ʽʽHi, I’m Benjamin Nunn – critic, gourmand and author of Ben Viveur. I like to eat and drink. And cook. And write.

You might have read me in an in-flight magazine, or a beer publication, but here on my own blog I'm liberated from the editorial shackles of others so anything goes.

I deal with real food and drink in the real world, aiming to create recipes that taste awesome, but which can be created by mere mortals without the need for tons of specialist equipment and a doctorate in food science. Likewise, I tend to review relaxed establishments that you might visit on a whim without having to sell your first-born, rather than hugely expensive restaurants and style bars in the middle of nowhere with a velvet rope barrier, a stringent dress code and a six-month waiting list!

There's plenty of robust opinion, commentary on the world of food and drink, and lots of swearing, so look away now if you're easily offended.

Otherwise, tuck your bib in, fill your glass and turbo-charge your tastebuds. We're going for a ride... Ben Appetit!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

MSG, Marinara and the magical fish

Way back in the long-long agos, when I were a wee sapling child and Feargal Sharkey was just launching his solo career, there was quite a lot of tooing and froing in the media about Monosodium Glutamate. MSG. Angel Dust.

These days it's all about Aspartame and how it makes Diet Coke actually more fattening than drinking melted butter because scientists on the internet proved it or something, but back in the late 1970s and early 80s the controversial food additive was MSG.

Worse than Heroin and Thalidomide, MSG was going to give us all cancer and turn us into Communists by the year 2000.

Thank fuck it's not around any more.

Although, in reality, it is. Probably more than ever, in fact. They just stopped calling it MSG and people stopped caring so much. People can be like that at times.

If you look closely at the ingredients, you can see that it turns up in loads of packaged savoury foods, from cheese and onion crisps to chicken wings to pizza to ready-made Marinara sauce. It's just called E621, or 'flavour enhancer'. these days 'Hydrolysed vegetable protein' is, I gather, almost identical too.

As rebranding exercises go, I think they can chalk it up as a success story. Bastards.

You can do magic

I'm not a huge fan of putting stuff that comes out of a laboratory into my dinner, and as I don't eat that much packaged food, I probably consume less MSG - in any guise - than a lot of people.

That said, I'm not particularly proactive about avoiding the stuff either, and I'm sure I ingest small quantities of it all the time without realising, or indeed caring.

Without turning into a bad science teacher trying to make shit lessons interesting, the umami flavours that come from glutamic acids do occur naturally in stuff like seaweed, soy sauce and Parmesan cheese, and these are good, natural ingredients for imparting deliciousness without needing to resort to magical fairy powder.

It's almost certainly how they discovered the flavour profile in the first place, before they began trying to synthesise it from semi-fermented yeast or coryneform bacteria. Yes, bacteria.

Here, fishy fishy fishy; Here, little magic fishy...
I've no idea if it contains some sort of natural MSG or not, but one of the single most important 'secret' ingredients in your kitchen - particularly if you want to cook a seafood dish - is the anchovy.

Every kitchen should keep a few jars of anchovies in stock - even if you are insane and don't like them as a pizza topping - because they possess almost legendary powers. Special, fishy powers.

You'll know this if you've ever cooked my seafood risotto - anchovies dissolve quickly and impart a concentrated, salty fishiness throughout your dish in a way that nothing else can.

Chemically it might even be similar to sprinkling in MSG powder, I suppose, but as far as I'm concerned it's all natural and all good.

So here's my recipe for an anchovy-enriched Marinara sauce with Seafood that is just about the perfect companion for your pasta. The other seafoody ingredients are flexible and it works with most kinds of pasta, but I happen to think tagliatelle is best.

Far, far, far better than the monosodiummy, glutamatey shit you'd buy in a jar.

Tagliatelle Marinara e Frutti di Mare

(that's Seafood Pasta to you)

Ingredients - makes four main course portions:

Probably the best pasta dish I've ever cooked
Fresh tagliatelle, around 1 1/2 lbs
King prawns, shelled and cooked,
Mussels, shelled (smoked mussels are particularly good)
Squid pieces
Anchovies in Olive oil, one jar

Red onion, one large or two small, finely chopped
Sweet red pepper, one, finely chopped
Vine tomatoes, 3-4, finely chopped
Tomato puree, a decent squeeze
Red Wine, actually not too much(!) - just a dash
Green Pesto

Garlic, 4-6 cloves, smushed
Capers, a handful
Black pepper

To serve:

Freshly grated Parmesan
Mussels, unshelled, steamed, a couple per person (optional)


Heat the oil from your jar of anchovies in a big sautee pan, and use to fry the onion and garlic on a high heat until they begin to soften.

You can then add your red pepper and a couple of minutes later it's time to whack in all the seafood, apart from the anchovies. (This is asuming that you're using stuff that's already cooked. If you're throwing in raw prawns, that's fine, but put them in shortly before the peppers.)

Squid pieces going in...
With the seafood in the pan it's time to liberally add the paprika, basil, orgegano and black pepper, and make sure everything gets mixed up good and proper. Now chuck in your chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and a glug of red wine.

After about another five minutes, you can add the anchovies, stir it a little, then put the lid on the pan and turn the heat down.

Note that this is not like my Bolognese where you need it to simmer for an hour or two to bring out all the flavours and get the full benefit - ten minutes or so will suffice here.

Boil a pan of salted water and cook your pasta in the traditional way, being careful not to overdo it - erring on the side of a-little-too-al-dente is good, because it's going to get extra cooking time once it's in the pan with the other ingredients.

While the pasta is cooking, taste the sauce, add a handful of capers, a dollop of pesto, and perhaps another twist of black pepper or a drop of wine if you feel it needs it.

Drain your tagliatelle thoroughly, and then dump it all in the pan with the Marinara sauce, which should be perfect by now, with the anchovies having just about disintegrated into atoms of fishy goodness.

Toss it all thoroughly, aiming to ensure that every strand of pasta is nicely coated with the sauce, and that there is a good mix of mussels, prawns and squid throughout. Turn the heat up again for the final minute to ensure that it all arrives hot at the table.- and you're good to go.

If you were having people round for dinner, you'd probably put a couple of mussels still in their shells on top for a final visual flourish - personally I'm not really bothered about such faffery, as they'll have to come out of the shells for me to eat them anyway.

This is one of those dishes where you can make a case for drinking either Red or White wine with it. 

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