Pesto Pasta with Chorizo and Artichokes, from James Martin Easy Every Day – Cooking the Books, week 17

This is a book with good memories attached, it’s autographed and came directly from James Martin himself, at the masterclass I was privileged to attend a couple of years ago. For all that, I haven’t cooked from it very much at all – a good time to change that, then! I fancied something light and fresh, and this pasta recipe – particularly with the fresh home-made pesto, really caught my eye.

Pesto ingredientsFirst, you’ll need to make your pesto. You will need –

  • 50g of fresh basil,
  • A large juicy clove of garlic,
  • Three anchovy fillets,
  • A tablespoon of pine kernels,
  • 25g of parmesan, and
  • Olive oil

Toast the pine kernelsIn a dry pan, toast your pine kernels until they’re starting to go golden brown in places. Meanwhile, grate your parmesan cheese.

Now, you can do this the easy way, or the more interesting, but harder way! You can just fling all your ingredients into a food processor, blitz them up and add olive oil until you get the consistency you want. Easy, but boring, and for me the texture leaves a bit to be desired. So I prefer to make my pesto in a pestle and mortar. But don’t even consider this approach if your pestle and mortar isn’t of the very large and heavy variety – the sort that you might use for crushing the occasional fresh spices isn’t going to do the trick here!

Crushed garlic & pine kernelsStart by crushing your garlic roughly, then add the toasted pine kernels and break these up. You should add the anchovies at this stage, but I forgot so mine went in much later! It’s fine, though. Now roughly chop the basil into the mix a handful at a time, along with a bit of the grated parmesan, and a drizzle of oil, and work away at it. Yes, it is hard work, but you’ll get there in the end! Add as much olive oil as you need to get the consistency you want.

Fresh hand-made pestpThis fresh pesto is a beautiful colour – a lovely fresh bright green rather than the slightly brown colour of the stuff from a jar – and even if you’re buying your basil like I had to this time (regretfully, it came all the way from Kenya) and account for the full cost of a tin of anchovies, it still works out comparable in price to the shop bought stuff. Later in the year, when there’s plenty of home-grown basil available, it works out about half the price. So really, it’s a no-brainer.

Cover the pesto very snugly until you’re going to use it (I wrapped it tightly with cling film) – any leftover will keep in the fridge for several days in a jam jar. Pour in a little extra olive oil to form a layer over the surface to exclude all air, as the basil blackens quickly if exposed to oxygen. These quantities are generously enough for four people worth of pasta. I love how the handmade approach leaves variable-sized little bits of recognisable basil leaf in the mix, rather than rendering it all to a homogenous pulp!

Prepared fresh pesto

You can enjoy this pesto just as it is, stirred through freshly cooked pasta, with a sprinkling of parmesan. But I wanted something a little more complex. The recipe for ‘Pesto Pasta with Chorizo and Artichokes’ is on the page next door to the pesto recipe in James Martin’s book – but it’s really just a variation on our family favourite we know as ‘Pasta with Pesto and Stuff’ – where ‘stuff’ will often encompass some combination of bacon, chorizo, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, olives… you get the idea. Perfect for a quick satisfying dinner straight from the store cupboard. What makes this variation special is the wonderful fresh pesto, and the thoughtful combination of additions.

Pesto pasta with chorizo and artichokesTo serve two, you will need –

  • About half a quantity of freshly made pesto (above)
  • 250g good quality dried pasta
  • 100g chorizo sausage
  • 100g artichoke hearts in olive oil
  • Parmesan
  • Salt, pepper, and olive oil

This is a really quick meal, if you’ve made the pesto ahead of time. (You could of course use pesto from a jar, but the result will be more ‘everyday family supper’ than ‘gastro treat’!)

Get a big pan of water boiling rapidly, and add a big pinch of sea salt and a glug of olive oil, before adding the pasta. I’ve said this before, but if you’re not in the habit of buying the really good, Italian, dried pasta, please do give it a go. Yes, it’s about twice as expensive as the supermarket own-brand stuff, but pasta is such a cheap ingredient that you’re really only talking an extra pound, or less, per pack. The difference is really striking – the cooked texture is much better, with a nice bite without going stodgy. The other mistake that many people make when cooking pasta is trying to cook it in too little, under-salted water. Use your biggest pan, the pasta loves plenty of space to move around. And don’t overcook it for goodness’ sake!

