much and are left to infuse the dish with their natural flavouring. It’s a very trusting way of cooking that I think a lot of us could benefit from.
I recently watched a documentary on Anna del Conte – author of some amazing Italian food books such as The Gastronomy of Italy (1984) and Entertaining all’Italiana (1991) – and her culinary ethos of Italian cooking all boiled down to two things: simplicity and trust. Now del Conte’s ethos is something that I think can definitely be applied to all ranges of cooking, even outside of the Italian border. Fewer but better ingredients is always the key to stress-free and great food. Always.
A lot of people these days think that great cooking is a product of a Santa’s list of food and ingredients coupled with a method that requires all sorts of twists, turns and emotional dedication. This is not so. Cooking can sometimes be the marrying of very few ingredients and tossed around with very idle – yet strategic – approaches that combines the flavours. I am going to use this Venetian Bigoli as a case study in this point.
I came across this Bigoli recipe strangely, in Greece. How bizarre that I fell in love with an Italian recipe in Greece, but welcome to 2017. Anyway, the Bigoli recipe in question here was introduced to me via a battered old book I found that analysed the progression of Italian cooking. I’d be lying if I said I could remember the title of the book and I would also be lying if I said I didn’t try to steal it but, alas, I took from it something that has stayed with me and that is this Bigoli recipe.
The recipe makes use of only a few ingredients (literally only a few) and I am very pleased with them. It’s economical cooking at its best, don’t get me wrong, but you can really promise yourself a fantastic meal when you perhaps haven’t done a shop. But the sparse ingredients are more of a testament to the flavours they possess as opposed to the coins they save you.
Also, Bigoli is a long, thin pasta that is made in Venice and kept in Venice so is therefore only available in Venice. So I have substituted it with spaghetti (which is a long thing pasta in itself) so if any Italians are reading this and clocking my pasta as not being Bigoli, please pardon my nerve. I made use of what I had and didn’t want to change the name but hey – if you want to send me some real Bigoli, DM me immediately and I’d only be more than happy to do a rewrite.
In a wide pan with a lid, heat a little olive oil before tossing in a roughly chopped onion. Everything is getting blended later so don’t worry about size. Don’t add salt as we’ve got anchovies a-coming. Don’t squirm. Anchovies are salt, not fishy. Get over it – they’re delicious. Now what you want to do is turn the heat right down because we’re going to be cooking these onions low and slow for about 45 minutes to an hour. Place the lid on the pan and let them cook by themselves, stirring just now and then to stop them catching. If you feel they’re browning or burning, just add a spoonful of water to break it up.
When the onions have had their hour, take the lid off and add a few roughly chopped anchovies. Now cook your spaghetti as per packet instruction (maybe a minute or two less than advised) but before you drain your pasta, take out a little cupful of the pasta cooking water. Drain the pasta and leave to one side for a little.
Empty your slowly cooked onions into the bowl of a food processor before crunching in some freshly black pepper. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking liquid before securing the lid and flicking the switch. The onions and anchovies will amalgamate with the cooking liquid to create a lovely fragrant paste, you want it thick but not clumpy so if you feel it’s a little too thick, add another dash of the pasta cooking liquid.
Once it has reached a sauce consistency, add the spaghetti back to its now empty pan before pouring in the Venetian sauce and running everything through together to ensure the spaghetti is nicely coated with the salty, peppery sauce. Transfer the pasta to a bowl before sprinkling over some freshly chopped parsley.
It seems like such a simple recipe – and it definitely is – but it packs such a strong, salty yet subtly sweet flavour, you will always want this in the back of your mind for those days where you don’t want to faff around with lots of ingredients. Like I said, when it comes to food, Italian’s really do know what they’re doing so do as they do and put your trust in your ingredients.
And stop bullying anchovies. They’re wonderful.