There is nothing better than a good knead when everything is dreadful. Pounding the soul out of a ball of dough is almost as satisfying as pummelling the soul out of the dreadful people who have made everything dreadful; one will land you in prison, and the other will land you with an excellent foodstuff.
I have had a dreadful couple of weeks, one way or the other, all stressful and angry and busy and just generally properly cross, and I thought I had forgotten both how to write and how to cook. And then I was more cross, and more sad, and it was a horrible spiral into oven pizza, and takeaway curries, and an unholy number of crime novels.
I love a good murder, particularly when I’m feeling sad, which probably says something unsettling about me. I ate a lot of bad food, and came home to battered Dorothy Sayerses and Agatha Christies, held together with hair bands and duct tape, and the library’s excellent stash of P.D. James and Susan Hill’s Simon Serralier novels, and slumped, and felt thoroughly sorry for myself, and the kitchen started to feel weirdly alien.
I don’t think I’d ever been frightened of my kitchen before, but I was, a bit. Chopping an onion felt daunting, partly because of shaky hands, and the (all-new!) tendency to faint, but mostly, I think, because I was convinced I couldn’t do it. I think that’s about the size of it: I was convinced I had forgotten how to cook. So I pulled out Marcella Hazan, and taught myself to make pasta. It seemed like a simple place to begin again, and the first go was edible but unpleasant, and the second go was actually pretty good, and the third go I did was splendid. And it requires such a lot of good kneading, bringing your hands together and apart to work the dough together, folding the dough and giving it an excellent whack, that it is remarkably good for the hungry misanthrope.
Unfortunately, you will need a friend for this recipe, or at least someone you dislike slightly less than you dislike everyone else. Their role is to give you flour, and help with the mad three-minute chaos in which you need to cook literally everything.
Here are two people I do not hate, eating delicious mussels.
In other news, if you read this blog and you like music, and would like to eat some things I have made, you can give Harry some money to fund his (excellent) album, and I will give you food, and he will give you music. He is the boy in the picture above.
(If you don’t like music, but you would like to eat some things I have made, I will generally trade food for book proofs, or books, or art, or other interesting things. Talk to me!)
Angry Fettuccine (with Fennel, Cavolo Nero and Creamy Mussels)
Pescatarian, not wildly unhealthy, serves 4
~15 mins prep., 3 mins cooking.
For the fettuccine: 8oz plain white flour; four big eggs
For everything else: Two kg mussels
200g cavolo nero
Two stalks celery
Two bulbs of fennel
Two white onions
Two bulbs of garlic
Two big glasses white wine (and one for yourself)
Two big tablespoons crème fraîche
Two little packets pancetta (they come joined together, I think? ~200g, anyway)
Knob of butter
Fistful of lemon thyme
Enormous casserole; big bowl for soaking the mussels; glass bowl; fork; slotted spoon; colander
This is a very symmetrical recipe. This is pleasing to the sort of person who hates people. On days when I hate people, I want things to be very symmetrical. (I am the sort of person currently contemplating making a graph of Terrible Houseguests I Have Known And Loathed.) Everything is in pairs, which makes it very easy to double, or, more likely, halve. Eating this alone, with an enormous glass of coldpressed apple juice and a hefty Valium, is possibly the greatest pleasure of which I can conceive. A little house on a deserted pebble beach. Blue driftwood fire in the grate. Seaweed drying on the rafters. Particularly attractive pebbles on the mantelpiece. Green witch-ball, rough blankets, a stretched canvas. Possibly a tame gull I raised from a chick. And me at a table I made myself, eating mussels I collected and killed and cooked myself, with my fingers. It is an impossible dream, but it is the darling of my cross little heart, and I nurse it fervently.
On the last change of water, prepare absolutely everything else. Chop the garlic- a frankly prodigious amount of garlic- and the onions. Two largish white onions, two stalks of celery (which is horrible, but absolutely does add something), the two fat bulbs of fennel. You want everything in precise little cubes. I put it all in little bowls, because it felt neat and tidy. It was enormously satisfying.