Thinly slice your chorizoAs soon as your pasta goes on, thinly slice your chorizo, and fry it gently in a frying pan, turning regularly, until it starts going crispy. Then set aside. Slice your artichoke hearts into segments, if they’re not that way already. Once your pasta is cooked, drain it, reserving about half a mug of the cooking water. Put the cooked pasta back in the pan, and pour over a glug of the seasoned olive oil from the artichoke jar, and toss them around so they don’t stick.

Now, quickly, mix in the pesto (about a desert spoon per person), the fried chorizo and the artichoke hearts, and some of the pasta water if you feel a bit of extra moisture is required. Shave over some nice curls of parmesan (you don’t need a special tool for this, a perfectly ordinary vegetable peeler works just fine!), a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper, and serve immediately.

Pesto pasta ready to serve

Doesn’t it look mouthwatering? It tastes just as good as it looks, with wonderful peppery punchy aromatic freshness from the home-made pesto. Yes, the raw garlic is likely to hang around on the breath for a bit – you could use roast garlic instead but you’d sacrifice the hot bite that it contributes. Don’t leave out the anchovies, please, even if you don’t think you like them – they just augment the salty savouriness of the parmesan cheese (really effectively actually!), there’s nothing ‘fishy’ about this pesto, I promise! The cooked chorizo pieces have a lovely sweetness to them, and the artichoke hearts add a nice mild freshness.

This pesto is, I must admit, very similar to my previous home-made pesto recipe, except for the addition of the anchovies, which is inspired. It’s a small improvement but little incremental variations like this are so often the difference between ‘good’ and ‘fabulous’.

James Martin - cover**
Easy Every Day, by James Martin
Mitchell Beazley, 2012 (paperback edition)
ISBN 978-1-84533-667-7
Soft cover, 304 pages, full colour. RRP £14.99.

[Full disclosure: This book was autographed and given to me as part of a masterclass I attended with James Martin, which was a competition prize in 2012. I suppose, in some respects, it might be considered a review copy! I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

James Martin - page viewThis book is actually a re-collection of recipes from two of James Martin’s older books, ‘Delicious!’ and ‘Eating in with James Martin’. There’s some really good stuff here – from pasta dishes like this one, and risottos, to lovely meat and fish recipes, breads, sweet treats, and even some preserves. There’s also a useful set of menu suggestions at the back, which makes picking three complementary courses for a special dinner a bit of a doddle.

Frontispiece - autographThe editorial slant is towards dishes that don’t require protracted preparation, and while in a lot of cases that gives lovely, simple, fresh results, there are some ingredients in use here, such as prepared tomato-flavoured pasta sauces for pizza toppings, which just feel like a shortcut too far for me; they’re not in my kitchen cupboards, I don’t like them – over-sweet and cloying – and I’m not going to be buying them just because James Martin says so!

That said, this is a minor gripe, really, in what is generally a really excellent collection of approachable recipes with a definite ‘wow’ factor. If you’re looking for a recipe book to help you find the confidence for dinner party entertaining – as well as some very posh family suppers! – this may be a good place to start.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Grow A Taste of the Exotic East – propagate & grow your own lemongrass

It was James Martin, during the masterclass I attended last year, who first whetted my appetite for growing my own lemongrass. Two things were worrying me, though. Firstly, we have cold winters here – it’s usual to get nights down to well below -10C during the winter, and lemongrass is a tropical plant. Secondly, and more prosaically, was where on earth I was going to get hold of a lemongrass plant?

Some months later, with the idea still in the back of my mind, I stumbled across a blog which suggested you could propagate lemongrass successfully from stalks bought for cooking – yep, those rather dry, slightly disappointing bunches of grey-white woody stems from the supermarket. (I regret I didn’t make a note of the blog that inspired me, and I can’t find it now, so can’t give credit.) But the process was very simple.  Immerse your lemongrass stalks in a bit of water, in a vase on a bright window sill. Change the water daily, and wait for it to root. Once you’ve got good roots, plant them out. That’s it.

