As a naïve young student in Bristol I came from a Welsh household where the word ‘pasta’ had never been spoken, let alone cooked. What a joy it was to discover the world of Italian cooking in a family-run restaurant in Park St, cheap enough for a student on a grant to eat like a queen. The first thing I tried there was something very like this simple baked dish and I can still remember the sharp aroma of tomato and mozzarella, served, as here, in an individual dish. This is pure, quick, easy comfort food and I made it even easier by using one of Sainsbury’s excellent ready-made fresh tomato sauces, but it is simple enough to make your own from a small can of Italian tomatoes. You add some fresh spinach to the sauce. For extra zing I chopped up some sweet piquanté peppers that I happened to have in the fridge and sprinkled in some chilli flakes. Ten minutes in a hot oven gets the topping bubbling and brown, a delicious and slightly crusty lid for the slippery tomatoey spaghetti underneath.
2 shallots, finely sliced
2 crushed garlic cloves
6 drained piquanté peppers from a jar, roughly chopped
¾ teaspoon chilli flakes
1 teaspoon paprika
350g readymade fresh tomato sauce
2 handfuls of young spinach
10 black olives
Salt and pepper to taste
150g grated mozzarella
Put the spaghetti on to boil and preheat the oven to 190 degrees c.
Sweat the shallots in a little oil then add the crushed garlic and let it cook for a further minute. Add the chopped piquanté peppers, the chilli flakes and paprika then the tomato sauce and young spinach followed by the olives. Check the seasoning – it will probably need a little more salt and will definitely need pepper.
Check the pasta and drain it just before it reaches the al dente phase. Return it to the pan and add the tomato sauce, mixing everything thoroughly. Divide the pasta between two small oven proof gratin dishes and cover the tops with the grated mozzarella. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the topping is creamy and just beginning to brown. Serve immediately with some warmed crusty bread and a glass of red wine.