If you're of a certain generation you grew up thinking one of the most romantic movie scenes you'd ever seen was the pasta scene in Lady and the Tramp. And perhaps you've even tried that move yourself, on a date with someone you loved, or at least someone who loved pasta as much as you.
For Elizabeth Hewson, learning to make pasta was an act of self-love. By day she's a marketing manager for one of Australia's leading restaurant groups, by night, by Saturday night in particular, she's a passionate cook.
A few years ago she was crippled by anxiety.
"Even getting out of bed in the morning became a challenge, my head filled with trepidation at the thought of the day that lay before me," she says.
"I found myself turning to all the recommended methods of coping - exercise, yoga, I even bought a puppy to try and calm my nerves. But in the end, what it took was the simple act of making pasta."
In her new book Saturday Night Pasta: Recipes and self-care rituals for the home cook she outlines her journey, how one Saturday night she poured herself a glass of wine, turned on some Frank Sinatra and decided to make pasta. She was cooking purely for her own pleasure, there was no pressure.
"Gradually, my new ritual restored in me a sense of balance ... it gave me something else to think about ... it taught me mindfulness ... and it was a decidedly pleasant bonus that the result just happened to be a delicious and rewarding one."
She wants people to try the Saturday Night Pasta ritual, and many people have. To start from scratch, make time, even if you're only cooking for yourself. You're worth it.
Setting the solo Saturday Night Pasta scene
This is your time to be in the moment. A little moment you've carved out in your busy life to lose yourself in the task of making pasta. There should be no distractions. If you're like me and can easily be distracted by even a simple flicker of a light, then there are a few things I suggest you do to help set the scene and draw you into a little pasta-making bubble. This is my Saturday Night Pasta ritual.
* Comfortable clothes. While I'd like people to think I'm flouncing around in my red polka dot dress with a vintage white apron cinched around my waist, I'm more likely in a pair of exercise pants (this is a work-out after all) and an oversized shirt. Bra optional. Hair untamed.
* Playlist. I simply can't make pasta without the soothing sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra on repeat. Tom tells me my playlist is more suited to a dining hall in a nursing home, but I can't describe the feeling that comes over me when I knead to Louis' gruff, throaty voice singing "They can't take that away from me". It makes me happy beyond words. If you, too, are soothed by the sounds of the 1950s, then you can find my Saturday Night Pasta Playlist on Spotify. But you might also knead to a different beat. Find what feeds you.
* Put your phone on aeroplane mode. I know it sounds harsh, but I seem to lack any self-control over picking up my phone and scrolling through Instagram. I've found myself dough deep and reaching for my phone for some Instagratification.
* I always like to make and cook pasta with a glass of wine. It makes me feel carefree and confident, almost sensual as I move around the kitchen. I think it's because when I lived in Italy, my Italian friend Andrea told me that it was criminal to cook without a glass of wine. So now in my pursuit to be an Italian domestic goddess, curves and all, I just can't go past it. Of course, that's just me, but pour yourself a soda with lemon or a cup of tea if you prefer. It's all part of the self-care.
* Decide on what you're cooking. Sometimes I will have spent the day planning; other days I live on the edge and decide right before I start based on what I have. Have your ingredients out on the bench to inspire you. A bowl of eggs, a plate of tomatoes, a vase of basil. I weigh out all my ingredients for the pasta. It feels methodical and organised. If you're following a recipe, read that through, too.
* Don't forget to put your saucepan of water on to boil. Large pans take a while to come to that rolling, lively boil you're after. Background bubbles bursting at the surface only add to the experience.
* Take a deep breath. Don't rush things. And remember this is all for just you. Little you. Reminding yourself of that point should allow you to shed any pressure and indulge in the pure pleasure of making pasta.
* Sit at the table, lay a place mat out, light a candle, pour another drink. You deserve it. Eat happily and wholeheartedly.
- Saturday Night Pasta: Recipes and self-care rituals for the home cook, by Elizabeth Hewson. Plum, $36.99.
Fresh tomato, goat's curd, basil
The food we dream of when we think about Italy tends towards simplicity and makes use of the humblest ingredients: spaghetti tossed with olive oil, garlic and chilli, or ripe summer tomatoes and basil heaped on toasted country bread. Yet so often when we cook at home, we feel that it just can't be this simple; that it needs to have more steps, more ingredients, more technique, otherwise it's simply not worthy to serve to others. How wrong this is.
