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The Lunchbox #22
A viral Italian pasta sauce, must-see Chinese TV and an Indian dessert
Hello, and welcome to this fortnight’s newsletter. I’ve just got back from a very quiet break in the Tuscan countryside followed by a few days in Florence. What did I learn? The Uffizi is glorious but about 2 floors and 99 rooms too many for a pregnant person, and it’s really not that easy to eat 4 courses. How do the Italians do it? I was surrounded by slim locals zipping through their meals while I got tripped up by the primi every night.
Now I’m back, and have moved into a new place with a very different kitchen space to the one before. It’s quite small so invested far too long configuring it - a subject I’m going to dive into in my next newsletter.
In today’s missive, I delve into the viral-ity of Tomato Vodka Pasta Sauce; my new fave 12-minute food programme; and I give you the recipe for the springiest Italian lunch. For paid subscribers, you’ll also get a beautifully simple recipe to celebrate mango season, and I explore the decline in restaurant criticism (but with a big dollop of love for the late queen of the critics, Mimi Sheraton).
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The viral pasta sauce: vodka pasta sauce
This is the sauce that has been taking the online and offline world by storm lately. It first started making the online rounds when in 2020 supermodel Gigi Hadid posted a how-to video onto Instagram. And recently Sofia Coppola’s 16-year-old daughter, Romy Mars, posted a very entertaining video of herself making the dish - all while complaining about getting grounded by her parents for trying to charter a helicopter to visit a friend. In the offline (aka REAL) world, Heinz has jumped on the back of the trend train and brought out a collaboration with Absolute Vodka. The tagline ‘ Ridiculously late/absolutely good’ says it all.
But what is this dish of which I speak?
First popularised in America in the 70’s and 80’s, it has unknown origins. Some say it was a famous Italian actor who invented it, some that it’s been passed around Italian American families for generations, while others suggest it was conjured up by Russian vodka manufacturers who tried to pass it off as Italian.
If you haven’t eaten it yet, this is a hearty recommendation that you do so. I was a little reticent after all the viral fuss, but recently ordered it at Trattoria all Vechhia Bettola in Florence (where it’s so popular, it’s known simply as Pasta alla Vecchia Bettola) after all the tables around us leaned over and insisted we get it. Not knowing what the mysteriously-named dish was, but feeling obliged, at first bite I was swept away by its rich, intense, and strangely addictive deliciousness. “Vodka” whispered the glamorous grandma sitting next to us at the long table when she saw our eyes light up.
And yet the recipe couldn’t be simpler. Onions, garlic, fresh or dried chilli, fresh or tinned tomatoes, cream and vodka just at the end. And YES, it needs the vodka. As the thorough J.Kenji Alt Lopez from Serious Eats tells us “that hit of neutral booze enhances the fruity aroma of the sauce while bringing a background heat and sharpness that balances out the richness of the sauce.” The alcohol in it is also said to marry the tomato and cream together. This dish is now officially on rotation amongst my pasta dishes, thank you, Gigi.
The TV show: Flavorful Origins
In stark contrast to celebrity chef shows like Chef’s Table, Netflix didn’t put much effort into promoting this extraordinary Chinese documentary series, but it definitely deserves our attention; in terms of format and scope, there’s nothing like it out there. Each episode lasts a brief 10-15 minutes, during which you are taken on a journey through the homes, street-side stands, and small, family-run restaurants on an exploration of China’s most ancient culinary traditions. Topics covered include ‘Preserved Radish’, ‘Beef Noodles’ and even ‘Cooked Chopped Entrails of Sheep’.
The show currently has 3 seasons, covering the Yunnan, Chaoshan and Gansu regions. Within each, their diverse cooks, flavours and ingredients are examined with reverence and sensitivity. And it’s beautifully shot, with the kind of glorious close-ups that make you yearn to taste everything you’re seeing.
Something to fill you up
Spring Pea, Herb and Ricotta Sformata
This is an Italian-style soufflé, known as a sformata, with fresh ricotta rather than eggs doing the work for you. It’s a bit denser and richer than its French counterpart and also a lot more forgiving – it only rises a little, which means you don’t have to worry about it collapsing just as you’re serving it. It’s incredibly quick to whip up, making it the ideal lunch or late supper. I’ve made a fresh and springy version with peas and sweet herbs, but in winter, try substituting the peas for spinach, cauliflower or broccoli – any veg goes.
See my how-to video here
1 tbsp butter
70g grated Parmesan, plus extra to finish
300g fresh or frozen peas
2 garlic cloves, peeled
A big handful of herbs such dill and chives, basil or mint, finely chopped
2 eggs, separated
75ml double cream
250g ricotta cheese
Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6 and rub the butter around a 1-litre baking dish. Scatter over a handful tablespoons of the Parmesan and shake around the dish to coat.