The lemongrass stemsWell, that sounded like a horticultural challenge at my sort of level! And what was to lose, apart from a quid or so for a bunch of lemongrass. (The observant among you will notice there are two different ‘sets’ of lemongrass stems here – the shorter bunch came from the supermarket, whereas the slightly taller ones came from our local Thai market. Neither cost more than a pound.)

The first thing you’ll see, within a few days, is some fresh green growth emerging from the top of your stems.  Then, after a week or so, with a bit of luck, root buds will appear.  Do change the water for fresh every day (I forgot for a few days and it all got a bit manky, algae-ish and unpromising-looking in there), and try to keep them in a nice bright, warm situation.

Growing nicelyFour weeks later, my stems looked like this (I separated the different sets of stems into two separate pint glasses because they looked a bit crowded as the roots started to grow) with primary and secondary roots showing, and lots of new top-growth. With secondary roots present, I felt pretty confident potting up the lemon grass.

Good root growthI’m surprised – but thrilled – to be able to report that *every single one* of the stems rooted successfully.  The Thai market lemongrass rooted a bit faster than the supermarket stuff – I suspect it was rather fresher! – but a week later, that was ready to pot up, too.

Potted up and in the greenhouseI decided to split the stems up and pot them on into three terracotta pots.  Keep these well watered especially for the first few days, since the roots are pretty puny and they’re used to having all the water they can drink. I kept them on the same sunny window sill for a couple of weeks, as the nights were still rather cold, but now they’re out on the greenhouse staging.

I’m thrilled to see some brand new stems emerging over the past few days.  Of course, I’m anticipating them coming back indoors onto a sunny window sill through the winter – like other warm climate plants like chillies, they don’t appreciate temperatures below 10C, so somehow I can’t see them surviving outside, even in the unheated greenhouse!

New stems emerging

All I can say is – propagating lemongrass like this is cheap, it’s simple, and it works – try it! If you enjoy cooking Thai or other East Asian food, or fusion dishes, there’s nothing better than your very own freshly grown and harvested lemon grass! I can’t wait!

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Cooking with James Martin – pea and watercress soup

Earlier this year, I was privileged to be invited to spend the day ‘Cooking with James Martin’ with a group of other foodies and bloggers.  We enjoyed some amazing dishes, and I did promise at the time to share the recipes with you.  Time has rather run away with me the last few months, but here, belatedly, is the first recipe – ‘Pea and Watercress Soup with Deep Fried Egg’. 

Pea and Watercress Soup, presentation

While we were very kindly provided with recipes after the event, I made notes at the time and my notes and recollections vary from the recipes we were given in various ways – that’s the art, I suppose!  The recipe I present here is closer to what I remember James cooking on the day, than to the ‘official’ recipe.  How much of the miss-match is due to errors and omissions on my part, and how much to revisions on his, I wouldn’t like to say!

This is a beautiful summer soup and an absolutely amazing colour.  James served it with a crispy-on-the-ouside, soft-on-the-inside deep fried soft boiled egg, which was an amazingly ‘cheffy’ touch, but I think the soup would stand up very well without it, if it seems a bit faffy for you.

To make this soup, you will require –

  • 1l of good quality vegetable stock (the nicer the better – but nice bouillon powder would probably do at a pinch)
  • 500g of frozen peas
  • 300g fresh watercress
  • 100g of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 150ml of double cream (see later note)
  • Decent knob of butter
  • Small handfull of asparagus spears (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Blender, either the stick-type hand blender or, for a smoother finish, a food processor blender jug would probably work better

James MartinBlanch the watercress and flat leaf parsley by immersing very briefly in boiling salted water, and then removing straight away.  Squeeze it out in a tea towel to remove as much water as possible and set aside

Now melt the butter in a saucepan (or wide chef’s pan, if you have one), add the shallot and fry gently until translucent.  My recipe mentions some garlic here, but I don’t recall any being used, you could add a minced clove of garlic if you like though!  Once the onion is translucent, add the stock to the pan, along with the peas and chopped asparagus, and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, so that the peas are just soft but still bright vivid green.

