‘A present,’ my son said on Saturday morning, handing me a bag, when we met for breakfast at Taylor St Baristas, Richmond. I looked inside. Four small black/deep purple vegetables. I was a bit confused. Were they baby aubergines? No, they were chillies he’d grown in his garden. I’d also tried to grow black chillies. I’d even bought a plant at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show in July. But mine had not flourished like my son’s. At one stage of the summer a corner of his garden was a veritable kitchen garden with gorgeous gleaming green courgettes and their large yellow flowers ready for stuffing; clumps of ripe tomatoes falling from their vines and green beans climbing stalks. My daughter is also great at growing vegetables. I can claim no responsibility for any of this. My vegetable growing attempts have never been a success. But at least I can cook the produce well.
So what could I do to make these plump, large and gorgeous looking chillies the pride of a meal? I thought of a Spaghetti alla Marinara with some chilli added: a fresh tomato, oil and garlic sauce and one of the chillies chopped into it. At the last moment I cooked filled ravioli on the basis I was quite hungry and fancied these pasta shapes filled with ricotta and spinach. Yes, I was being a little greedy and I’m not sure Elizabeth David – whose ‘alla marinara’ recipe I checked out – would have approved, but I was not about to be intimidated.
It’s really all so simple and very quick. Pour a good amount of olive oil into a pan and add some sliced garlic. I then added half of one of the chillies (and they are quite big!) finely chopped. How hot was it, I wondered. I licked my fingers after the chopping. Wow! Very hot! I didn’t put quite all the half in in the end.
Then cut about half a dozen small tomatoes – I used Santini, like small plum tomatoes – in half and add those.
I let that gently cook while I got the pasta cooking. Always cook your pasta in a big, big pan of fast boiling salted water so it has plenty of room and doesn’t stick. When ready, drain and keep handy to add to the sauce. Once the tomatoes are softening a little – you don’t want them to break down into a mush – and some of their juice is leaking out into the oil, add a few leaves of basil, torn into pieces. Stir it all round. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Now tip the drained pasta into the sauce and gently fold until all the pasta is nicely coated with the sauce. Transfer to a plate. Serve with freshly grated Parmigiano.
It was such a simple meal but really delicious. The chillies certainly packed a punch and were fiery little things. The sauce would work just as well with plain spaghetti or, as Elizabeth David uses, something like fettuccine. This is one of the great things about Italian cooking – making surprisingly wonderful dishes from very few ingredients. And it’s pretty much a standby meal as I always have all these ingredients: pasta of some kind, dried chillies if not fresh, a pot of basil on my windowsill throughout the year and, always always tomatoes of some kind and a chunk of Parmigiano in my fridge. Buon appetito!