Pasta and pesto makes the perfect quick dinner, and I’m really pleased that the lovely Alberto has given me his recipe for a Sicilian version. I’ve got no end of cookbooks, but there’s something particularly nice about a recipe that’s begged for, scribbled on a piece of paper and passed on after a delicious meal. I acquired this one as part of a food swap, in which Paul and I gave a bit of a breadmaking lesson in return for gnocchi and pesto. You can’t argue with a deal like that.

With the same herby, garlicky potency as a common or garden basil pesto, this recipe is lighter and fresher in flavour, and is more of a sauce than an oily paste. It makes a lovely change, and is very easily made in a large mixing bowl with a stick blender.

Alberto’s used to cooking for huge numbers of people at once and says that the recipe below should do for four to six people with pasta or gnocchi, but I’ve just made it with all the quantities halved and I reckon that even that will serve four. It should keep for a couple of days in the fridge.

Sicilian pesto

150g basil leaves
200g parmesan/grana padano/ricotta – use a combination, according to taste, to make up 200g
4 garlic cloves
100ml extra-virgin olive oil
4 red peppers
4 medium tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
100g pine nuts

Optional additions:
100g rocket
100g feta

  1. Drizzle the peppers with a little oil and roast until the skin starts to blacken in places – I did this in an oven at 220°C for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool, then remove and discard the stalks and seeds.
  2. While the peppers are in the oven, lightly toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan.
  3. Put all the ingredients in a bowl and blend to a smooth sauce with a stick blender; obviously you could do this in a food processor instead. If your blender’s not up to much, it might be best to blend the basil, cheese, garlic and olive oil first, then add the other ingredients and blend again.
  4. Check the seasoning; I stirred in a little finely grated parmesan now, as well as adding salt, but it depends on the cheeses you’ve used.
  5. Serve with hot pasta or gnocchi, scattered with a little more parmesan.

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I suppose I should admit that although I have been cooking plenty of things from the new Ottolenghi book (see ‘A Woman with a Plan’, below), finding the time to write about them has been more of a challenge. I really need to get back into the habit; it doesn’t help that my camera’s broken.

Anyway, I accidentally had a dinner party last night. It wasn’t in my usual style, which involves planning for weeks and keeping the night before free for cooking (and the night before that for shopping). Finding myself in possession of some actual ingredients, for a change, and with my friend Claire coming round to join Paul and me for the France/Uruguay match and a bite to eat, I decided to whip up some spaghetti with homemade pesto, followed by Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings. It might have been nutritionally deficient – although doesn’t basil count as one of your ‘five a day’? It’s green, after all – but it did the job.

I usually make pesto by blitzing the ingredients in my mini food-processor, but Paul gets great results following Jamie Oliver’s advice from The Naked Chef: bashing it all up in a pestle and mortar is the way to get the best flavour from the basil, apparently. Jamie recommends a quarter clove of garlic, chopped (although I used a whole small clove), bashed up with three good handfuls of fresh basil. You’d be amazed how quickly the leaves reduce down to almost nothing when pounded… I think I’d make a double quantity next time. Next, add a handful of lightly toasted pine nuts, and continue to bash. (This is when you realise that your pestle and mortar is entirely inadequate in size.) A good handful of grated Parmesan goes in next, with enough olive oil to bind the sauce, and then seasoning. I know I should be using vegetarian Parmesan, by the way, but cheese has always been the weak point in my otherwise pretty strict vegetarianism. I really should look into the vegetarian Parmesan alternatives. I’m not a giant hypocrite, honest.

Tossed with hot spaghetti, the pesto made quite a tasty supper. For me, the downside of bashing rather than blitzing is that the basil leaves are wilted but stay almost intact rather than being chopped to a pulp, so the basil bit of the sauce doesn’t coat every strand of pasta as a more conventionally made pesto would. Still nice, though.

As more beer was drunk, a pudding seemed more and more necessary. Nigel Slater’s hot chocolate puddings (from The Kitchen Diaries) have been a favourite of mine for a few years now – it seems such a luxurious treat to have a hot chocolate pudding, but it really doesn’t take many ingredients or much time to make them. With dark chocolate (it’s worth going for the best you can get – I made up the total with Green & Black’s and some M&S Easter chocolate I still had in the house, for some reason), eggs, caster sugar, butter, and a drop of chocolate hazelnut spread, along with maybe half an hour maximum, you’re all done. Yum. The recipe serves four, which gave me the perfect excuse to have one for breakfast.