As far as the cavolo nero is concerned, I disregarded the packet entirely and took out the central stem, slicing into long thin ribbons. About four ribbons to a leaf. The central stem, while delicious and nutritious, is less ribbony, and less good at winding itself ’round the fettucine, and is generally less pleasant here. Save them for tomorrow’s supper, if you are a thrifty sort.
Wash your hands, thoroughly. You don’t at all want to flavour the pasta with your hands, after all. This is a thing Marcella Hazan drilled into me, and a thing that took me a while to get my head round: pasta should be, basically, flavourless. Pasta is a vehicle that makes the sauce taste better. Pasta is simply eggs and flour. No salt. Nothing. Only eggs and flour. Taste it on its own, and it is strange and bland. It’s very unlike shop-pasta. But with sauce? With sauce it is the absolute best thing ever.
Marcella Hazan insists you make pasta on a flat surface. This is, I can conclusively say, Some Bullshit. She says to tip the flour out, make a well in the centre, and crack the eggs into it. She is probably much more talented than I am, but this only ended up for me with wet eggy flour dripping down the table leg. I use a bowl. The flour really needs to be just plain white flour. Wholemeal is..odd. Sort of tacky, and heavy.
Mound of flour, a hollow in the middle into which you crack the eggs. Stir the eggs into the flour with a fork, blending only what you need. A shake more flour. More flour. More flour. It is astonishing how much flour four big eggs can drink up. Get your hands involved, kneading and stirring together. It will come together, slowly, to form a tough and elastic dough. Knead it for at least fifteen minutes.
Pull it, push it, work your fingers through the tug and warp of it, crimping and pleating, the heel of one hand to the palm of the other. Feed it with all the stress and taut tension in the back of your neck, sending the tension down your arms and into your fingers, stretching, pulling, turning. Keep going. Stretch it. Feel it stretch; hold it by one edge and let it swing, hanging. Flip it and turn it. Stretch it. Be satisfied by it. Isn’t that remarkably pleasing? Set an enormous pot of saltwater on to boil.
Divide the dough into eight parts. Roll out the first of these; roll it out again; keep rolling. As thing as you can make it, and as long as you can make it. Slice it into fettuccine-ish strips, and lay them precisely on a clean tea towel. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
The pasta needs to dry for ten minutes. Debeard the mussels, set the casserole on to heat, add a nut of butter, the pancetta, and all the vegetables except the cavolo nero. Empty the tea towels full of pasta into the bubbling salt water. Lid on. Deep breath. Deep breath. You have ninety seconds to prepare yourself for the three minutes that are coming up. Get someone to lay the table. Get the crème fraîche out of the fridge. Deep breath. Ready? Let’s go. These next three minutes will be pretty fucking hectic.
Empty the clean mussels into the casserole. Throw over a glass of wine. Throw in the cavolo nero.Throw over the second glass of wine. Lid on, tight, to make a seal.
(If you would rather do this the organised way, steam the cavolo nero in a steamer/colander-over-a-saucepan. This will be easier, but means more washing up. Your call. I hate washing up.)
Taste the pasta- has it firmed up? You are chiefly tasting for texture, here. Is it pasta-ish? It will taste quite unlikely, because it has no salt or preservatives like most commercial pasta, but it will do astonishing things with the sauce.
Strain pasta onto plates- you won’t need as much as you might with dried pasta. Lift the casserole lid. Are the mussels open and winking orangely? PRESTO, let’s go. With a slotted spoon, give each plate a really generous helping of mussels. Dollop the crème fraîche into the casserole; whisk vigorously until thoroughly incorporated and creamy. Dump in the cavolo nero, if you did it separately. Stir. Spoon vegetables and salt-wine-cream sauce lavishly onto each plate.
Serve with plenty of crusty bread. Eat almost entirely with your fingers, sticky and salty, mussel juice dripping down your chin. Feel superior, and satiated. Feel a little less misanthropic. Feel, above all, better.