For many of us, pasta is a regular fast-food meal at least once a week. A vegetable, meat or cheese sauce can be quickly prepared in the same amount of time it takes you to cook the pasta.
However, pasta can also be dressed up as a dinner party delight.
I've included gnocchi (pronounced nokki) in my recipe mix this week as it provides a similar base for sauces as pasta. Gnocchi are similar to little dumplings and can be prepared from semolina, plain flour or potato. Other ingredients, such as spinach, ricotta and herbs, can be incorporated. Sometimes pumpkin replaces the potato. The potatoes must be of the floury variety ( such as Ilam Hardy, red rascal and agria), not waxy, otherwise the potato mixture will be more like wallpaper glue than dumplings.
In Italy, gnocchi - as with pasta - is often enjoyed as a first course. Gnocchi are best when home-made, but commercial varieties are available from the chiller cabinet near the fresh pasta in your supermarket. I prefer to cook the commercial variety for at least five minutes, until they are tender.
To cook either pasta or gnocchi, bring a large saucepan of salted water - at least eight to 12 cups - to the boil.
Slowly add the pasta or gnocchi so the water stays on the boil. Home-made gnocchi will take a shorter time to cook than the commercial variety.
Dinner party pasta dishes often take a while to prepare but are generally a meal in one dish, and therefore easy to serve.
VENISON RAGU WITH GNOCCHI
Lean, farm-raised venison simmered on a low heat to allow the flavours to develop, and served with home-made potato gnocchi.
2 each: garlic cloves, medium carrots, celery stalks
6 medium tomatoes
1-2 tbsp olive oil
500g lean venison mince
2 tsp each: dried basil, oregano
freshly ground salt and black pepper to taste
3 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup each: beef stock, milk
Crush the garlic, dice the carrots, celery and onion. Blanch the tomatoes briefly. Peel and halve. Squeeze out and discard the seeds, then dice the flesh.
Heat a little oil in a large, non-stick frying pan. Saute the onion until softened.
Add the garlic, carrots and celery and saute for 2 minutes. Place aside.
Heat a little more oil. Pan-fry the venison until lightly coloured. Return the veges to the pan. Stir in the herbs, seasonings and tomato paste until well combined. Slowly add the stock and milk. Cover and simmer on low heat for about 1 hour, stirring gently once or twice.
Serve with gnocchi and a crisp salad. Serves 4
LOW-FAT VEGETARIAN LASAGNE
400g spinach, trimmed
2 small carrots, grated
737g jar tomato and basil pasta sauce or similar
1/2 tsp each: fennel seeds, flaked chilli peppers
500g low-fat cottage cheese
1 large egg
150g fresh mozzarella, grated
2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
5-6 oven-ready lasagne sheets
Preheat the oven to 180C.
Steam the spinach until wilted. Place in a strainer and squeeze out the water. Finely chop, then squeeze again. Combine with the grated carrots.
Combine the pasta sauce with the fennel seeds and chilli flakes.
Beat the cottage cheese until fairly smooth. Fold in the spinach and carrots. Stir in the egg, mozzarella and parmesan. Set aside.
Spread 3-4 tablespoons of pasta sauce mixture on the bottom of a 20cm oven-proof square pan.
Top with a layer of lasagne. Spread with a 1/3 of the cheese and vegetable mixture and top with 1/3 of the pasta sauce mixture. Repeat, making three layers, ending with the sauce. Top with the extra parmesan.
Cover the lasagne with foil, ensuring it does not touch the cheese on top. Bake for 1 hour, uncovering during the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Remove from the oven and allow to set for 10 minutes before cutting. Garnish with fresh basil. Serves 6-8.
Prepare ahead. Dust with flour and store, covered, in the refrigerator.
500g mashing potatoes (floury, not waxy)
3/4 cups flour, plus more for dusting
1/2 tsp salt
1 small egg, beaten
Halve and peel the potatoes. Steam until cooked. Drain well and pat dry. Pass through a ricer, mouli or sieve while still warm.
Sprinkle with the flour and salt. Add the egg and mix until well combined. Knead the dough briefly until smooth but not sticky.
Divide into 4. Roll into a rope about 1cm thick and 30cm long. Cut into 2cm pieces. Repeat.
To cook, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Add gnocchi in batches and cook until most have floated to the top and they are tender. Serves 4.
400g bunch spinach
1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium, onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, crushed
500g lean minced lamb
400g can diced tomatoes
1 egg, lightly beaten
freshly ground black pepper
45cm x 28cm sheet fresh pasta, about 250g
150g mozzarella, thinly
Topping: 75g butter, melted
4 tbsp finely grated parmesan
Steam the spinach, until wilted. Drain well, cool, then squeeze dry. Finely chop.
Heat the oil in a non-stick frying pan. Saute the onion. Add the garlic and minced meat and stir-fry until lightly coloured. Add the tomatoes and simmer until almost dry. Stir in the spinach, egg and pepper. Cool.
Place the sheet of lasagne on a flat surface. Spread the filling over the pasta to within 2cm of each side. Top with the mozzarella. Fold in the two long edges about 2cm.
Moisten with a little water. Starting at a short end, roll up the pasta. Wrap in muslin or a clean chux cloth. Tie the ends and then every 3cm.
Put 6cm of water in a large frying pan and bring to boil.
Place the roll in the water, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Carefully remove roll.
Remove muslin. Cut into 2cm pieces. Arrange on heat-proof plate. Drizzle with butter and sprinkle with parmesan. Grill until sizzling. Serves 6
PUMPKIN & GNOCCHI GRATIN
I used a commercial gnocchi for this recipe.
600g pumpkin, peeled and seeded
1 onion, diced
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each: chopped rosemary leaves, thyme leaves
freshly ground salt and pepper
8 each: button mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups packed baby spinach leaves
400g potato gnocchi
250g light sour cream
200g soft goat's cheese, chopped
Topping: 1/4 cup dukkah
Preheat the oven to 200C.
Cut the pumpkin into 2cm dice. Place in a roasting dish with the onion. Toss in 2 tablespoons of the oil. Sprinkle with the herbs. Season. Roast for about 15 minutes, until almost cooked, stirring occasionally.
Add mushrooms and cook for another 5 minutes.
Remove the pumpkin mixture from the oven and stir in the cherry tomatoes and spinach. Place in a baking dish.
Meanwhile, cook the gnocchi in a large saucepan of boiling water for about 5 minutes until they rise to the top and are tender.
Drain and add to the pumpkin.
Dot with sour cream and goat's cheese.
Cover with foil and reheat for 20 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle with dukkah. Serve with a simple green salad. Serves 4