Pesto Manifesto

When to comes to food, I’ve never believed that authenticity is paramount. Like language, cuisines evolve. I spent quite a while bemoaning text speak, lols and so on but came to realise that, while it might not be how I choose to express myself, it all makes perfect sense to plenty of people. Everything is in motion and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

What does piss me off, linguistically and culinarily, is when definitions are stretched to the point of meaninglessness.  “Literally” was a useful word, goddamit! And so was “pesto”.

spinach blue cheese hazelnut pesto

I remember when pesto first became a thing in the UK (a good couple of decades before saying “a thing” became a thing). I was in my teens and it blew my mind. Before too long along came “red pesto” made with sundried tomatoes (they were still pretty exciting back then too). But these days so many things get called “pesto” it’s hard to keep up.

Sacla, the best known manufacturer here and, almost undoubtedly, suppliers of my first pesto fix, now make 12 different varieties, not including the “free from” and organic versions.

Results of a recent trip to the supermarket...

Results of a recent trip to the supermarket...

The internet is also full of version using everything from kale to Brazil nuts. I even found a couple of of people touting recipes for “sweet pesto”.

The people of Liguria must surely disapprove? The north-western Italian province is pesto’s spiritual home. They like the stuff so much they have a bi-annual competition to see who makes the best. 

But no truffles or chargrilled aubergines for them. Ligurian pesto must be made by hand, with pestle and mortar, using only basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pecorino and parmesan cheeses.

No doubt delicious but perhaps a little restrictive. The word “pesto” is derived from the Italian for “pounded” so, technically, any sort of paste is a pesto. But that’s going too far the other way for me though towards meaninglessness. A look at the ingredients on all those different Sacla jars reveals little common ground.

Alan Davidson, in the indispensable Oxford Companion To Food notes that “Sometimes other nuts are used, walnuts perhaps or in the small port of Camogli, hazelnuts.” Also: “A full discussion my be found in Plotkin.”

This Plotkin chap - Fred -  of whom I was previously unaware, turns out to be a much-feted American food writer and expert on Italy. His book Recipes From Paradise contains 16 different pesto recipes including one bulked out with spinach “for when basil is costly” and versions without nuts or dairy.

They still all contain basil though and I think I am willing to be even more fluid on this point.

I have therefore come up with my own Pesto Manifesto:
Anything I am going to refer to as “pesto” must contain three thing: something green, some nuts and some cheese. That’s it.

Having decided this when it came to lunchtime today and my foragings in the fridge and cupboards turned up some spinach, blue cheese and hazelnuts I decided I was within my rights to call the resultant concoction a pesto. I ate it with yet more courgetti and a tomato salad. It was pretty tasty so I think I can live with a little Ligurian disapproval.

spinach blue cheese hazelnut pesto

Spinach, Blue Cheese And Hazelnut Pesto (serves 2)


  • large handful of spinach
  • 40g blue cheese (I used Blue d’Auvergne)
  • 50g chopped roasted hazelnuts
  • 1 garlic clove
  • juice and zest of half a lemon


  1. Put everything in a food processor with some black pepper and blend to desired consistency. I like it with discernable nuttiness. Taste for salt and add more if needed.
  2. Serve with courgette spaghetti or, hell, the real thing, a good gr and a few more hazelnut pieces scattered on top.

Ifs And Ands

  • This whole thing is about ifs and ands! The possibilities seem endless.
  • I think next up feta, rocket and pistachio for me. What else have you tried?

Post Port Eliot

So we’re back from the Port Eliot Festival and London looks particularly grimy in comparison to the bucolic Cornish scenes we left behind.

port eliot festival
port eliot festival
port eliot festival

I think it might have been the loveliest festival I’ve ever been to. Certainly it has the most beautiful setting, in the grounds of a historical manor house. Such an eclectic line-up too.

Among many other things, we saw poets Murray Lachlan Young and Luke Wright do their stuff and watched cookery demonstrations including one by Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis. I’d always liked his food but had had no idea he was such a charming chap. We listened to Dusk ‘Til Dawn, a narrative collage of nighttime sounds from the estate by wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson, caught sets by Vangoffey, The Caezers and Ezra Furman and made some music ourselves, taking part in a singing workshop with the Chaps ChoirMathematical writer Alex Bellos demonstrated his elliptical pool table and comedian Dominic Frisby explained Bitcoin.

me at port eliot
alex bellos

We also spent a decent amount of time strolling about enjoying the sunshine , drinking G&Ts by the river and eating delicious things from the many and varied food stalls.

Therefore this week is therefore going to be given over to recipes inspired by the Port Eliot experience. Although today’s isn't based on anything I tasted there, instead it is constructed from the prize James won on the festival's coconut shy. He later hit someone in the head with it whilst playing catch. Sorry to that chap if you're out there! Thankfully the residual guilt didn't impinge on the taste of the dish.

