Saturday night pasta: three meditative recipes from Elizabeth Hewson | Food

A couple of years ago I felt that I was losing control. All of a sudden, a stressful work situation exacerbated my anxiety, leaving me crippled by a constant state of worry. I would panic and overthink situations to the point where I lost my confidence. I would wake up […]

A couple of years ago I felt that I was losing control. All of a sudden, a stressful work situation exacerbated my anxiety, leaving me crippled by a constant state of worry.

I would panic and overthink situations to the point where I lost my confidence. I would wake up throughout the night with my mind racing. Even getting out of bed in the morning became a challenge. I found myself turning to all the recommended methods of coping – exercise, yoga; I even bought a puppy to try to calm my nerves.

But in the end, what it took was the simple act of making pasta.

One Saturday night, following a grey, unremarkable day, I felt compelled to lose myself in a task. I wanted to feel the magic that comes with the process of making something simple. I poured myself a glass of wine, turned on some Frank Sinatra and started to knead.

The eggs and flour gradually became a bright yellow dough that I squished, rolled and folded to the sounds of That’s Life. It felt oddly satisfying to channel the unadulterated anger of another horrible, demoralising week into the pasta dough.

I enjoyed it so much that I repeated the exercise the following Saturday night, and then again the following weekend. This grounding routine quickly became addictive.

When I shared my newfound enthusiasm with friends, they often couldn’t understand why I would go to so much effort, especially when I was cooking mostly for myself. But rather than feeling lonely or sad, it made me feel valued and present.

Gradually, my new ritual restored in me a sense of balance; it offered me an interest, a hobby, something else to think about. Most of all, it taught me mindfulness: I learned to focus on the process rather than the result. It was a decidedly pleasant bonus that the result just so happened to be a delicious and rewarding one. It nourished me, giving me the energy to fight the good fight and the tools to tackle anxiety when I felt it creeping in.

This is not a dramatic tale of overcoming incredible adversity or surviving some kind of disaster. No loves have been lost, no hearts broken. This is a rather ordinary tale, my tale, of forming a ritual of self-care that I like to call Saturday Night Pasta.

Bloody Mary lamb and kale ragù

(Pictured top)
I’ve been making this dish since I was 21. It featured in my first cookbook and became a favourite with friends. I wrote it when I was going through a big Bloody Mary phase and it dawned on me, one Sunday lunch when I was sipping on one to cure a mighty hangover, that it would work well as a base for a pasta sauce. Pasta alla vodka was a very fashionable dish in the 80s and in recent times has had a resurgence. Despite vodka having a neutral taste, it does alter the flavour of the sauce with a touch of heat and a sharp bite. Add a splash of Worcestershire sauce and a dribble of Tabasco and you’ve got yourself a tasty slow-cooked ragù that wants nothing more than to be tossed through some hot, buttery pappardelle.

Serves 6

2kg lamb shoulder, bone in
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tbsp sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground
Black pepper

1 onion, roughly chopped
​½ bunch of celery, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
800g canned whole peeled tomatoes
300ml vodka
125ml (½ cup) red wine
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 tbsp Tabasco sauce
tbsp Worcestershire sauce
(1½ cups) chopped kale leaves
tbsp salted butter
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano

To serve

Fresh pasta: pappardelle
Dried pasta: conchiglie (shells), rigatoni

Preheat the oven to 150C fan-forced.

Use a sharp knife to score the fat layer on the lamb at 1cm intervals, stopping your knife when it reaches the meat. Massage 1 tbsp of the olive oil into the lamb and sprinkle with the salt and pepper.

Place a large flameproof casserole dish or a deep roasting tin over high heat. Add the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil, the onion, celery and garlic and cook for 5 minutes or until softened. Add the lamb, fat-side down, and brown for 5 minutes or until the fat starts to turn golden.

Turn the lamb over to expose the fat and add the tomatoes. Half-fill one of the cans with water and pour this in too. Add the vodka, red wine, bay leaves, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce and give everything a good stir. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Cover with the lid (or if you are using a roasting tin, tightly cover with foil) and place in the oven.

Roast the lamb for 4 hours or until the meat is falling off the bone. When cooked, remove the casserole dish or roasting tin from the oven and skim the oil from the top of the sauce. Remove the remaining fat from the lamb and discard. Use two forks to shred the meat off the bone into the sauce to create a thick stew.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, throwing in the kale for the last 2 minutes of cooking.

Add the drained pasta and kale directly to the lamb stew, then stir through the butter and toss everything together.

Divide the pasta among serving bowls, shower with Parmigiano Reggiano and serve.

Broccoli and feta ragù

I don’t think feta gets the respect it deserves. People are always raving on about the oozy, creamy French cheeses, while I could quite happily indulge in a piece of salty, tangy and crumbly feta. It is incredibly versatile and has the power to transform a simple, one-dimensional dish, just like this broccoli pasta. Usually broccoli pasta is aided by anchovy fillets or sausages, but here it gets a leg up from the feta, which melts into a creamy sauce that coats the pasta. With very few ingredients, it transforms this simple vegetarian meal into a dish any meat-eater would enjoy.