Blended soupNow take the pan off the heat, add the blanched watercress and flat-leaf parsley (the recipe also says the cream – I don’t remember any cream but it could well be an oversight on my part!) and blend aggressively until it looks almost luminescent green.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bread-crumbing egg for deep fryingJames soft boiled some eggs (5 minutes), and once cold, peeled and coated in breadcrumbs (flour, egg wash and then crumbs) before deep frying until golden brown.  The egg adds a lovely richness and texture balance to the final dish, but for me, thinking about this as a dish to cook at home, the deep frying was a flourish too far. I think floating a poached egg in the soup would achieve a very similar effect.

Bring the soup up to temperature, without boiling, and serve in your prettiest bowls, placing the egg in the centre.  James added some crispy fried bacon bits, which add a nice crunch and salty-savoury note.  You could add a sprinkle of crispy breadcrumbs or small croutons to increase the crunch if you liked – particularly if you’re skipping the crunchy deep-fried egg.  The finished effect, it struck me at the time, is very much ‘ham, egg and peas’, but taken apart and put back together again all fresh and inside-out!  The final presentation flourish is celery cress & coriander cress, sprinkled over.  They don’t sell celery cress or coriander cress in my local co-op, and it’s the wrong time of year to sprout my own, so I suppose I’ll have to make do with a few reserved flat-leaf parsley leaves!

Really Important Note – You know that ghastly grey-green colour and slightly odd sulphurous odour that tinned peas have? This soup depends for it’s amazing colour and fresh flavour on absolute freshness and minimal cooking.  It will not re-heat!  Well, not without turning grey.  So don’t prepare it in advance and expect it to be any good re-heated for your dinner party.  You have been warned!

If thats got your appetite going, have a look at the collected James Martin recipe posts, here…

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Cooking with James Martin – a little taste of the treats on offer!

Our day at Food at 52  with James Martin was in two halves.  Our participation was called for in the morning as we were pressed into service as a rag-tag team of commis chefs in the preparation of the first three dishes – which made up our menu for lunch.  James guided and instructed and was only occasionally scathing of our efforts!

In the afternoon, already replete with amazing food, and enjoying a nice drop (or two!) of Sauvignon Blanc, we got to sit back and relax as James prepared a further six dishes while we watched, asked questions, and then struggled despite our already full bellies to taste all his wonderful creations.

Here’s a quick whizz through the wonderful dishes we tasted – hopefully I’ll be able to post some recipes in due course!

Lunch Menu

Thai crab risottoThai crab risotto – This was the first dish we tasted and was definitely one of the stand-out recipes of the day for me.  It has amazing complex & multi-layered flavours in exquisite balance, and despite how much is ‘going on’ in this dish somehow manages to taste crisp and clean and not at all muddled.  James described this as his ‘signature dish’ and I can completely see why – it knocks every risotto I’ve ever tasted into a cocked hat!

Smoked haddock rarebitSmoked haddock rarebit with confit tomatoes – An unusual twist on a Welsh rarebit, with the cheese-based layer built on top of a lovely naturally smoked haddock fillet.  Served with a confit tomato salad (which will definitely be making it into my culinary repertoire) it’s a lovely dish for an English summer’s day, balancing the clean crisp flavours of the tomatoes with the comforting warmth of smoked fish and grilled cheese.

Hot chocolate mousseWarm chocolate mouse with banana ice cream & custard – The freshly made ‘last minute’ banana ice cream is actually the star of this dish for me.  It’s packed with really distinct flavours and heaps of texture.  Perhaps it’s because I’m not that much of a chocoholic – the chocolate pudding is tasty, and gooey in the middle, but very similar to things I’ve had before.  The custard involved a lot of hard work, and is clearly something I should master, but I’m not that much of a custard fan and I’m not convinced it adds that much when you already have the gorgeous banana ice cream.

Demonstration Dishes

Pea and watercress soupPea and watercress soup served with a deep-fried egg – This soup is an amazing colour (no Photoshop trickery here!) and has a lovely fresh pea flavour.  I’ll certainly be playing with this soup recipe at home, though I have to admit to being a bit mystified by the soft boiled egg crumbed and deep-fried and served in the centre in a style – I’m afraid – a bit reminiscent of the famous Australian ‘meat pie floater’! It’s a dramatic ‘cheffy’ touch to finish the dish but I’m not entirely convinced it adds anything that a poached egg wouldn’t in terms of flavour (in fact I suspect I’d prefer the latter) and the crispy texture it imparts is duplicated in the streaky bacon garnish.  Think ham and egg with peas, but all taken apart and put back together again!

