Good Italian restaurants make it look easy, but just because you have the right ingredients doesn't mean you'll get the same results.
A teenage troupe tackles Italian cooking with mixed results
The warm evening air was thick with chatter and good smells. The four of us were enjoying a leisurely evening plonked in front of the Dubai Fountain, having a proper sit-down dinner in Carluccio's in Dubai Mall - refreshing after days of snacking on takeaway burgers.
As the tallest fountain in the world suddenly shot up in all its sound-and-light-show glory, our idle minds were ignited. Inspiration descended upon us. On our way into the restaurant, we had noticed the attractive display of rows of handmade pasta, truffles and pannetone at the front of Carluccio's that looked too nice to resist buying.
An idea was born.
We would prepare a meal of some sort, just once, but it would be a culinary marvel, something the likes of neither Jamie Oliver nor Nigella Lawson could ever hope to make. This turned out to be all too true: Nigella could never create the results of a bunch of ever-optimistic teenagers let loose in a kitchen, lest anyone else taste it and destroy her career.
We should have been warned when we decided to deviate from shopping for clothes and bought some of Carluccio's raw ingredients - to conjure up the same magic at home. Getting the right stuff and throwing it all in a pan of boiling water shouldn't be much cause for concern, we figured, and should cost only about half of what a whole dish does in a restaurant.
For a start, a simple pasta would do; we do not possess the same qualifications as head chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants. We picked a box marked "pappardelle" which, the packet informed us, was "an elegant artisanal pasta with a high egg content". The pasta vaguely resembled very wide, short, birthday streamers with jagged edges, a feature we thought looked much more exciting than your usual penne or spaghetti. We also selected some olive oil followed by an appropriately vile-looking bottle of pesto and dried "porcini from Piedmont", which smelt absolutely revolting. According to Tina, we were on the right track because "everything fancy tastes funny anyway".
I have never been much of a cook, except the occasional baked cake that people eat a tiny slice of to be polite and then declare that they're full. Tina, though, seemed to know exactly what she was doing as we crowded into the small kitchen of Lucy's home. I had my iPod with me, and put some nice Rossini opera on to get a more Italiano atmosphere to match what we were making. Cat's Duet, one of my favourites (which consists of the lyrics "miaow, miaow, miaow" over and over) was coldly dismissed, receiving an irritable "turn off that horrible squealing".
Tina took charge, rolling up her sleeves. We did the same. "Read the instructions!" she commanded in the tone of a military officer. Lisa hurriedly did so, out loud, squinting at the recipe at the back of the pappardelle box for "pappardelle ai funghi". It turned out we needed garlic, parsley and grated Parmesan cheese, too. We had none of these things. We did find a slab of cheddar in the fridge, but there wasn't a grater anywhere in sight, and we couldn't ask anyone (this was naturally done when everyone else was out to avoid potentially ugly scenes).
"Parmesan, schmarmesan," was Tina's opinion on the conundrum. "Cheddar's the same thing." Having received this enlightening piece of advice, we set it aside for the moment, and substituted mint for the parsley. Apparently this shouldn't have made much of a difference in the taste. It did.
We didn't know what to do with the bit about the garlic, so we ignored it. Half the packet of dried porcini was tossed in, making the water turn a murky, ominous shade of brown. Remembering the cheese, Lisa was set the task of grating it with a knife, with which she cut her finger and fled from the kitchen howling. Tina surveyed the still-ungrated block of cheese. "Well, we can't use it now," she pronounced critically. "It's got blood on it." The cheese was binned and the now-cooked but slippery pasta was ladled out painstakingly slowly with a spoon because we didn't have a big colander.
What we had created wasn't exuding exactly what even we hardened eaters-of-anything-if-it's-food would call a palatable aroma. I hurriedly doused it with lots of tomato ketchup so that the delicate flavours of the fine porcini, pesto and the elegant artisanal pasta with a high egg content were completely masked. We chewed slowly, then took another bite, and then another.
It disappeared all too quickly - in our hurry we'd forgotten that a packet clearly marked "serves two" would not serve four.
"Maybe we should ring Pizza Hut," Lucy suggested tentatively. Three sweaty, tired, bandaged and extremely hungry teenagers nodded their approval.
The writer is a 16-year-old student in Dubai