When I was in first or second year of school, I decided to try making spaghetti alla genovese, a Ligurian pasta dish with fresh pesto, green beans, and, most unusually, boiled potatoes, in a Home Ec practical exam, using a recipe from one of the Avoca cookbooks. The teachers sniffed a little at the recipe (starch on starch? How is that a balanced meal?); the kitchen technician struggled to find the quantity of basil required (fresh herbs were still relatively tricky to come by back then, believe it or not), and the leaves turned black at the back of the fridge before I even managed to use them, but when the dish was made, and was placed at the end of the unit counter for tasting in its specially picked white pasta bowl, we all agreed that it was a sure-fire winner.
Years later, I was pleased to come across the dish again on holiday in Liguria, and it tasted just as good the second time around. Most importantly, it was gratifying to discover that the addition of boiled spuds hadn’t just been an Irish modification to an Italian favourite… like the obligatory side of chips you get with a portion of lasagne in any pub around Ireland, which I will admit is a pretty delicious – if totally inauthentic and, yes, definitely unhealthy – addition to the canon of starch-on-starch dishes.
But no; it turns out that pasta alla genovese is an Italian classic in its own right and is a plateful of pure, homely comfort. The soft, well cooked pieces of floury potato combine with the pesto & pasta to create a richly savoury, textured sauce that, surprisingly enough, is not heavy in any way. [Nigella Lawson has a recipe for it on her website if you want to try it]. I think that the reason it works so well is that the potato element magnifies & heroes the perfect, complete flavour of the pasta cooking water, which is used to emulsify & silken every pasta sauce in any Italian restaurant that knows their salt.
With a big bagful of peas in the fridge that were more on the starchy, marrowfat side of things than in the first flush of their youth, I decided to test if the starch-on-starch premise would work as well in a pea pesto for pasta, which incidentally would also combine another classic Italian pairing, that is, peas eaten fresh from the pod alongside parings from a hunk of well aged parmesan.
Having podded the peas in a sunny half hour standing at the window sill with a cup of coffee, I simply blitzed them with basil, oil, nuts, parmesan, lemon & some seasoning to make a quick summery sauce for spaghetti with spicy prawns.
PEA & ALMOND PESTO
Although this pea pesto is delicious with pasta, steamed baby potatoes, or as a sort of tapenade for fresh bread, if you’re currently cutting down on carbohydrates (beach bod season; no carbs before Marbs; whatever you’re having yourself), you’ll be pleased to know that this chunky, flavour-packed pesto would be equally good served alongside grilled white fish, meat & barbecued veggie skewers, or dolloped on top of salads. Just don’t serve it with ‘zoodles’ (that is, spiralised courgette), because life’s too short to approximate anything for pasta.
Makes approx. 1.5 cups
100g of fresh podded peas
4 tbsp olive oil
2 inch piece of parmesan, grated
1 large of clove of garlic, peeled & smashed
2 very large handfuls of fresh basil leaves, ie around a large pot plant’s worth
Handful of blanched almonds, chopped
Salt & black pepper
Place the peas in a bowl and add the almonds, garlic, parmesan, garlic and half the olive oil & season. Blend with a hand blender till smooth, or pound with a mortar & pestle if you’re channelling your internal Italian nonna. Add the basil leaves along with the rest of the olive oil and a very generous squeeze of lemon juice and blitz again. Taste it at this point – does it need more garlic, lemon juice or seasoning? Are you happy with the consistency or does it need more oil? Add whatever it requires, stir again, then transfer to a lidded jam jar, cover with a little olive oil and refrigerate until needed for up to three days.
This makes a denser, tapenade style pesto sauce, so be sure to loosen it with a little of the pasta cooking water if you’re serving it with spaghetti. In her brilliant book on Roman cookery, ‘Five Quarters’, Rachel Roddy recommends setting an empty jug near the sink when you’re cooking pasta to remind you not to pour all the liquid away when you’re draining it, as she describes the cloudy, salted liquid that remains in the pan as ‘fundamental in countless dishes’ and ‘if not a secret ingredient, at least a key one’. She adds, ‘It loosens sauces that are too thick, creates an emulsion for others, and for the group of pastas that are inseparable from their condiment, acts as a catalyst and brings the elements together into a ‘sauce’ that is created there and then on the hot pasta.’