Conchiglie Primavera

Springtime Pasta Shells

This dish was shown to me five years ago at La Cacciata. I rushed back to Wandsworth and bored Richard Whittington, my colleague who was writing Keep It Simple with me at the time. ‘We must put this in the book,’ I urged, ‘it’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted, it’s never been seen before out of Italy.’ Richard nodded indulgently and advised me to watch some supermarket commercials then current. I did, and saw my wonderful new discovery being broadcast to millions. Crestfallen doesn’t begin to describe it.

There is however a sub-text to the supermarket’s advertising campaign. Take industrially made poor quality conchiglie, 6 unripe flavourless tomatoes, 100 g of nasty tasteless pasteurised plastic-clad ricotta, some overpriced feeble hot-house basil and a bog standard olive oil. Cook the pasta until it is as near al dente as inferior pasta will allow you to get, dice the tomatoes without peeling. Dress the pasta with table salt and black sneezing powder, the oil and the tomatoes and glop ricotta. Result, a scarcely edible dish.

To make this dish properly, you need to find good ingredients. Follow the simple instructions and enjoy; diverge, and disaster will follow.

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Ingredients

  • 500 g conchiglie
  • 8 large, ripe, flavoursome plum tomatoes
  • 1 bunch very fresh and pungent basil
  • 150 g very fresh ricotta (see if you can find ricotta di bufala, pester your delicatessen)
  • top-quality olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Method

The timing of this dish is almost as important as the freshness and quality of the ingredients.

1–2 hours in advance

Dip the tomatoes for exactly 1 minute in boiling water, then plunge into cold water. Drain and peel with a small knife. Chop the tomatoes in 1 cm pieces; you do not need to remove the seeds. Scrape the tomato pieces and their juices into a large bowl. Season generously with salt and pepper and a liberal slug of the olive oil. Break up the basil leaves and mix in. Leave covered in a cool place until needed. The salt will draw out the juices from the tomatoes and form a sauce.

30 minutes before serving

Put 5 litres of water on to boil, and lightly salt it. When the water is boiling vigorously, drop the pasta in and stir immediately to try and prevent it sticking to the pot. The pasta will take approximately 9–10 minutes to cook. Whilst it is cooking, do two things. Put a colander in the sink and mix the ricotta with the by now ‘soupy’ tomatoes in the bowl.

For some dishes dried pasta like conchiglie is drained when really rather undercooked because it will continue to cook as it is sauced – Spaghetti Aglio, Olio for example. Conchiglie Primavera is a different case as the sauce is raw (sugo crudo), and when the pasta and sauce are mixed the relatively large amount of cold ingredients lower the temperature of the pasta and arrest the cooking. Consequently the pasta must be drained at the correct point, when truly al dente, then sauced very quickly and served with dispatch.

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