Well, how do I begin to describe my love for pesto? The smell of the basil, the slight grittiness of the parmesan, the smoky creaminess of the toasted pine nuts. It seems such a miraculous harmony of delicious ingredients. I would go as far to say it’s my favourite food. Savoury food that is – my favourite pudding is a whole other (lengthy) conversation.
I make pesto relatively regularly, and yet this is the first time I’ve actually measured the ingredients before throwing them in. Usually I just add things bit by bit until it tastes like it has the right balance – and I always need to make more than I need because all of these ‘tastes’ are, inevitably, large spoonfuls. This meal, of pasta with pesto and pancetta (or bacon), is both my default comfort food and my default quick, easy yet impressive dinner party food.
As I was taking photos of a dish so dear to my heart, I decided to trawl the local charity shops to find a suitable plate on which to show if off. I found this retro, fluted triumph at a very unassuming charity shop for a very reasonable £1.50. It’s the sort of plate that would have once been a proud member of a set to grace a dinner table back in the day, but now has been discarded in favour of more minimal, neutral patterns. However, it works perfectly for this dish, as the red patterning complements the bright green of the pesto.
I frequently like to play a game with myself along the lines of desert-island discs called desert-island meals. Disregarding all notions of nutrition/what would help you survive on said island, fresh pasta would have to be on the list (along with pesto, chocolate mousse, and some sort of salad to keep Mum happy). Realistically, it would be the last thing I would want to eat if being marooned on an island did actually happen. Not to mention the unlikelihood of having a convenient pasta maker to hand. But, logistics aside, it really is something that I would be happy to eat until the end of my days.
Fresh pasta is a different thing entirely from dried pasta. Yes, it is a bit of an effort to make – the mixing, kneading, resting, rolling takes time – but I’m always convinced that it’s worth it in the end. A pasta maker is pretty much a necessity to get the dough thin enough – I tried it once with just a rolling pin, and it was disappointingly thick and chewy. You need reinforcements in the form of willing volunteers to help coax the pasta through the rollers. I had three helpers to hold the ever-lengthening sheet of dough. If you are Italian, maybe you can do it single-handedly, but this would be quite a feat.
I sometimes serve the pasta with homemade pesto, but it really doesn’t need much embellishment. This time I went for parmesan, olive oil, salt, pepper and a few basil leaves. A green salad was meant to be an accompaniment, but having got so involved with making the pasta I completely forgot about it, so we had a salad course afterwards.
Going completely vegetarian has always been a non-starter for me, as the second I contemplate cutting out meat I immediately begin fantasizing about chargrilled steak. However, at university I went through a semi-vegetarian phase. I started buying better quality meat, and consequently, as I was an impoverished student, eating much less of it.
I think vegetarian meals force you to be a bit more inventive and imaginative. It forces you to think outside the meat-and-two-veg box. Instead of relying on meat as the star of the meal, and everything else as secondary, meals become a collection of equally important elements.
This is one of the things I cooked a lot during my effort to eat less meat. I’ve always been a devoted fan of pasta, and peas for that matter, so I liked this dish before I’d even tried it.
Blending the peas with goats’ cheese and a hit of garlic into a creamy sauce works along the pesto lines of yumminess, whilst the rocket adds a peppery freshness. If you’re one of those individuals who absolutely can’t resist adding meat to everything, top with some pieces of streaky bacon, fried to a crisp.