"Keep it simple, stupid" is a design principle referring to the idea that most systems work best without unnecessary complexities. For me, this saying extends well past design and into cooking and everyday life. However, when things are kept simple it means there is nowhere to hide. Only the best will do. So this recipe should only be made in the height of summer, when tomatoes are ripe, the basil is heady and the weather is warm. It should be eaten barefoot in the sun as a reminder that it's the simple things in life that matter.
More often than not, I make this just for myself, but it's easily adaptable to serve more. I prefer cherry tomatoes, as I find them sweeter, but use the best tomatoes you can find. A sprinkle of chilli flakes is a nice finish, too.
1 garlic clove
150g cherry tomatoes or the best summer-ripe tomatoes you can find, chopped
1/4 bunch of basil, leaves picked, plus extra leaves to serve
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp goat's curd
grated Parmigiano Reggiano, to serve
chilli flakes, for sprinkling (optional)
enough pasta for one, (about 80g of dried pasta)
1. Cut the garlic clove in half and rub it around a large serving bowl, to impart the scent of garlic. Add the tomato to the bowl, along with the garlic, basil and olive oil. Generously season with salt. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes, to allow the flavours to meld.
2. Bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook until al dente.
3. Remove the garlic from the tomato mixture and discard. Add blobs of goat's cheese to the tomato mixture in anticipation of the hot pasta that will fall on top.
4. Using tongs, pluck the pasta out of the rapid bubbles and drop it directly onto the tomato mixture. Give everything a big toss, adding a scoop of cooking water if needed to loosen things up. Season with salt and pepper, then top with extra basil leaves, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano and a few chilli flakes, if you like, and serve.
Crab, sweetcorn, chilli
I went to university in the country. The town was mostly dominated by university students except for one weekend in October, when the population would swell for the Bathurst 1000, a V8 motorcar race that circled Mount Panorama. Like every good Aussie country town, there was a family-run Chinese restaurant on the main strip. Enjoying university life to the fullest, Happy's Chinese would be my Sunday night recovery dinner. Their sweetcorn and crab noodle soup (I'm only now questioning the freshness of the crab considering the town is more than 200 km from the ocean) had extraordinary curative powers after a big night out.
Of course, the only thing I'm pulling from this story is the combination of corn and crab (I'm glad to have those days behind me), as the sweetness of both pair very nicely. Then there's the bright colour of the sweetcorn, which is so joyful to look at. Tossed through egg pasta and finished with butter, chilli and chives, this pasta also has healing powers for the soul.
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 spring onions, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 bird's eye chilli, finely chopped (optional or only add half if you prefer less heat)
2 large or 3 small sweetcorn cobs, husks removed, kernels sliced off
1 tbsp salted butter
225g fresh crab meat
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 bunch of chives, finely snipped
enough pasta for four, (about 320g of dried pasta)
1. Heat one tablespoon of the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the spring onion, garlic and chilli (if using) and cook for two minutes or until soft but not brown. Add the sweetcorn kernels, along with 500ml of water. Season with salt. Cook for 30 minutes or until the sweetcorn is bright yellow, soft and creamy, adding a dash more water if things start to dry up along the way. It will smell almost buttery.
2. Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Tip the sweetcorn mixture and 60ml of pasta cooking water into a blender or food processor and blitz for at least two minutes to create a smooth yellow puree. You're looking for a pourable puree, so feel free to add more pasta cooking water if you feel it needs it. Season with salt.
3. Wipe out the frying pan, then add the butter and return the pan to medium heat. When the butter is melted and foaming, pour in your corn puree and reduce the heat to low.
4. Drain the pasta, reserving 250ml of the cooking water. Throw the pasta into your corn puree, along with half of the reserved cooking water. Give the mixture a strong stir to bring everything together, adding more cooking water if you need to loosen things up. Finally, stir through the crab, the lemon zest and juice and half the chives.
