It has become something of a joke in our family that I always order the most piquant curry and then others eat it while I retire in floods of tears and an excessive quantity of kitchen paper to the calmer waters of the chicken korma, tarka dal and minted yoghurt. I love the idea of chilli and, in moderation, I love eating it but I am, it has to be owned, a wimp. When Tom Parker Bowles waves a bottle of some “ass-kickin’’’ hot sauce in front of me, I recoil in horror.
At university my best friend used to go out of his way to find the hottest curries (the beef phal at the Lahore in Cambridge’s Trumpington Street may have won the accolade) and would sit there beaming with pleasure and glistening in sweat as he chomped his way through this absurdly supercharged repast. I sampled a dish, supposedly “Szechuan aubergine”, in Hong Kong recently, an odd conglomeration of glass noodles, strange animal bits and slices of aubergine in a fiery, vermilion-coloured gloop that made me feel very strange and badly burnt inside my mouth, which others seemed to find quite amusing.
Despite these struggles, I still love chilli. I learnt from Rose Gray to deploy it carefully in Italian cooking. Over lunch one day we both confessed that we found we had to hold ourselves back from putting a few chilli flakes or some chopped fresh red chilli in just about everything we cooked. It is still the case that the two-compartment spice box that sits by the side of my stove contains flaked sea salt and chilli flakes rather than ground peppercorns.
Arrabiata – meaning “angry” – is the most common instance of chilli seasoning in Italy although it is more prevalent than we think, especially as you go further south on the mainland. Anyone visiting Calabria will be shocked by the ubiquity of nduja, a fiery meat paste that is spread on toast as a starter or added to pasta. Arrabiata is usually applied to pasta, especially penne, but fish, meat and poultry can all be made quite angry when cooked in this way. The sauce should, of course, be made and cooked in the pan with the specified ingredient which makes for a very quick and simple procedure.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais; firstname.lastname@example.org
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Guinea fowl all’arrabiata
More commonly made with chicken – and very good it is too – but, just for a change, I have done it with guinea fowl. The cooking method is a good way of keeping these lean birds moist.
I know it is a solecism to serve pasta with a piece of meat: however, even the most correct Italians occasionally break the rules. Serves 4.
1 guinea fowl, about 1.2kg when dressed
50ml olive oil
2 cloves garlic
2 red chillies
4 large, ripe tomatoes
60ml tomato passata
½ tsp chilli flakes
150ml red wine
300g fresh or dried tagliatelle
Basil or marjoram
● Joint the guinea fowl, removing the legs and cutting the breasts (with breast bone still attached) away from the carcass. Season on all sides with salt. Heat a heavy skillet or sauté pan with the olive oil and place the meat skin side down. Turn the heat down slightly and colour the meat gently for five minutes before turning.
● While the meat is frying, peel and chop the onion, garlic and chillies (having removed the seeds) quite finely. Once the meat has coloured on both sides, lift the pieces out on to a plate and stew the aromatics in the fat that remains. While this happens, peel the tomatoes (by quickly plunging in boiling water and refreshing in cold), cut in half and remove the seeds and chop coarsely. Add the tomatoes to the onion mixture, add the passata, chilli flakes and wine and bring back to the boil. Slip the guinea fowl pieces into this sauce and stew gently for a further 15 minutes. Remove the meat again and reduce the sauce slightly if necessary.
● Bring a large pot of well-salted water to the boil and drop in the tagliatelle. Cook very briefly (fresh will only take a couple of minutes), drain and toss in butter with a pinch of salt. Add a few torn basil leaves – or coarsely chopped oregano – to the sauce, quickly reheat the meat in the sauce and serve.
Rowley’s drinking choice
This is a Tuscan dish and any full-blooded Sangiovese will be good. I have no problem with chilli with wine. If anything I think it can enhance the fruit and tame tannin.