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and blanch the garlic for 3 minutes, then add the peas for a further 3-4 minutes (4-5 minutes if frozen) until tender. Drain, transfer to a bowl and crush with a potato masher, concentrating on the garlic first, until you have a coarse-ish bright green mush. Add the herbs and season with salt and pepper.
Stir in the egg yolks, cream, ricotta and half the remaining Parmesan. Check and the seasoning.
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs whites until you have stiff peaks, then fold into the pea mixture until just incorporated, being careful not to over-mix.
Transfer to the prepared dish and dust with the remaining cheese, then transfer to the middle oven for 30 minutes until the top is golden but the middle has a slight wobble. Serve with a green salad.
Something to finish you off
Alphonso Mango Shrikhand
This one of my favourite things to make in the warmer months when the King of the Mangoes, The Alphonso, is at its finest. It’s incredibly easy and the addition of a few subtle spices and the Greek yoghurt allows the mango take centre stage and gives the dessert amazing fragrance and creaminess. And with no added sugar, it’s somewhat healthy as far as desserts go.
A pinch of saffron threads soaked in 2 tbsp warm milk
500g thick Greek yoghurt
4 ripe mangoes
4 cardamom pods, ground
2 tbsp pistachios, chopped, to serve
3 tbsp icing sugar, optional
Combine the saffron threads and warm milk and set aside to infuse.
Place the Greek yoghurt and soaked saffron in a bowl and whip until smooth.
Prepare your mangoes by removing the flesh and whizzing in a blender or food processor until you have a fine puree.Whisk the mango and ground cardamom into the yoghurt. Mix until completely smooth.
Transfer to small bowls or glasses and chill for 2 hours, or keep in the bowl until you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios and a few saffron threads just before eating. Will last 5 days in the fridge.
Restaurant Criticism In The Modern Age
I recently listened to a 1987 interview on the podcast Fresh Air with the late New York Times restaurant reviewer, Mimi Sheraton, the first woman to be given this role. I was fascinated by her exacting attitude to her profession. She describes how many times she would visit a place before giving her verdict: “I never review in fewer than three visits and rarely in fewer than four or five.” And she would cover everything “I want to see obviously different foods, how they do veal and chicken and fish and beef, but I also want to see how they fry and broil and saute and poach. I want to see, if they have them, how classic dishes are rendered, and I want to know how the house creations are rendered.” Her anonymity was the key to her power as a critic and she was famed for her use of wigs, rotating between an auburn pageboy; long, straight locks that gave her the look of an activist, she thought; and a silver-blond bouffant cascading down over one eye. She wore hats with wide brims and eyeglasses fitted with tinted nonprescription lenses - straight out of a John le Carré novel. She came across as fearless, fair, but not someone to pull punches when she encountered a successful restaurant resting on its laurels.
This reflects the criticism of the previous age: scrupulous, curious, methodical. Mimi, of course, set a high bar, but it seems we have fallen far since then, particularly in the UK. I’m interested in how the restaurant critic has stopped being in the service of the reader and started serving themselves.
Many reviews are now an opportunity for the critic to show off their story-spinning skills rather than as a guide to where we should spend our time and money. The cocky new restaurant takedown has become the house style of many writers such as Giles Coren, Jay Rayner and Grace Dent, spearheaded by the late brilliant, but scathing, A A Gill. But is this writing actually of use to us? Yes, it’s entertaining to read and it fills that page, but I want to know where to go, not where not to go.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are a few restaurant critics driven by their duty to society rather than their ego out there out there. And an occasional critique of an over-hyped, complacent, honey pot (this place, for example) sometimes needs to happen to prevent us wasting our money. But visiting a brand new restaurant a couple of times, then vindictively picking it apart seems like a waste of everyone’s time. At a time when restaurants are battling rising costs, a depleting work force and wallet-conscious customers, the last thing they need is a smart arse with an axe to grind and a column to fill.
But it’s a funny old business these days. There’s a constant stream of new openings so there’s more ground to cover, and the existence of Tripadvisor, (a subject I’ve touched on before) has greatly diminished the power of the big critics. They no longer have the power to make or shut a place as in the days of the great Mimi, they can only add their voice to the online noise. But this doesn’t mean they can’t make a huge difference to the bottom line. A good friend of mine just had their restaurant visited by Giles Coren, (which he thankfully enjoyed) and immediately experienced a huge swell in bookings and awareness. So this is my plea to the big guys: make sure you pick on someone your own size and please get to your point before the final paragraph.