5. Divide the pasta among bowls, scatter over the remaining chives and serve immediately.
Making meatballs is a lesson in patience. You'll be tempted to make the balls bigger and bigger as you roll. Bring yourself back to the moment and remember the end game. Oversized meatballs won't be nice to eat, plus they'll require a knife and God forbid you serve your pasta with a knife. So turn on your music. Pour yourself a glass of wine or make a cup of tea. Turn off your phone. This is the time to focus on the task at hand. Be present. By the way, the meatballs and sauce can be made up to three days in advance.
120ml extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
800g canned whole peeled tomatoes
4 basil sprigs, leaves picked
1 tbsp salted butter
3 slices of stale bread, crusts removed
3 tbsp full-cream milk
300g pork mince
300g veal mince
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 small egg
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
60g grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus extra to serve
1 tsp sea salt
enough pasta for 6-8, (about 480-640g dried pasta)
1. To make the meatballs, place the bread in a shallow bowl and pour over the milk. You want to leave it to steep for a few minutes. Squish the bread between your fingers to turn it into a wet, milky mush. It feels good and serves as a reminder that your hands are by far the most useful kitchen tool you own.
2. In a large bowl, mix together the rest of the ingredients - that's the milk-soaked bread, the pork and veal mince, the fragrant lemon zest that's going to lift the meatballs, the punchy garlic, an egg that will help bind the balls, the nutmeg that will add a subtle depth, the parsley for freshness, and, finally, the king of cheese, the Parmigiano Reggiano, along with the salt.
3. Use your hands again to squish everything together. Listen to the squelch as the mixture moves between your fingers. It's child's play. Remember the joy you used to feel as a kid when you played with playdough? Channel that happiness. Ignite that child within - that part of you who never forgets the importance of laughing for no particular reason, of imagining far beyond what the rational mind can comprehend, and of sitting in wonder at the most mundane. The mixture is now all brought together and ready to be rolled.
4. Wet your hands (this makes it much easier to roll the meatballs). Use a teaspoon to scoop out a little mince. You want to make meatballs the size of cherry tomatoes. Start rolling, placing each meatball on a baking tray lined with baking paper so they don't roll away. Repeat, checking the size of your meatballs as you go, and don't forget to keep wetting your hands. Savour this slow repetition of action, it's calming. When you've got a tray of meatballs, place them in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill. Just like you.
5. Everyone and everything is now chilled. Heat a large deep frying pan over medium heat. When it's hot, pour in three tablespoons of the olive oil. Carefully place your meatballs in the pan evenly spaced apart. Much like rolling the meatballs, resist the urge to speed up the process by over-crowding the pan. It's only going to catch up with you later. If they won't fit in one go, cook them in two batches. Listen to the sizzle and cook your meatballs until they have a nice brown crust on one side, then roll them over and continue to cook until that crust has developed all over. All up, this will take about six to eight minutes. Remove the meatballs from the pan and place on a plate. If your pan wasn't big enough to cook all the meatballs at once, repeat with the second batch. This can also be done in a 200C oven. Now you will probably need to wipe a paper towel over your pan to remove any gnarly burnt bits to get it ready for the sauce.
6. Pour the remaining three tablespoons of olive oil into the pan and add the onion and a generous pinch of salt to coax out the moisture. Stir and cook for 10 minutes or until the onion is translucent and soft. Stay with your pan over this time. I've been burnt too many times by onions. Add the garlic and stir around the pan for a further minute. Now pour in the tomatoes. Fill one of the cans with water and swirl it around to catch all the tomatoey goodness. Tip the tomato juice into the other can to do the same, then pour into the sauce. Tear in some of the basil leaves, reserving a few to garnish the final dish, if you like, and season with salt and pepper. Give everything a big stir, using the spoon to break up the tomatoes.
7. Leave the sauce to do its thing for 30 minutes, then pop in your beautifully browned meatballs. Take care here, they are still delicate. We want them to hold their shape while they finish cooking in the sauce. Put the lid on, reduce the heat to medium-low and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes. At the end of all this cooking time, check your seasoning. Add salt and pepper if needed.
8. Bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Using tongs, pluck the pasta out of the water and drop it directly into the sauce. Finally, add the butter for a glossy shine. Remove the pan from the heat and give everything a good toss. Serve straight from the pan or in a large dish in the middle of the table so everybody can help themselves. Finish with extra Parmigiano Reggiano and the reserved basil leaves, if using.