The Daily Spud

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Spud Sunday: Pesto People

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.

Basil leaves

Basil, the not-on-my-windowsill Italian kind

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.

Basil fields

Basil, basil everywhere:
fields of basil on the Amateis farm in the province of Alessandria in northern Italy - the Amateis family have been supplying basil and other leaf vegetables to Saclà since the 1980s

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).

Pasta with red pepper pesto

Pasta with the obligatory basil garnish:
orecchiette with spicy red pepper pesto and ricotta as served during lunch at Casa Saclà

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.

Basil cutter

The basil cutter approacheth

Basil cutting

Harvesting the basil: the basil plants are cropped like this four times during the growing season.
One hectare of basil will supply enough for around 580,000 jars of pesto.

Basil cropped

This is pesto, unplugged

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?

Pasta alla Genovese

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.

You’ll need:

  • 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.

The Steps:

  • 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.

The Variations:

  • 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).

The Results:

  • Serves around 4

Rocket And Sunflower Seed Pesto

Pasta on fork

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.

You’ll need:

  • 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
  • salt

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.

The Steps:

  • 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.

The Variations:

  • 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.

The Results:

  • Makes approx. 325g pesto, enough for 6-8 servings of pasta.

22 Comments

  1. Standing in a field of freshly cut basil must smell like summer, pepper and heaven. Not necessarily in that order.

    Approacheth is a very good word:)

    You can cook me potatoes and pasta and put them on the same plate any time you want.

  2. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Hey Jenni, indeed it does smell of all of those things, not in any order but all at once! And I would happily cook you a plate of potatoes and pasta any time, but of course you already knew that :)

  3. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    Indeed so Brian, I couldn’t agree more!

  4. Looking out at the rain, the basil fields are already a distant memory – but what a memory! I love this dish, it’s a favourite with my kids. You’ve inspired me to put it on the menu this week!

  5. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    What a memory indeed Kristin, can’t believe we were in Italy this time last week! I love this dish too (well I would say that :)) – I think it’ll be featuring on my menu (again) for this week too.

  6. I can almost smell the basil through your photos – no better fragrance in the world!! Lovely post, glad you had such a nice time. It looks like a dream trip :).

  7. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks Clare, it was a bit of a dream trip alright – so sorry you couldn’t make it!

  8. Daily Spud

    Monday, July 2, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    Ay, we’ve been truly spoiled Caroline. Any basil coming our way will now suffer by comparison with the Alessandria experience!

  9. Ah, the basil looks really refreshing and so enticing, I can almost smell the aroma wafting out of the picture. And yes, pesto and potatoes do go very well together. Baked potatoes with pesto is a personal favourite.

  10. Daily Spud

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Hello there London Caterers and trust me when I say that the basil was doubly enticing in person (or should that be in plant? :) ) And now that you’ve mentioned the idea, I think I’ll be having one of those baked potatoes with pesto very soon.

  11. Yup! Some recipes are never complete without that leafy thing on the sides, that is Basil. I would love to grow my own Basil plant in a little plant box beside my window sill. I am not much of a garden type of woman, but I would love a mini-herb garden.
    Your recipes look fantastic!

  12. Daily Spud

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    Why thank you, myfudo. I know how you feel about basil – for some things – pesto is one and tomatoes are another – it just seems indispensable. Hope you get to have your mini-herb garden some day!

  13. Lovely to live vicariously through this trip – loved the images of the basil cutting machine – amazing. Someday hope to re-visit beautiful Italy where I lived for a year – many moons ago – and of course, basil is one of my most favourite – can’t wait to try the recipes – wonderful photographs.
    Sounds like you all had a great time.

  14. Daily Spud

    Friday, July 6, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Aw thanks Lisa, glad you enjoyed a bit of vicarious travel and I think I can safely say that we all had a wonderful time!

  15. I’ve been watching your Instagram photos in awe. What an incredible trip! Basil is one thing that I have never seen in this much abundance. It is all so interesting. So glad you shared, and I’m fine with some pasta and pesto with my potatoes.

  16. Daily Spud

    Saturday, July 7, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Hey Lori! It was an incredible trip and I had certainly never seen anything like that much basil in one place before – it sure makes for one hell of a lot of pesto :)

  17. Ehhhh, italian basil is italian basil! :D

  18. Daily Spud

    Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 10:04 pm

    Why yes, Veru, indeed it is!

  19. Easily one of my favourite pasta. Fresh basil with garlic and parmesan. Italy!

  20. I never thought of mixing pasta with genovese sauce. It is delicious. Thanks for posting this recipe.

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