Gracious, whatever is the Daily Spud coming to? Not only do we have Spud-Sunday-on-a-Monday again (oops, yes, too much out-and-abouting by the blogger-in-chief will do that) but what’s all of this pasta and pesto business? Never fear, I am still a spud lover at heart (as if you doubted it for a second) and I promise that the pasta, pesto and potatoes will all live quite happily together in the end.
I finally did it.
I threw out the three sad, barely alive basil plants that have been languishing on my windowsill for months. It was really the only course of action, having been, not six days ago, to see the lush green basil fields of Alessandria in Italy. Even in their prime, no basil grown on my windowsill was ever likely to compare.
I did consider scooping up a truckload of Italian basil to bring back with me (and it would have been some fun trying to explain that one to the customs officers if I’d had), but, in the end, I settled for the fact that, until such time as I restock my windowsill with new basil plants, I can at least take myself to the nearest supermarket and buy a jar (or several) of pesto made from that Italian basil, and no passport required. Indeed, it was pesto and specifically Saclà – who produce a whopping 40 million jars of the stuff every year, or around 150,000 jars per day – which had brought me to northern Italy and the basil fields in the first place.
Come see the basil fields in June, she had said. I was too busy mentally packing my bag to hear the rest of the sentence, but it might possibly have included mention of sun, sea and cocktails. The ‘she’ in question was Clare Blampied, Managing Director of Saclà UK and the woman responsible for bringing pesto to the supermarket shelves of Britain some 21 years ago (and thence to Ireland a couple of years later). For something that seems so commonplace now, it can be hard to conceive of a time when pesto wasn’t a store cupboard staple in this part of the world.
The parent Italian company – based in the town of Asti in Piemonte – was founded over 70 years ago by the Ercole family, who still run the business today. We had the pleasure of meeting Chiara Ercole, grandaughter of founders Piera and Secondo Ercole, at a lunch featuring Saclà products hosted in the restored and refurbished Ercole family home, Casa Saclà in Asti (though lunch seems an altogether inadequate word for delights like sautéed squid with grilled pepper sauce and ombrina – a Mediterranean fish, not unlike sea bass – with slow-baked tomatoes and black olives, which were prepared for us by chefs Sandra Strocco and Massimiliano Musso of Michelin-starred Ristorante Ca’ Vittoria).
Saclà’s products are now found in 50+ countries worldwide and include lots of things that come in jars besides pesto. They are the Italian market leader in olives, pickled vegetables and antipasti, and they have recently added dried pasta, pesto’s natural partner, to their range. But pesto – and most especially the classic basil variety – is a signature product, and the basil fields their brand ambassadors.
Along with a cohort of fellow bloggers and press folk, we toured the Amateis farm – one of the main suppliers of basil to Saclà – and inhaled the aroma of freshly cropped basil. Of course, opening a jar of pesto is never going to have quite the same effect as standing in the green summer fields of basil or of dining alfresco in the shade on breads, cheeses, tomatoes and those just-cut basil leaves. No indeed. There are some things that you just can’t put in a jar. The closest I might get to it at home is to acquire some new basil plants for my windowsill and hope for a break in the interminable rain. I am therefore especially grateful to our fabulous hosts, Clare Blampied of Saclà and Sue Wilkins of Panache PR, for the opportunity to travel to Italy and to experience the basil fields, and a wealth of Italian warmth and hospitality, at first hand. Grazie mille.
Pasta Alla Genovese
This pesto business is all very well, but what, you might ask, about potatoes? It should come as no great surprise to any potatophile that pesto works just as well with spuds as with pasta, whether swirled through mash or perhaps drizzled over some newly steamed new potatoes. More significant in my book, however, is that if you should go to Genoa – the home of classic Genovese basil pesto, featuring pinenuts, parmesan, olive oil and garlic, along with all of that basil – you will find that traditional pasta alla Genovese combines pasta, potatoes and some green beans, not just in one dish, but in one pot, and marries them together with some Genovese pesto. Really, could a dish get more perfect than that?
Below, then, is my version of the Genovese classic, which might feature somewhat more potato than traditional, but that, you will be unsurprised to hear, is how I roll. And for those who baulk at the idea of pasta and potatoes on the same plate, all I can say is don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Your average citizen of Genoa is, one presumes, likely to agree.