It’s based on the Bean Carrot Thoran, one of my favourite things on the menu at Rasa Travancore, a lovely Keralan restaurant in Stoke Newington. A dry curry, it goes well with rice as a vegan main or alongside meat or fish as a side.

bean carrot thoran

Bean Carrot Thoran (serves 4)


  • 1 coconut
  • 1tbsp coconut oil
  • 1tsp mustard seeds
  • 1tsp cumin seeds
  • a few sprigs of curry leaves
  • 2 green chillies
  • 2 inches fresh turmeric root
  • 1 onion
  • 5 medium sized carrots
  • 350g green beans


  1. First crack the coconut. I did it with a hammer in a tupperware box so as to save the water (just strain through a sieve and drink - a delicious cook’s perk). Put the bits in a hot oven for 10 minutes or so then let it cool. This dries the “meat” of the nut slightly and makes it easier to pull away from the shell.
  2. Meanwhile dice the onion and carrot and chop the beans into ½ cm lengths.
  3. When the coconut is cool enough to handle prise the white flesh from the shell (a knife blade or screwdriver helps) and use a vegetable peeler to remove its brown skin.
  4. Put the coconut flesh in a food processor with the chillies and the turmeric and whizz until finely chopped.
  5. Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the mustard and cumin seeds and the curry leaves and cook until they start to crackle. Then put in the onion.
  6. When it is beginning to go translucent add the coconut mixture and let it cook stirring occasionally for five minutes.
  7. Lastly add the carrot and beans. Put a lid on the pan and allow them to cook for 10 minutes or so. You want the vegetables to be cooked but retain a bit of bite. This is supposed to be a dry curry but you might need to add a little bit of water just to stop things sticking. If you do, remove the lid for the last few minutes to let it evaporate.
  8. Add salt to taste and maybe a pinch of sugar too which really brings out the sweetness of the coconut.


Ifs And Ands

  • If you don’t have coconut oil just use vegetable oil instead.
  • Use dried turmeric instead of fresh. Just put in 1tsp after the onions and cook for a minute before adding the coconut.
  • Serve garnished with fresh coriander leaves. 
  • This would work with plenty of different vegetables. Cabbage, courgettes, runner beans. I think beetroot would be gorgeous. It would take a little more cooking to soften but be such a beautiful colour.


KitchInspiration: Getting Children Into Veg (Or Veg Into Children)

My inbox pinged recently with the following plea:

I have a challenge for you: my mother in law is moving out and I will have to cook food for myself again unless I want the children to live off crisps. I am told this is frowned upon. Is it unreasonable to ask you for a recipe that:
1) doesn't create much washing up
2) has a high vegetable content
3) the children will like (but how are you supposed to know what my children will like, I hear you cry! I don't know, I cry back!)
4) still tastes nice the next day so I don't have to cook every single day?
Basically I want stew, I think is what I'm saying. But better stew, that I haven't cooked before. Help me!

Isn't life always swings and roundabouts? What you gain in personal space you lose in the services of a personal chef. But never fear. I have several suggestions to ensure scurvy-free children with relatively little effort. The quantities given should make enough for one evening's dinner with plenty left over to freeze or fashion into a second meal the next day. 

I make no pretensions of authenticity with these dishes. They are just easy to prepare and - I hope - reasonably child pleasing. I apologise for the lack of decent photos. Time and houseguests did not permit it. However, on the cooking with/for children theme, here are some nutritionally unsound fairycakes I made with my two-and-a-half-year-old niece.

I also commend the kohl rabi to you. Raw, it looks pretty weird. Peeled and cut up in stews, it can be mistaken for a piece of potato but is more akin to cabbage in its nutritional profile.

Good luck!

Spaghetti Bolognaise

Not, admittedly, stew. Yet almost all children like this. It was definitely my favourite when I was little. There’s quite a lot of veg in it anyway (onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms, tomatoes) but you can hide plenty of extra without attracting too much attention. Diced courgettes or aubergines blend in particularly well and are likely to pass unnoticed (saute them with the onion, celery and carrot). You might even get away with finely shredded spinach (wilted in just before serving). Or if your children like peas you could be brazen about it and chuck in a handful of frozen ones right at the end of cooking. 

Leftovers can be mixed together in an oven-proof dish, sprinkled with grated cheese, reheated and renamed “pasta bake”. Or else top leftover Bolognaise with mashed potato and, voila, a cottage pie! (Of sorts.Tomatoey sorts. Still tasty though.)


  • 6 rashers bacon
  • 2 onions
  • 2 carrot
  • 2 stalk celery
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 400g mushrooms
  • 500g beef mince
  • 4 tins chopped tomatoes
  • 500g spaghetti or dried pasta


  1. Finely chop the bacon and fry it in a large pan over a medium heat. 
  2. Dice the onion, add it to the pan with the bacon and cook until turning transparent. Add a little olive oil or butter if necessary and repeat with the celery, the carrot and, lastly, the mushrooms.
  3. Crush the garlic and, when the vegetables are all tender, add it to the mixture.
  4. Then the mince. Break it up with a wooden spoon and briefly turn up the heat so it has a chance to brown.
  5. Once it has, add the tins of tomatoes. Leave to simmer for at least half an hour (preferably longer, it'll only get nicer) stirring occasionally.
  6. When hungry children start to clamour for their dinner boil the pasta according to instructions on the packet and drain. Season the sauce and serve over the pasta. Maybe with some grated cheese on top.

