There are a million reasons not to invite people over for dinner. Your apartment is too small. You don't have enough time. Or nice enough plates. Money for fancy ingredients. Mastery of complex cooking techniques. It doesn't help that the top-rated shows on television at the moment are ones featuring so-called "home cooks" poaching salmon in temperature-controlled olive oil baths, or constructing edible towers strewn with micro-herbs or native berries. If that's your idea of a good time, then great. For me, having people over is about being together, and it should be easy and fun, generous and relaxed. I love to cook but I want to spend time with my guests, not be stuck in the kitchen all night, then into the early hours of the morning with the washing up.
So on Saturday I had some friends over. One of them was a vegetarian. I made pasta. Most of the ingredients I already had on hand (except celery, which I purchased for the grand total of 69 cents), which is the beauty of this particular dish by Israeli-born, London-based chef Yotam Ottolenghi. It's as if he'd came up with it by pulling random grocery items from his fridge and cupboards and throwing them all together. It's a crazy combination of flavours and textures but it works - salty, sweet, crunchy, soft, strident, subtle... It takes no time to make, tastes good hot or cold (one of my favourite parts of having people over are the leftovers the next day) and makes everyone happy. Even those who hate raisins... of my four guests, there were two of these, who both enthusiastically dug in for seconds.
Conchiglie with saffron, capers and raisins
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's column in The Guardian
Conchiglie is the Italian name for shell pasta - of course you can use whatever you like but the best thing about this particular shape is that the capers and olives and other good things find their way inside the shell, guaranteeing satisfaction with every forkful. And if you keep your cheese on the side (allowing guests to add it themselves if they wish), this works equally well for vegans, as well as vegetarians.
6 stalks celery (ie: around 180g)
90ml olive oil
30g pinenuts, roughly broken
40g capers, plus 2 tablespoons of their brine
10 large green olives (40g), pitted and diced
1 good pinch of saffron, mixed with 1 tablespoon hot water
1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
100g raisins, soaked in water
250g conchiglie (shell) pasta
30g chopped parsley
grated zest of one lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
grated parmesan or pecorino, optional
Trim any leaves from the celery (save them for later) and cut the stalks into 1cm dice.
Brown the pinenuts in a large saute pan, then tip them into a bowl. Return the pan to the heat and pour in olive oil. Once hot, add the diced celery. Over high heat, fry for five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the capers and their brine, the olives, saffron and its water, the vinegar and the drained raisins. Set aside.
Cook the pasta til al dente, drain into a colander and shake well. Tip the pasta into the pan, pace over medium high heat and, stirring gently, quickly heat through. Once hot, stir in the parsley, lemon zest, garlic, pinenuts and lots of black pepper. Taste and add salt if needed.
Transfer to serving plates or bowls, scatter the reserved celery leaves on top and finish with a little cheese, if you like.