The preparation of the dish is simplicity itself. The idea is that you can cook it all in a single pot, with potatoes in first, then pasta then beans. You just need to pay a little bit of attention to the length of time each component needs to cook so that you don’t end up overcooking one or undercooking the other. I found that if I cut my potatoes into approx. 2cm chunks, they would be tender after about 10 minutes of boiling, which was also the length of time that the pasta I used took to cook, while the beans needed half that time or less.
As to the choice of pasta to use, the traditional pasta shapes for this dish would be trenette (a long pasta, slightly thinner than linguine) or trofie (which are like short, twisted gnocchi) and neither of which I could reasonably expect to find in my local shops. I, therefore, used tagliatelle (because that’s what I could find), though of course you can throw in other pasta shapes while the pasta police aren’t looking.
- 500g potatoes
- salt for the boiling water
- 1-2 lightly crushed cloves of garlic for the boiling water (optional)
- 300g dried pasta (I used tagliatelle, but see comments above)
- 200g fine green beans, chopped into 2-3cm lengths
- 175g pesto or more, according to taste – use classic Genovese basil pesto or try non-traditional rocket and sunflower seed pesto (see recipe below)
- grated parmesan cheese for sprinkling (optional)
You’ll also need:
- A saucepan large enough to accommodate the pasta and potatoes.
- Peel your potatoes and cut into approx. 2cm chunks.
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and add salt – I add about 1 tsp of salt for each 750ml of water – and a couple of lightly crushed cloves of garlic if using.
- When the water is boiling, add the potato chunks. For pasta that needs around 10 minutes to cook, add it to the saucepan now – if it needs less time, wait a few minutes before adding it.
- After about 6 minutes, add the green beans to the saucepan. Cook for another 4 minutes or until the pasta is al dente, the potatoes tender and the beans cooked.
- Drain the contents of the saucepan but reserve about 250ml of the cooking liquid.
- Mix your pesto with about an equal amount of the reserved cooking liquid, then add to the pasta, mix through and serve. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese if you feel so inclined.
- You can, of course, vary the pesto you use (see pesto recipe below) or perhaps use baby new potatoes instead of the potato chunks (you may need to adjust your cooking times. allowing a little more time for the baby potatoes to cook, according to size).
- Serves around 4
Rocket And Sunflower Seed Pesto
Just as there are oodles of recipes out there on the net for classic basil pesto, so will you also find oodles of variations on the pesto theme. I’m particularly fond of sunflower seeds – which have a pleasantly nutty flavour when toasted – and will use them, at different times of year, to make a pesto in combination with kale or wild garlic or, as here, peppery rocket.
I dislike pesto that’s too oily and, relative to other recipes you’ll see, I don’t add a great deal of oil. You can always add more if that’s to your taste and adjust the relative quantities of the other ingredients as you see fit.
- 75g sunflower seeds
- 125g rocket leaves, washed, any tough stalks removed and roughly chopped
- 1 small clove garlic, very finely chopped
- 50g parmesan cheese, finely grated
- 100ml extra virgin olive oil (or more, to taste)
- 2-3 tsp lemon juice
- zest of half a lemon
You’ll also need:
- A large frying pan for toasting the sunflower seeds and a mortar and pestle or food processor for blending the pesto.
- Place your pan over a medium heat. Add the sunflower seeds and toast, stirring or tossing frequently, until they are starting to brown, around 5-8 minutes.
- Pound together the toasted sunflower seeds, rocket leaves and chopped garlic in a mortar and pestle or whiz them up in a food processor.
- Stir in the grated parmesan, then gradually add the olive oil and mix to a paste. Add lemon juice and lemon zest to taste and salt if you think it needs it.
- Use on pasta, in mash, on a baked potato, spread on a sandwich or in whatever other way takes your fancy. Store what you don’t use in the fridge, covered with a thin film of olive oil.
- You can try varying several of the pesto components according to what you have and like e.g. trade sunflower seeds for walnuts, rocket for parsley, and olive oil for, say, a good quality Irish rapeseed oil (I’m thinking Derrycama rapeseed oil with lemon might be worth a shot). For classic Genovese pesto, of course, it’s basil leaves and pinenuts all the way.
- Makes approx. 325g pesto, enough for 6-8 servings of pasta.