The light on the dark side
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I realized there had been a shift on Planet Food as I flicked through the Christmas issue of Donna Hay’s magazine. The Australian food stylist and cookbook author has always had a very distinctive visual style, using the eye-searing hues of a summer’s day Down Under, the dazzling blues of sky and sea, the diaphanous whites of swishy sundresses. But her festive spread this year was a very different affair—none of the usual gaily accessorized al-fresco lunch parties, no Dads in shorts, no pink lobsters on the beach. Instead, in a feature titled Monochrome Christmas, readers were treated to black plates, baubles and crackers, and guests dressed more for a funeral than a festive feast.
If, like me, your obsession with food extends to spotting trends in food photography, you would have noticed that as 2016 dragged on, your world (or at least the Instagram corner of it) was starting to become a much darker place. There’s one feed I follow where the pictures are so dark I have to practically squint to see the food. Roasted vegetables lurk in the shadows of the artfully arranged bits of weathered wood and sackcloth and the whole thing looks as though it has been shot through a chink in the wall of a cave.
What can it all mean? Does it mean anything? Is it a reflection of the hellish year many of us have just experienced? Or are we trying to elevate our modern-day obsession with food to an art form? Until recently this trend was the domain of a few artsy bloggers and stylists but if Donna Hay has gone over to the dark side, this thing is going mainstream—even I spent a good 10 minutes this morning absorbed in a shot of a handful of raw walnuts on a blackened board.
Many of these dark pictures are very beautiful, recalling the great Dutch and Belgian still-life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries. They force you to pause and look at the food more carefully—a few apples carefully lit on a background of battered metal makes you see every shade and culinary possibility of the fruit. I like that we’re honouring our food this way, weaving feelings and moods into our pictures of dinner.
By contrast, my recipe today is a lovely bright one, probably the favourite dish I made last year. I spotted it when I was flicking through an old River Café cookbook and there has hardly been a week since when it hasn’t been on the menu in our house.
It’s is a traditional Genoese recipe—gossamer-thin pasta cut into the shape of silk handkerchiefs, dressed with a super-fresh basil pesto and green beans. A real treat and a way of honouring a few simple ingredients—even without a moody backdrop evoking the Old Masters.
A happy, and bright, 2017 to all!
Mandilli de Sæa with Pesto and Beans
Making fresh pasta isn’t for everyday but do try it sometime. As well as being a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, it turns this dish into something very special. But even if you use dried pasta, it will still make a very good midweek supper.
300g Italian “00” flour
A pinch of salt
Tip the flour and salt on to a clean work surface. Make a well in the centre of the mound of flour, then break the eggs into it. With a fork, whisk the eggs gently, drawing the flour in as you go. Mix it into a ball with your hands, then knead for about 5 minutes until you have a smooth, springy dough. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the fridge while you make the pesto.
For the pesto
100g fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Half tsp salt
50g pine nuts
200ml extra virgin olive oil
50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
In either a pestle and mortar or food processor, grind the basil leaves, garlic, salt and pine nuts to a coarse paste. Tip the paste into a bowl, then slowly pour in the oil, whisking as you go until you have a thick creamy consistency. Stir in the Parmesan and stir well. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap until you need it.
To assemble the dish
200g green beans, washed and trimmed
A little butter
Extra Parmesan to serve
Cut the pasta dough into four, then roll each portion into a ball. Roll out one piece until it’s almost transparent (keep the remaining dough covered). This is much easier to do if you have a pasta-rolling machine but if not, use a rolling pin and roll it as thinly as you can. Then cut the pasta into rectangles of about 5x10cm. Put the pieces on a tray sprinkled with some semolina until you’re ready to cook them.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. In another, smaller pan boil the green beans until tender. Drain the beans, then melt a knob of butter in the same pan, mix in a tablespoon of the pesto sauce, then put the beans back in and coat them with the sauce.
When the large pan of water is boiling furiously, gently put the pasta in. Don’t overcrowd the pan as the pasta pieces will stick together—you may need to cook the pasta in two-three batches depending on the size of your pan. Cook the pasta for no more than 2 minutes (or according to the packet instructions if you are using dried pasta), then drain.
Put a tablespoon of the pesto in the centre of four plates. Divide the pasta between the plates, spoon more pesto over, then add the beans. Serve with more Parmesan and freshly ground black pepper.
The Way We Eat Now is a fortnightly column on new ways of cooking seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains. Pamela Timms tweets at @eatanddust and posts on Instagram as Eatanddust.