No carbs, please, we're British

Topsham, Devon January 24th, 2011 TS Eliot was wrong: January – not April – is the cruelest month. If ever there was a time of year that mixes memory with desire, it is now. After the excesses of the holiday period, and at the start of a new year that inevitably is full of hope and the eternal, deluded belief in the capacity to change, January promises that by giving up alcohol, detoxing, going on this year’s latest crackpot diet, or heading to the gym to sweat out years and decades of blubber and sloth, you can somehow magically – and in just a month – regain your body, your vigour, your prowess, your youth. New year, new me? I’m sorry, but it’s utter horseshit!

Yet, at this very moment, up and down the land, people are suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms and thrashing themselves to near-death in gyms. Right now, our club pool is more crowded than swimming in the Ganges. The sheer mass of humanity – of all sizes and shapes – has to be seen to be believed; you have to shoehorn your way in over writhing, sprawling, floating, blobbing bodies just to find a patch of clear water in which to swim a few lengths. ‘Don’t worry,’ says the pool attendant, rolling his eyes. ‘Just give it another couple of weeks. By the start of February it will all be back to normal.’ He’s seen it all before: every year, after the hope of January, dreams and hopes sadly vanish at the start of a new month. ‘Pass the corkscrew, open another bottle’ is February’s cri du coeur

It’s all so predictable. Worst of all, in my view, is the annual January diet industry that feeds on these very hopes, our eternal quest for self-improvement, change and the hare-brained illusion that no matter what shape we are we can somehow metamorphose into the perfect body in just a matter of weeks. Latest fad, it seems, is (yawn) yet another no-carb regime called the Stone Age Diet. The Sunday Times has been running a series of articles each week most notable for the beautiful, well-endowed young woman who adorns the opening spreads in the all together, clearly shot in the ‘wilds’ of some photographic studio in Hackney or thereabouts.

No matter what the promises implied by this Stone Age naked beauty, I firmly draw the line at diets of any sort, full stop. Maybe I am not terribly clever, but these no-carb regimes that spout pseudo-scientific figures about glycemic indices and which speak of certain foods that slow or quicken our metabolic rates leave me totally unimpressed. I’m afraid I’m still an unreconstructed ‘calories in, calories out’ sort of guy and have always believed that if you do enough exercise then you can eat mainly what you want.

As far as no carb diets, I think they are utterly preposterous! Who can imagine life without carbs! They are the base of the food pyramid, that model which for years if not decades we’ve been told to follow, the source of slow-burning energy and muscle-rejuvenating glycogen, the holy grail fuel that allows us to perform.

And besides, what is better, more satisfying, and more comforting – especially in the depths of winter – that a big, warming, steaming bowl of pasta? We certainly couldn’t live with out it! Here are a few of our simplest, most satisfying favourites.

Pasta e fagioli
Pasta and beans, the ultimate carbo feast!

125g pancetta, diced (omit if you prefer to keep this vegetarian)
Olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks of celery, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 fresh chili, chopped
250 g borlotti or other dried beans, soaked and cooked until tender (we use the pressure cooker)
500g farfalle or other short pasta
Stock (preferably homemade chicken – or use a vegetarian alternative)
Reserved bean cooking liquid
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Extra virgin olive oil (for drizzling)
Freshly grates parmesan

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan and fry the pancetta until crispy. Add onions, garlic, carrots, celery, fennel and chilli and fry until soft. Add the cooked beans and sufficient bean cooking liquid and stock to cover. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to the boil. Add the pasta and more stock if required and cook the pasta until al dente. Serve in bowls and drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil. Sprinkle with freshly grated parmesan.

Wine: Cascina Fontana Dolcetto d’Alba 2009

Risotto al Barbera
Some poor souls feel the need, at this time of year, to embark on a regime of austerity and self-flagellation, even going so far as to undergo a programme of de-tox, or, worse still, to forgo all wine and other strong drink. I most emphatically do not advise this! For now, in the coldest, bleakest month of the year, when we’re all broke after Christmas and summer seems a lightyear away, this is the time when we need more than ever to pamper ourselves with warming foods and wines. This simple risotto al Barbera is just such a comforting dish, and absolutely fabulous accompanied by a glass (or two or three) of Cascina Fontana Barbera d’Alba.

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
Good glug of extra-virgin olive oil
300 g arborio or carnaroli rice
2 glasses Cascina Fontana Barbera d’Alba (or other full Italian red)
1.5 l rich, preferably homemade chicken stock (or use a good stock cube)
Generous knob of Devon butter
Freshly ground parmigiano reggiano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat olive oil with a little butter in a large saucepan, and gently sauté the chopped onion and garlic until soft. Add the rice, stir well to coat with the oil, and continue to toast for a few minutes, until the grains of rice are hot to the touch. Add the Barbera and allow to simmer and evaporate. Then add, a ladle or two at a time, the boiling hot chicken stock, stirring frequently, while the rice absorbs the liquid. Continue to add the stock in this manner until the rice is just al dente (about 18-20 minutes). Taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add a generous knob of butter and a couple of heaping spoonfuls of freshly ground parmigiano reggiano, beating it in to the risotto with a wooden spoon.
Serve immediately as a first course, accompanied by Mario Fontana’s exquisite Cascina Fontana Barbera d’Alba 2008, a wine that will definitely banish the January blues.

Pasta cui vroccoli
Sicilian style pasta and cauliflower is a sweet-and-sour agrodolce of raisins and pinenuts – a delicious mouthful redolent of the southern Med.

Extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 fresh chillies, chopped
1 head of cauliflower, steamed until soft
2 heads of broccoli, steamed until soft
3 tablespoons raisins soaked in balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons pinenuts, lightly toasted
Salt and pepper
500g penne
Dried crushed chillies to taste

Heat a  large saucepan of water until boiling. Salt and then add the pasta. Heat a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil in a large wok and gently fry the onion, garlic and chilli until soft. Add the steamed cauliflower and broccoli, mashing the vegetables until the olive oil mixture. Add a few ladles of the pasta water to make a sauce consistency. Add the raisins and pinenuts. When the pasta has just cooked and is still al dente, drain and add to the wok together with another ladle of cooking liquid if needed. Mix well and serve at once, drizzling over some more extra virgin olive oil and possibly some dried crushed chillies.

Suggested wine: Loretello Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi 2008

Chickpeas, chorizo and cavolo nero
This is a really substantial winter warmer – the nuttiness of the chickpeas marries well with the paprika-tinged chorizo and the bitter bite of the cavolo nero. And pulses such as chickpeas are carbohydrate-rich fuel that are satisfying and delicious.

Olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed and finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 chilli, chopped
2 tins chickpeas
2 tins chopped tomatoes
Packet of 4 chorizo sausages (for cooking not eating) – Arthurs has good Spanish chorizo
200g cavolo nero, chopped

Heat up some olive oil in a large saucepan and gently fry the garlic, onion and chilli until soft. Add the chickpeas and tomatoes and bring to the simmer. In a separate frying pan, fry the chorizo to brown, then slice into pieces. Add to the chickpeas and tomotoes. Leave to cook for 20 minutes. Add the chopped cavolo nero and cook until tender but still al dente.

Suggested wine: Badia di Morrona Chianti I Sodi del Paretaio 2008


The misery of detox
The Guardian 19.1.11 -

Stone age diet
The Sunday Times 17.8.08
The Independent 14.8.07

The food pyramid

Cascina Fontana

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