I made a truly wonderful pasta dish recently. Bright green and healthy looking, it sang with flavour. Do you want to see it? Well, you can't. All you can see is a tantalisingly empty bowl. I meant to take a photo, I really did. But first we had an unexpected dinner guest, the Critic's former boss. So although we didn't get out the good silverware, I did kind of want to keep up appearances of being a semi-normal family that doesn't photograph the food when it reaches the table. I thought, "There's plenty. I can photograph the leftovers tomorrow and no one will be the wiser."
There weren't a lot of leftovers. And I was just absently finishing the last bite and thinking how lovely it was and how wonderful it would be to tell our readers about it...when I remembered the photo. So you'll have to imagine it: twirly bits of pasta glistening with olive oil and basil, a slightly nubbly texture from the nuts and delicious young peas, meaty broad beans, soft rings of leek and tender baby zucchini peeking out from the nooks and crannies.
The Critic asked for seconds, and as regular readers will know he is no vegetable fan. He asked for seconds when there was still meat on his plate. It was that good.
I have to admit that this dish does take a fair amount of time and effort. It's mainly the fault of the broad beans, but I think they add a nice depth of flavour. You could substitute them with another spring vegetable and save some time though.
And although pine nuts are the traditional cornerstone of a pesto sauce I substituted almonds. They brought a sweetness to the pesto that complimented the young vegetables nicely. If you are a traditionalist, though, you can use pine nuts instead.
Pesto, Pasta and Spring Vegetables (serves 3-4 as a side dish, generously)
1 kilo of broad beans, unshelled
500 grams of peas, unshelled
2-3 small zucchini
2-3 small leeks
300 grams of pasta - rottini are good, as they give the sauce something to stick to
1 cup of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup very good olive oil
3 cloves of garlic
100 grams of toasted almonds
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
This recipe is all about shelling. Shell the peas first. Put them in the steamer insert (if you have one) for your medium saucepan. Or put them in a bamboo steamer. The thing is, that you want to cook them gently and retain as much flavour as possible. Before you start cooking them, though, wash the zucchini and cut them into small (one cm) cubes. Toss them over the peas. Then clean the leeks and slice them in thickish rings. Spread them over the zucchini and cook the lot together until the peas smell done (about six minutes) and the leeks are soft. Set them aside.
Shell the broad beans. Put them in a pot of salted boiling water and cook until tender, about six or seven minutes. If they are really young and tender you can just drain them. Mine were a bit big and meaty and so I plunged them in cold water and started shelling the individual beans.
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the packet, probably about 10 minutes to get it al dente.
While the pasta is cooking, make up the pesto sauce. Put the basil, toasted almonds, garlic and half the olive oil in a mini-blender and whizz it for a moment or two. Scrape the lumps off the side of the container and add a bit more olive oil. Whizz it again. Keep going until you have a smooth sauce the consistency you want; it may take a little more olive oil or a little less. Err on the side of generousity, though, as it means more flavour for the pasta and vegetables. And olive oil is relatively healthy anyway.
Toss the vegetables with the pesto and, when done, drain and add the pasta. Toss to coat, add half the grated parmesan and toss again. Before serving, taste to see if it needs a little salt and pepper; it will probably be the better for both. Serve with the remaining parmesan in a bowl and let your guests add as much as they like.
It's a lovely early summer pasta dish, equally good warm or at room temperature.