Chef Theo Randall is famous for his Italian cooking. Not only did he gain a Michelin star for his work at The River Cafe, he's now head chef at his own restaurant at the InterContinental Hotel and has spent the last 3 years designing menus for ASK Italian restaurants. We caught up with him to get his top tips on Italian cooking...
1. Make Sure You Have Your Staples
"Always have a good selection of dried pasta. I would also always have dried porcini mushrooms, really good tinned tomatoes, passata or chopped tomatoes. Olive oil is essential – you must have good olive oil and fresh garlic. You can make a delicious dinner by just making a simple tomato sauce and cooking spaghetti."
2. Watch Your Portions
"Everyone talks about carb heavy Italian food is, but an Italian meal is generally an antipasti which consists of vegetables and various things, followed by a small portion of pasta which is a primi course, or maybe a risotto and then a fecundi - which would be the protein. I think the way a lot of people tend to eat Italian food is to have a large portion of pasta, and then that does become quite carb heavy, but it’s just a balance. Everything is good in moderation, I think you just need to find the balance and eat more vegetables with the pasta."
3. Make Perfect Pasta, Every Time
"When you're cooking pasta, it'll say on the packet cook for 12 minutes. Instead, cook it for 9 or 10, 2 minutes less than the packet says. Don't then immediately pour the pan into the colander – if you do that, the pasta overcooks instantly because the steam is hotter than boiling water and the pasta will congeal."
4. Stop Trying To Cook Things So Quickly
"Don’t cook your meal too far, or too high a temperature. If you're worried about overcooking, the best advice is to just trust your instinct, if your instinct is saying that you are burning something then generally you are, so cook a bit slower. Also, season as you go along – add a bit of salt to the water as you cook the pasta, season the sauce when its being cooked, so when you actually finish off everything will taste really good. There is nothing worse than making something with no seasoning and then at the end putting loads of salt and pepper on top. Then all you can taste is the salt and pepper."
5. Don't Be Afraid Of Vegetables In Italian Food
"People should use more vegetables! When people make pasta they assume that they should be adding meat or fish, but there are some amazing vegetables that you can cook with; courgette for instance. You can do something as simple as courgette with a bit of prosciutto or Parma ham. Just use a couple of slices of Parma ham, chop them up and put the courgettes in olive oil, put a lid on and cook for 10 minutes, so they get a colour on them. Then, use a spoon full of water and boil the hell out of them so they become soft and mushy. Then cook your pasta and add it and cut the prosciutto and that will add the seasoning, because it is quite salty, but will also give it extra flavouring. The problem with cooking is people add too many ingredients or too many herbs, or they may just think, "the more I add the better", and so add loads of garlic. But if you do that it’s going to taste really bad. Less is more, subtlety is much better."
6. Pick Your Accompanying Wine On Region
I wouldn’t worry about wine snobs who say you have to have this or that, I would just go with your instinct - if you like to have white wine with meat or then just go for it! If you cook a regional dish then try and get the wine from that region, because the chances are that that recipe was invented to go with that wine in the first place. Also, a good travel tip, if you're going somewhere that produces great wine you’ll always find great food.
7. Fish Stew Can Look (And Taste!) Very Impressive
You think, "Oh my god that’s going to be so complicated!" But if you get some fish and some fish bones and make a fish stock, and then fry a bit of celery, onion and fennel together, and then add tomatoes, reduce by half and then add the fish stock that’s the fish soup base. Then you puree it and get some nice fish – monk fish, clams, prawns, lobster, and poach the fish in the broth and add a few potatoes that have been cooked in saffron and then some garlic and parsley on top.
Theo's Fish Stew Recipe
500g red mullet
3 litres water
250g vongole (clams)
200g white fish such as lemo sole
200g Roseval potatoes (any is fine)
½ small onion
½ fennel bulb
2 clove garlic
10 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
small bunch parsley
1 tsp fennel seeds
20g dried porcini mushrooms
1 tsp olive oil
500g fresh very ripe plum tomatoes
100ml white wine
Scale, fillet mullet and lemon sole(keep bones) with mullet take out eyes and gills, cook prawns in boiling salted water for 5 minutes, remove. In a large pot place fish bones 3 litres water, 1stick celery, black peppercorns, bay leaf, parsley stalks. Bring to the boil for 45 minutes, simmerand strain. Break prawns up by removing head and shell. Then add prawns heads and shell to stock and return to heat. In a separate pan heat olive oil, onion, carrot, fennel and fennel seeds,
garlic. Reconstitute porcini in ½ cup of hot water for 5-10 minutes. Strain mushrooms, roughly chop, add to the pan with onion etc.
Take tomatoes, chop and add to pan. Cook for 20 minutes until tomatoes are breaking down.
Meanwhile strain fish broth into a separate container. Add liquid to tomato mixture. Add fish broth to tomatoes and continue cooking for 20 minutes.
Peel potatoes, cut into thumb size pieces, bring to the boil in salted water with a pinch of saffron, remove and reserve. Wash vongole thoroughly under running water.
Remove fish broth from heat, taste season and puree, ideally with a stick blender or a processor.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a shallow sauce pan with a tight fitting lid.
Add vongole, mullet and monkfish, add 100ml of white wine, cover with lid firmly for 1 minute.
Jiggle pan - this will open vongole. Add tomato fish broth and saffron potatoes. Cover with lid, bring to boil and then add the prawns. Simmer and cover for a few minutes.
Serve in a bowl to finish, add chopped parsley mixed with ¼ of clove finely chopped
ASK are currently running the ASK Italian Grand Tour, raising money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. To find out how you can get involved, click here.