Broccoli ragù: feta transforms a simple dish. Photograph: Nikki To

Serves 4

1 large head of broccoli
tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
Pinch of chilli flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
120g Greek feta
Crumbled zest of 1 lemon
Handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano

To serve

Fresh pasta: orecchiette, cavatelli/malloreddus
Dried pasta: conchiglie (shells), fusilli

Bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea.

Peel the broccoli stalk to remove any woody bits, then cut the stalk into 1cm-thick slices. Chop the florets into 50 cent-size pieces – you want everything to be around the same size so it cooks evenly. Drop the broccoli into the boiling water and cook for about 3 minutes, until just blanched and bright green. Using a slotted spoon, remove the broccoli and set aside. Keep the water on the boil and add your pasta.

Finely chop the broccoli into small pieces.

Heat the olive oil in a large deep frying pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute, until just starting to turn golden, but please don’t let it burn. Add the chilli flakes and broccoli and toss everything together. Season lightly, remembering you have your salty feta and Parmigiano Reggiano to come. Give the mixture another toss.

Ladle 125ml (½ cup) of the pasta cooking water into the pan
and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes or until the broccoli starts to soften but still has some bite (we don’t want a mush). Your finely chopped broccoli should drink up most of this water.

When your pasta is just al dente, use that slotted spoon again to scoop it directly into the sauce. Add the feta and give everything a good stir, adding some more pasta cooking water to loosen it all up. The pasta, broccoli and cheese will drink up a lot of the liquid, so keep this in mind as you’re after a loose sauce. Toss the pasta until the feta has all but melted and you are left with a lovely creamy sauce.

Stir through the lemon zest and Parmigiano Reggiano. Give everything a final toss and serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Buffalo mozzarella cream, slow-roasted cherry tomatoes

This recipe is a result of Saturday morning rounds at the markets. Vannella is a family-run stall selling some incredible soft Italian cheeses. Their buffalo mozzarella is unrivalled and here it makes a sauce that’s every bit as seductive as it sounds. Acidic, sweet, rich and creamy.

I find making the sauce, with all the mindless repetitive stirring, to be enormously comforting too. The slow-roasted cherry tomatoes are there to cut through the glorious fat of the sauce by adding a sweet and acidic tone. If you’re not inclined to slow-roast them, I suppose you could use some sun-dried cherry tomatoes; just try to avoid the heavily flavoured cheaper ones from the supermarket deli as I feel they would be overpowering. Like most pasta dishes, this needs to be eaten straight away. Hot pasta and cream pose a serious clumping issue if allowed to sit.

Buffalo mozzarella and tomato

Buffalo mozzarella and tomato: the cherry tomatoes add sweetness and acidity. Photograph: Nikki To

Serves 2

250g cherry tomatoes, halved
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
125g buffalo mozzarella
, roughly chopped
Brine from the bag
100ml pouring cream
tbsp salted butter
Handful of grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus extra to serve

To serve

Fresh pasta for two: farfalle, garganelli
Dried pasta for two: farfalle, fusilli, penne, rigatoni

Preheat the oven to 130C fan-forced.

Place the tomato and garlic on a large baking tray, drizzle over the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Give everything a good toss around to coat, then arrange the tomato in a single layer, cut-side up.

Roast for 1½–2 hours or until starting to dehydrate. You’re looking for a tomato chip.

Place a saucepan over medium heat and add the mozzarella, 2½ tablespoons of the brine from the bag, the cream and butter and stir to melt. Be patient, as the mozzarella takes 15–20 minutes to melt and you’ll still be left with a good chunk of the stretched skin. Persevere, stirring frequently, to encourage it to melt through the cream. Discard the residue of cheese that hasn’t melted by this stage (there will be some) as it will be rubbery and the flavour will have been sucked into your now-creamy and seductive sauce.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a lively boil and season as salty as the sea. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Using a slotted spoon, add the pasta directly to the sauce, along with 60ml (¼ cup) of the cooking water and the Parmigiano Reggiano. Stir vigorously to ensure the pasta is well coated.

Divide the pasta between bowls and scatter over the tomato. Drizzle with olive oil and finish with a very light dusting of extra Parmigiano Reggiano and pepper. Eat straight away.

Cover of Elizabeth Hewson's Saturday Night Pasta

Cover of Elizabeth Hewson’s Saturday Night Pasta. Photograph: Pan Macmillan
  • This is an edited extract from Saturday Night Pasta by Elizabeth Hewson (Plum, RRP $36.99), available to preorder now and in stores from 27 October. For more information see or here.

Dorothy E. Tabor

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