Russell Norman: How To Make A Dinner Out of Nowhere

Our resident foodie conjures a speedy spaghetti – perfect for when everything else falls apart.

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I once got drunk while cooking for friends and it didn’t end very well. I was a nervous young man in my early twenties and I was at that precarious stage for a cook when ambition starts to get the better of ability. If you add three glasses of wine to the equation, things can unravel with alarming speed.

The problem with being left alone in the kitchen is you can lose track of the pace of the dinner party in the next room. While everyone else is leisurely sipping Gavi di Gavi, you are working hard over the stove, getting hot, moving fast, trying to join in the conversation between chopping an onion here and stirring a sauce there, and possibly drinking at twice the rate of everyone else.

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On this particular occasion, I was being very well attended to by one of the dinner party guests. She would pop into the kitchen regularly to top me up. (I think she had a bit of a thing for me. It was probably the apron. Women love a man in an apron.) In fact, thinking back on it, my glass was probably almost permanently full, despite me being very thirsty. There is a certain sort of person who will always top up a half-empty glass and she was one of them. The Greeks have a term for this condition, cenosillicaphobia: the fear of an empty glass.

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The first thing that goes when you lose it in the kitchen is timing. Professional chefs have to coordinate multiple dishes within a complicated matrix of timelines. It’s not easy. Feeding 300 people per evening and making sure everyone gets the right food at the right time requires extreme concentration and precision timing. If you’re sloshed, forget it.

I was only cooking for six people but I’d forgotten to start the rice and had badly overcooked the tuna steaks. It was all going tits up. There was a crucial ingredient missing from my wasabi dressing, too. My memory is a bit hazy, but I think it might have been wasabi. By the time I had finished cooking, plated the dishes and served supper, it was too late. The dinner party was a shambles. The food was a mess. My embarrassment and shame sobered me up in seconds, but even I couldn’t eat the rubbish I’d put in front of us. Fortunately, two things saved the evening: my friends’ good humour and generosity, and the frozen pizzas I threw in the oven.

Now, kitchen disasters can happen at the best of times, even whenthere isn’t a drop of grog in sight, and it is important to be prepared. I am a firm believer that you should always have a small arsenal of store cupboard recipes up your sleeve in case you are required to cook without having done any preparation or shopping. These are dishes that can be prepared using only ingredients you would find in a reasonably well-stocked larder.

My favourite emergency store cupboard saviour is this slight variation on the classic Venetian pasta dish bigoli in salsa. If only I’d known about this recipe when I was that nervous young man, I could have ruled the world... 


Bigoli in salsa
Serves 4

3 or 4 of those little 50g tins of anchovies in olive oil

• 2 large onions, peeled
• Extra virgin olive oil
• 1 glass of white wine
• 400g dried spaghetti
• Large knob butter
• Handful flat parsley, chopped
• Ground black pepper
• Crusty bread to serve


1. Remove the anchovies from the tins. They tend to be stuck together in a clump, so separate them carefully and lay out them on a small plate. Set aside. Also keep the fishy oil from the tins.

2.  Dice the onions very finely. Heat a good glug or two of olive oil in a large, heavy-based frying pan and then reduce the heat. Gently sweat the onions for about 10mins. They should not colour or stick but will take on a glossy, translucent quality and become very soft and mushy.

3. Turn up the pan’s heat a little and add the anchovies. (This is a good time to put a large saucepan of water on a high flame.) Meanwhile, using the back of a wooden spoon, push the melted onions and the anchovies together until they form a rough paste. If the mixture looks too dry, add some or all of the reserved fishy oil from the tins. Keep stirring and mushing the ingredients together. Add the wine and establish a very gentle simmer for 10mins, stirring and reducing slightly.

4. Put the spaghetti into the boiling water and cook according to the packet’s instructions, draining when just al dente. Add the butter to the frying pan, turn off the heat, and stir in the parsley. Put the drained spaghetti and the anchovy sauce into a very large mixing bowl, turn over several times to incorporate fully, and serve out onto four warmed plates. Finish each with a twist of black pepper and some shredded parsley.

Russell Norman owns and runs Polpo, Polpetto, Mishkin’s and Spuntino, all in London.


Russell Norman Is Esquire's New Food Columnist
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