Pea and watercress soupLamb with chilli pickle – This is a great little dish, James described it as ‘bar food’ and it would be ideal for nibbles with drinks, but also makes a lovely light lunch or supper dish if you’re looking to impress someone!  Great fresh flavours with a lovely crisp tang from the freshly prepared pickled vegetables, and the lovely tender pink lamb loin is the perfect counterpoint.

Cod cheeks with tartar sauceVodka-and-tonic battered cod cheeks with tartare sauce – The batter was an unusual concoction, with the cocktail-cupboard ingredients and made ‘live’ with yeast, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  It fries up lovely and crisp and keeps the cod cheeks gorgeous and moist.  The freshly made tartare sauce is the first such I’ve ever actually liked!  I don’t batter and deep-fry much, but it looks like a  great party-piece!  I can imagine diving into a big bowl of this with a load of friends around a table, perhaps with some slightly spiced potato wedges.

Seared tuna with 'Japanese slaw'Seared tuna in spiced apricot marinade with ‘Japanese slaw’ – A beautiful dish to look at on the plate with some lovely flavours – there’s an almost North African vibe with the fruit & spice flavours.  By this stage in the tasting I was really struggling to eat another bite, but was very glad I did.  We don’t often cook fresh tuna at home but I will certainly adapt this marinade next time we do, as it just lifts that slightly bland character it can have while letting the flavour still shine through.

And now for some desert!  We now felt so full we could pop…

Strawberry cheesecakeStrawberry vanilla cheesecake – James introduced us to this dish, which is one that he developed for Thomas Cook‘s refreshed airline menu.  This is a wonderful quick simple & impressive little desert which you can imagine being able to adapt almost infinitely with different fruits in season and flavours in the cheesecake mix & biscuit crumb.  I particularly liked that this wasn’t an over-sweet dish, letting the flavours of the fresh English strawberries and the slightly acid-note from the cheese shine through.  It isn’t at all cloying and has an almost palate-cleansing quality, nice and fresh – just the thing when you’d eaten quite as much as we had!  All in all a great little dish and definitely another one for the repertoire!

Cheat's GateauxLast, but quite definitely not least, James’ rather marvellously named Bullshit (or “Cheat’s”, for polite company!) Gateaux seems quite the work of patissier’s art.  Just look at it!  In fact it’s startlingly simple – well, for the most part! There’s a story behind this cake – and the name – which I hope to share with you soon..!

For the time being here’s a little snapshot of the man himself doing some of his famous sugar-craft!

Sugar spinning

I hope this has really whetted your appetite for more details of these dishes – writing about them and going through the photos has certainly made me hungry!  I can safely say it’s the most amazing day’s foodie indulgence I’ve enjoyed in a very long time.  I can’t wait to experiment some more with the recipes and let you know how I got on!

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Cooking with James Martin – some initial thoughts & photos!

The big day was today – I’m finally back home from London (seriously, Londoners, how do you survive the Tube these days?!) exhausted but seriously excited about today’s cullinary adventure!  The competition winners met up with famous chef James Martin at the ‘Food at 52‘ cookery school in Clerkenwell, and he spent the day sharing with us some of the tricks of his trade and feeding us until we nearly popped (while he himself seemed to survive on a diet of Diet Coke and Red Bull!).  The whole event was thanks to Thomas Cook, with whom we heard James had been collaborating on aeroplane catering.

James Martin

There are recipes and tips to share with you, and we’ll get to those in due course (probably once I’ve re-cooked at least some of the recipes to iron out quantities etc!) but I just wanted to share a few initial ‘teaser’ photos featuring some of the marvellous ingredients we got to ‘play’ with today.

Brown crab  Ingredients  More ingredients

It’s also been a great opportunity to meet other keen cooks and bloggers, and I hope some fun things will come of that in the future, too!

Look forward to more blogging on the subject once I’ve had a good night’s sleep (perhaps several!) and caught up on myself a little!

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