Ifs And Ands

  • When I make this I usually put in a pinch of both ground fennel seeds and chilli flakes as well as a little bit of sugar. You can’t really taste them in those small quantities but they bring out the other flavours.
  • I’ll tell you what literally all children like: pasta pesto. If you have leftover pasta, why not add peas, grated courgette or chopped spinach to that, and make it into a bake with sliced tomatoes and cheese on top?

Adaptable Risotto

Another non-stew (don’t worry, we’ll get there) but surprisingly versatile. Again you can put almost any veg in here. Broadbeans, peas and asparagus for a classic Primavera, roasted squash in winter, even diced tomatoes and basil for something fresh and summery.

The next day it can be rolled into little balls, breadcrumbed and baked into arancini or else pan fried in little patties. (Neither will be quite the same as the proper deep fried ones, but who can be bothered?) Perhaps the small people could even be pressed into action rolling the balls and hiding a little piece of mozzarella in the middle of each?

Leftovers could also be stuffed into pepper halves, topped with cheese and cooked in the oven.


  • 100g butter
  • 2 onions
  • 2 litres (approx) chicken or vegetable stock
  • 600g risotto rice
  • 4 handfuls of whatever veg you fancy
  • 100g parmesan


  1. Melt half of the butter in a heavy bottomed pan. Dice the onion and sweat it over a low heat until translucent.
  2. Heat the stock in a separate pan.
  3. Add the rice to the butter and onion and stir, making sure each grain is coated.
  4. Then the stock, one ladleful at a time. Keep stirring. When each ladleful has been absorbed add another. Keep going until the rice is nearly done, creamy but with a little bite.
  5. Add your vegetables and any other ingredients and make sure they are cooked through.
  6. Grate the parmesan and stir it in with the remaining butter.

Ifs And Ands

  • Fry some chopped  bacon pieces with the onion.
  • Stir in a couple of tablespoons of pesto instead of the parmesan. Or use it to zhush up the leftovers.
  • Try prawns and peas with a squeeze of lemon (leave out the parmesan).

Chicken Stew, Two Ways

As you correctly surmise, I don’t know at all what your children like but chicken stew is relatively uncontroversial whetehr tomatoey or creamy. These would go with pasta, rice, cous cous or whatever other grain you like. Or potatoes. If you can’t be bothered to cook a side-carb, you could just bung a tin of drained butter beans or similar in there.

A stew can also be repurposed the next day as a soup by adding stock to thin it down and maybe some of those tiny little pasta stars or a handful of rice or pearl barley.

Or, bake some potatoes whilst the stew is cooking. Scoop out the insides and make them into mash for the first dinner. The next day put the leftover stew in the skins (leave a bit of potato in there), top with cheese and heat them up in the oven. Call it a super magical supper boat or something...

1) Ratatouille Stew(y)

Inspired by the flavours of the classic French dish but without all the faff of cooking the vegetables separately and made more substantial with meat.


  • 100g bacon
  • 4 chicken thighs or two breasts
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 courgette
  • 1 aubergine
  • 500g cherry tomatoes/1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • 400ml chicken or vegetable stock


  1. Chop the bacon and fry in a heavy-bottomed pan until beginning to brown.
  2. Cut the chicken into pieces and cook it with the bacon.
  3. Slice the onion, pepper, courgette and aubergine into bite size bits. Peel the courgette and aubergine if you think their dark skins will be off-putting to the children. 
  4. Put the oil in the pan over a low heat. Crush and add the garlic, then the vegetables. Onion first followed by pepper, courgette and aubergine, waiting for each to soften before adding the next.
  5. After the aubergine is in, add the stock, season and leave to simmer for half an hour. 
  6. Serve with torn basil leaves if you have any.

2) Cream Of The Crop

  • Ingredients
  • 100g bacon
  • 4 chicken thighs (or 2 breasts)
  • knob of butter
  • 2 onions
  • 4 carrots
  • 3 stalks celery
  • 4 leeks
  • 300ml creme fraiche
  • stock (on standby)
  1. Method
  2. Cook the bacon and chicken as above then remove from the pan.
  3. Finely dice the vegetables. Melt the butter and slowly sweat the onion til soft and translucent. Then add the carrot and celery. When they are tender, put in the leeks. 
  4. Once all the vegetables are soft return the chicken and bacon to the pan and add the creme fraiche and maybe some stock if the sauce is thicker than you'd like. Season and serve. 

Ifs And Ands

  • Substitute chunks of cooking chorizo for the bacon. Or sausages for the chicken.
  • Use cream of yoghurt instead of creme fraiche. 
  • A squeeze of lemon juice or a teaspoon of mustard would be nice in the sauce. 
  • Courgettes would work instead of the leeks. If your children aren't mushroom objectors they would go well too. 
  • A few sage leaves gives a hint of "stuffing" flavour which might be popular.