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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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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Exciting news – and a bit of a tease!

A little while ago, I entered a recipe competition with a variation on my jerk marinade, thinking ‘here goes nothing!’.  Last weekend, I received an email – I nearly deleted the winning notification – I mean, what else do you do with emails which start ‘CONGRATULATIONS!’ and go on to tell you you’ve won something??

1st Prize!

I was a bit gobsmacked, truth be told.  I’m the sort of person who never wins anything – not even a colouring competition when I was a kid!  In fact, the only thing I’ve ever won was a Blue Peter Badge (those of you outside the UK will have to look that one up!).

So, one day next week, I get to travel to a secret London location and spend the day enjoying a masterclass with one of my favourite celebrity chefs!  How cool is that??

I’m so excited about this (does it make me a prize-winning food writer, I wonder?) and can’t wait to share all the details & photos with you all after the event!

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