What I decide to cook is often more of an evolution than a decision. I spied a bunch of parsley in my fridge yesterday while seeking something else and thought, Hmmm, how about making a pesto with just parsley tomorrow to go with pasta? But then I thought, I don’t think I’ve made a classic pesto on the blog – classic as in a pesto made with just basil rather than other herbs, as is so common now. And sure enough, I checked and found I’d made a basil & mint pesto and a pistachio pesto but never that glorious classic basil pesto that hails from Liguria. Then the supper decision evolved even more when I went into Carluccio’s in Richmond to buy a packet of trofie, those wonderful little spirals of durum wheat pasta – no eggs – that also come from Liguria. And on the packet was the suggestion that you could make a typical Ligurian dish of trofie with pesto, green beans and potatoes. I’d moved a long way from parsley pesto but oh what a great direction!
I was slightly sceptical about the potatoes with pasta and considered just the addition of green beans. But then I searched the internet and found many versions of the dish, including one by Delia, and finally one in my copy of Gennaro Contaldo’s book, Passione. OK, I thought. I’ll add the potatoes. And I pretty much followed Gennaro’s instructions but loosely … for I was making the dish for just myself whereas he was giving instructions for feeding four.
I first tasted pesto – very appropriately – in Liguria, where this glorious sauce comes from. I was a young book editor, commissioning and editing lots of cookery books at the time, and while on holiday in Italy had been invited to stay with Robin Howe, a prolific cookery writer of her day and one of the best respected. Robin lived in a beautiful apartment in the hills above Imperia, Liguria, looking down over a glistening Mediterranean, with olive and orange trees growing in her garden, and she treated us to some wonderful meals that gave me a whole new understanding of good Italian food. And it was she who taught me to dress a salad properly.
A classic pesto is made with fresh basil leaves, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (which is milder and more delicate than from other parts of Italy), Parmigiano, pine nuts and garlic. You can make it in a food processor but I like to make it in my granite pestle and mortar. I like the actual process of grinding it myself but also the rougher finished texture. Freshly made pesto is a beautiful thing. Even tonight, having made it many times before, when I’d finished making it and tasted the pesto my tastebuds, my whole being, lighted in a kind of gastronomic ecstasy. It is awesome. Believe me, once you’ve made your own those jars or packets from the supermarket will never be good enough again. And really, why bother? To make your own is a quick and simple thing.
First of all, of course, you need a good bunch of basil. Then you need to very lightly toasted 2 tablespoons of pine nuts in a dry pan. Don’t let them brown too much or they will be bitter, but a little bit of ‘roasting’ will enhance their flavour. Now put them in the mortar and pestle with 1 clove garlic and 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt and grind until you have a paste.
Robin Howe says in her Italian Cooking, published by Marks & Spencer in 1979, that using sea salt helps retain the green colour of the basil. She also says that you should pound the basil in a clockwise direction. I found this instruction elsewhere but couldn’t gather why clockwise made a difference to anti-clockwise. However, I tried to keep my pounding in the clockwise direction! Gennaro adds 75g of basil; I just took the largest leaves from my basil plant and kept adding and adding them, pounding along the way, until it seemed about right.
I added a little olive oil as I went. I didn’t have Ligurian oil – I think that’s quite difficult to buy here in UK – but I did have an excellent Tuscan one. Once the basil is mixed in, grate in 2 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano and a little more oil (you’ll need to use about 200ml oil in total).
Your pesto is ready.
Now for the pasta and vegetables. I’d bought some lovely slim French beans and I halved them; then I scrubbed and cut into small pieces a couple of new potatoes.
Some recipes had talked about throwing all the vegetables and pasta in together but it seemed to me that something was going to be overdone and something underdone, so I cooked them separately. Thus I cooked my pasta separately (about 100g per serving). Trofie takes quite a while to cook – about 15 minutes – but follow instructions on your packet. I put the potato into boiling salted water and when it was almost cooked, added the beans and cooked until both were cooked through but retained a bite. When everything is ready, add the potatoes, beans and pesto (just about 2 tablespoons of it) to the drained pasta, with a little of the pasta cooking liquid to loosen the whole thing.
Mix it all together gently and then transfer to a serving plate. Grate over a little extra Parmigiano and drizzle over some extra virgin olive oil – and it’s ready to eat!
Oh wow! It was SO good. Trofie and pesto are a heavenly marriage. Trofie is that wonderful kind of pasta, being made from durum what (like orecchiette), that has a good flavour and retains some texture once cooked. The pesto, rich, garlicky, with the creaminess of the pine nuts and freshness of the basil, wrapped itself around the whirls of pasta in perfect harmony. The addition of the beans and potatoes was excellent and transformed this into a substantial supper dish. Sometimes when you set off on the road to one recipe it’s good to be flexible and follow where the culinary path leads you. And you may find, as I did, that you’ve discovered a new and wonderful pasta dish.