Here’s the thing: I eat processed food far more often than I admit. There’s a lot of shame around that, especially if you write a food blog; you feel that you’re expected to be eating high-end, home cooked meals twice a day. I don’t, even at my best, most motivated and most time-rich, I don’t cook something every day of the week. Last night, I had Pringles and Lucozade for dinner (other crisps and soft drinks are available). What’s more, I enjoyed the Pringles and Lucozade.
I know that eating home cooked meals is better for me – I feel better when I’ve cooked, and when I’ve eaten fruit and vegetables. Now that I’m reasserting some kind of balance on my time (I’ve dropped some hours at the office, and I’m choosing to think of myself as ‘semi-retired’ because that makes me feel like the kind of successful person who might own a yacht), I’m able to make cooking (and eating) a priority again. But, you know, sometimes you just want something easy, and comforting, maybe something that reminds you of when you were a student and learning to cook, in between afternoons in the pub and nights staring at the computer screen and wondering how you were ever going to come up with 3000 words on the function of rain in Shakespeare’s comedies. That last part may be specific to me…
If I was having people round to dinner, in those student years, I made hot dog pasta. The first time I did it, it required me to go out and buy a big oven dish to put it in (which I still have, and use with fond memories). It also required enough cooking that I felt I was playing my part as host, but not so much that I would be spending a lot of time in the kitchen. It was also cheap, and filling. It ticked a lot of boxes. It was a meal I carried with me for a few years after graduation, too, until I shamed myself out of the habit. I mean, hot dog pasta. That is heavy low rent.
Yes. It is low rent. So what? It is, as they say, what it is – and now and again we all need a drop of nostalgia. Preferably combined with hot dogs and copious amounts of cheese. With that philosophy in mind, I made myself hot dog pasta recently, and I chose to photograph it along the way, with the idea of writing this confessional piece. The trouble with it is, since it’s something I’ve made so many times and with whatever ingredients I had to hand, I don’t really have a recipe as such. It looks a bit like this:
- as much pasta as will fill the size of serving dish I’m using
- as many tins of tomatoes as I need to cover all that pasta
- as many hot dogs as look like the right amount for that number of tins of tomatoes
- herbs and spices? Sure!
- wait maybe I should bang in some onion
- oh I only have shallots
- yeah they’ll do
- probably need some tomato paste to thicken it up
- also I seem to have some creme fraiche, that’d be nice
You see my dilemma. Yet I will press on with this blog post, nonetheless.
For this incarnation I started with three shallots, two cloves of garlic and one green birds eye chili. I knew I’d be pureeing the sauce later so I chopped them all up roughly and cooked for a minute or two, until the garlic was golden.
Next, the tomatoes – two tins, on this occasion. Bung them in, add a big squeeze of tomato paste and simmer for fifteen minutes. Once it’s simmered, blend – either in a jug blender or with one of those magical stick blenders. If you have or want to add a dairy product, now’s the time. I had a few spoonfuls of creme fraiche that seemed a sensible addition. I also added six hot dogs – the crappy ones from a can, yep, that’s them. I cut them into chunks and swept them into the tomatoey lava. You can see one peeking out in the photo below.
While this was all going on, I boiled up some pasta until just cooked, and heated the oven to about 180C. With both pasta and sauce ready, I combined them in the baking dish. It even *looks* low rent. There is no pretence about this dinner – it looks like it came out of a can, even though it is actually homemade. It still counts as homemade even if there are cut up hot dogs in it, I swear. Anyway, then it gets covered in cheese. This was obviously the most exciting part because I took about three dozen pictures of it. I’ve narrowed it down to this one.
Whenever I cover something with cheese, ready for baking, I add a good coating of my favourite spice grinder, which has salt, pepper, garlic, chili and fennel in it. Then, into the oven! For fifteen minutes, or until the cheese is sufficiently melted and a little browned. I couldn’t choose between these two, so you get them both.
So there you have it – hot dog pasta bake, a la my student kitchen, 2002.
In truth, this post was less about committing a recipe to the internet, and more about telling myself that things aren’t always ‘perfect’, and that my notion of perfect may actually be a bit skewed in the first place. Sometimes I’ll cook up fancy meals. Sometimes I’ll call a takeaway. And sometimes, sometimes I’ll make low rent pasta bake, and it’ll take me back about ten years, and I’ll enjoy it as much as I ever did. And that’s OK.