I first ate this dish whilst travelling around Europe when I was eighteen and very carefree! My sister and I had met a group of mainly Italians and one Spanish whilst at a bar in Nice! Back then, my Italian was very minimal, but my sister, who had been living in Italy, was very capable of speaking all night to this lively group, who soon became friends as we continued to another bar all together. One couple in the group offered us to stay with them when we got to Milan, and as you do when you're 18 and 22, you accept graciously with no qualms! When we arrived to grey and frosty Milan, we were welcomed into the tiny apartment of Laura and Davide. To this day we are still great friends and I am sure to visit them whenever I am back in Italy – a fortunate encounter!
Davide, who hailed from Ventimiglia in Liguria, made us Pasta alla Genovese, a typical dish from his region. I had never tasted anything quite like it – with the salty and vibrant pesto, the creamy potatoes and snappy beans paired with the most perfectly cooked pasta! This soon became a staple for lunches when I returned home, and it still makes me think of Wintry Milan, although it should probably make me think of Genova....But that's the think about food, isn't it?! Food brings with it memories that are so personal and not at all always attached to the origin of the dish but instead of the people you meet, or a season or some other place.
This dish usually adds beans too, which could be substituted with broccoli or cavolo nero. You would simply add whichever green you choose a few minutes before you drain the potatoes and pasta. I often don't have pine nuts at home as they tend to go rancid quite quickly so for this reason I used hazelnuts in the pesto, which, as well as almonds, is actually what I often prefer to make my pesto with. Sometimes, I also add lemon zest into my pesto, which can lift the pesto a little. Just taste as you go and trust yourself, you'll know if it needs a little zing! Enjoy!
FOR THE PESTO
1 bunch of basil (try and get the Genovese variety)
1 large handful of roasted hazelnuts
2 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
50g of Pecorino and Parmesan each (or 100g of one if you prefer)
A few big lugs of extra virgin olive oil
FOR THE PASTA
400g pasta (for this dish, I find pasta like spaghetti or linguine works best, or short rolled pasta like strozzapreti)
2 large potatoes, peeled and quartered
250g green beans, topped and tailed
Extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of half a lemon (optional)
1. To make the pesto, place all ingredients except the olive oil in a food processor and blitz on a low speed until creamy. Slowly add the olive oil, keeping an eye on consistency. I haven't given precise oil measurements as you may need to add more or less, but remember this will be the sauce for your pasta, so it shouldn't be too dry. If you don't have a food processor, you can use a mortar and pestle or even just a board and a knife, although it will be a little rougher, but that's fine! Set aside.
2. Place the potatoes in a large pot of salted water and bring to the boil. Simmer for about 8-10 minutes or until almost cooked through. Add the pasta and cook for a further 8 minutes or until the pasta is al dente and the potatoes are cooked through. If using the beans, add these in the last 3 or so minutes of the cooking time. The potatoes should be almost soft, the pasta al dente and the beans just tender.
3. Drain the potatoes, pasta and beans, reserving some of the pasta water. Return to the pot or a large bowl and add some of the pesto, stirring to coat. Keep adding the pesto, little by little until the pasta is adequately coated, reserving the remaining pesto for another use. If the pasta is too try, add some of the pasta water to loosen it a little. Serve immediately with extra parmesan, a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice if using.