I would be first to admit that whipping up a vegetarian dish is far from my normal for a Sunday lunch.
Then again, lunch on Christmas Day 2017 ended up to be meat-free – our Organic and Halal beef supplier provided a joint which had aged far longer than anything I had encountered in my life- it smelled so prominent that we all concluded that our desire to exceed our very own best before date outweighed the risk of eating something which appeared rancid. Seriously stinky.
Little saddens me more that the feeling of having ruined Christmas lunch – something I have achieved, without fail, since I was thirteen. It started off as a gesture to my beloved mother – I really felt she deserved a break from the kitchen at Christmas and should put her feet up, and the tradition kind of stuck for the last 29 years. How I am now showing my age! As the reeking beef joint was wrapped up and unceremonially discarded (not helped by being unseasonably warm that day- even in Yorkshire) – I could not have asked for more considerate guests who took all of this in their stride (even though I was mortified to have lost what I considered to have been la piece de resistance). To Marlini and my family – thanks again for being so understanding and putting up with the super grumpy version of me that day. Even grumpier than normal!
By chance, I had made a sous-vide griddled aubergine and pesto dish as a starter which, coupled with the rest of my Christmas lunch seemed to fill us all quite contently. What it did do, on that day, was reignite my love for the humble aubergine (or eggplant, to my North American friends). In the past, I have had quite a dismal experience of eating aubergine – either undercooked/ chewy, or the polar end of the spectrum – so drenched in oil and greasy (typically in a Moussaka recipe) that it felt like a heart attack in the making. The absorbent qualities of the aubergine are so significant, I am surprised that they are not used to mop up the next oil spill. Exxon/BP – I could have the answer to your problem!
Anyhow, I digress. What I did discover was that when cooked in different way, the flavour can be so pleasant, and the texture succulent and juicy (yet still firm). I got to enjoy aubergine so much that it became a regular addition to my shopping list. Roll on the best part of 2018 (and how on earth did it disappear so quickly?), and it takes me back to Sunday. Unlike Christmas day, I had actually planned to go meat-free and try out my third iteration of a griddled Mediterranean vegetable and pesto pasta dish, and I really think this version was the best yet. Each and every tweak made a subtle yet meaningful difference to this recipe. As I already had an aubergine, courgette, and baby portobello mushrooms at hand, the only extra ingredients to source were those needed to make a homemade pesto. As I always have a stock of pine nuts, olive oil, and parmesan cheese, I just had to remember to add a large bunch of fresh basil leaves to my Ocado order.
So, spoiler alert: I am not Italian. Shocker! There will probably be far better and more authentic basil pesto recipes than my own but what I would ask is, if you have the equipment and ingredients, give this a go. As a fall back, buy a commercially made pesto, but this should really be a last resort. You might be surprised to learn (I sure was) that many commercial pesto offerings use the far cheaper cashew nut (over pine nuts) and will include potato flakes to fill it out. Making pesto at home takes, with a bit of practice, 5 minutes – tops – and you will be grateful that you did. In terms of pasta choice – I went for fusilli, as the pesto, when stirred in carefully will work its way into the grooves of the pasta and really packs a punch in the flavour department.
In terms of preparation, all that is required is to lightly brush the aubergine and courgette, and griddle. The portobello mushrooms were the last of the vegetables to griddle, and certainly didn’t need any addition oil applied. They certainly took in the juices from vegetables which preceded them. If you have a George Foreman grill (or similar), you will be onto a winner in the time-saving department. I am old school and depend on my much-trusted griddle pan – it works for me. Until they make a supersize griddle pan which encompasses my entire hob- be prepared to do these in batches and wrap up in tin foil to keep warm. The benefit of this approach is that you can collect the juice of the vegetables as they slowly ooze out, and definitely add this to the dish as everything gets mixed together.
Finally, and in terms of garnish, remember to reserve a few basil leaves – I finish off this dish with fresh basil, a few pine nuts sprinkled on top with shavings of parmesan and a drizzle of oil – as my tribute to the pesto which is mixed within. I really hope that you give my Fusilli pasta with pesto and griddled Mediterranean vegetables recipe a shot and reach the same conclusion as me – homemade pesto is so much better.
- 1 large aubergine
- 1 large courgette
- 6-8 small Portobello mushrooms
- olive oil
- freshly milled salt and black pepper
- 500g Fusilli Pasta
- 60g pine nuts
- large clove garlic, crushed or grated
- 45g parmesan cheese, chopped or coarsely grated
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 100g bag fresh basil, leaves removed from stalks
- pinch sea salt flakes
- First, prepare the vegetables. Discard top and base of aubergine, then carefully slice into 4mm thick vertical slices.Using a silicone brush, lightly brush one side with olive oil, and season with a little salt and pepper.
- Bring a non-stick griddle pan to medium-high heat, and place the aubergines oiled side down on the griddle. Lightly brush the top side of the aubergine slices, and season gently. Meanwhile, remove the head and tail form the courgette, slice into diagonal slices (about 3mm think), and lighly oil one side.
- After 3-4 minutes, turn over the aubergines for a furher 3-4 minutes, or until the white flesh is soft and darker. When cooked through, transfer to a sheet of kitchen foil and wrap well.
- Next, cook the courgettes in the same way as the aubergines. Whilst the courgette is being griddled, slice the portobello mushroom into 3mm thick slices.
- Transfer the courgette slices to the foil, then griddle the mushrooms (however no need to add any additional oil).
- Meanwhile, bring a large pan af water to the boil, add a pich of salt and a drizzle of olive oil, and cook until al dente.
- Add the pine nuts, grated garlic, and finely chopped parmesan cheese to the mini chopper bowl and blitz.
- Then, add the olive oil and pich of sea salt flakes, and blitz for a few seconds.
- Finally, add all but a few basil leaves (reserving a few for the garnish) and blitz for 30 seconds or so until you have a pesto paste. Please note: you might have to encourage some of the leaves using a spatula so that they get processed by the blade.
- Once cooked, strain the fusilli pasta in a colander. Open up the tin foil, and carefully transfer the aubergine and courgette onto a cutting board and slice into 15-20mm wide slides.
- Transfer the pesto into the drained pasta pain, and carefully add the fusilli, lightly mixing to ensure that that the grooves of the fusilli are getting filled with pesto.
- Add the vegetables, pour in the juice from the foil, and mix thoroughly.
- Serve into pasta bowls and garnish with a few pine nuts, shavings of parmesan, basil leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil.