Student Suppers: Penne with Walnut & Aubergine Pesto
My favourite thing to cook for myself is a big bowl of pasta. So much so that I have a special pasta bowl just for me. When it is cold and raining outside I like nothing better than to curl up with it on the sofa, but when there is even the littlest whiff of sunshine I like to dine alfresco with a nice cold glass of wine. While there are a few pasta recipes where a recipe is actually required (our family Pork and Pasta Bows recipe is never as good if we go off piste), most of the time I just like to take an idea and use what I’ve got to knock together a bowlful that should take no longer than half an hour from start to finish to knock together.
I find that Italian pasta dishes in particular are well suited to store-cupboard foraging. That recipe you’ve got for a tinned tomato pasta sauce? This time of year English tomatoes are starting to come into their best, so I like to chop up some fresh and use them instead. While basil is my first thought to pair with something tomato based, if you grow your own herbs a sprinkling of fresh oregano will work just as well.
When the guys at Bertolli linked me to Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe for Aubergine Pesto Pasta I decided it would provide the perfect blueprint for a weeknight pasta dish to eat out on the patio after work when everyone else was away and I only had to worry about feeding myself. Pouring a glass by way of an aperitivo, I figured a handful of walnuts we collect from under our tree in France would work just as well as almonds in the homemade pesto. Usually when I’m cooking this kind of pasta dish I use a bit of extra virgin olive oil and some unsalted butter to enrich the sauce. However, Bertolli with Butter (which is a blend with butter and olive oil) works really well to bring everything together as an easier alternative.
Obviously while we’re being entirely selfish here, if you really wanted to you could just double, triple or quadruple this recipe to serve more people (make sure you chill more wine, too!) Set the table outside, and go for a light, fruit based dessert. A sharp lemon or blood orange sorbet would work well.
- 100g (3.5 oz) Penne Pasta
- Bertolli with Butter
- 1 Small Aubergine (Eggplant)
- Generous Handful Walnut Halves
- Large Handful Basil
- Freshly Ground Sea Salt & Black Pepper
- Small Handful Cherry Tomatoes
- Freshly Grated Parmesan
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees (390 Fahrenheit). Cook the pasta for 20 minutes in a pan of salted water. Split the aubergine down the middle, and score the flesh without breaking the skin so that you’ll be able to scrape out the roasted flesh later. Grease a baking tray with a little Bertolli, and lay the aubergine halves face side down before roasting them for 20 minutes until the flesh is soft.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle (I find Cole & Mason make the most effective models) pound the walnuts down into chunky paste. Add a little Bertolli to moisten the mixture into a paste. Add the basil, and pound it down into a pesto. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Once the aubergines are just cool enough to touch, scrape the roasted flesh into the mortar. Mix it into the pesto using the pestle, combining it into the pesto, but still leaving generous chunks of the flesh intact. Chop the tomatoes into small pieces.
Drain the pasta, retaining a little bit of the cooking liquid, and return it to the pan. Spoon in the walnut and aubergine pesto, the tomatoes, and add a spoonful of Bertolli to help bind the sauce. Stir until everything is combined, and grate over a generous amount of parmesan. Combine everything again, and transfer the pasta to a warm pasta bowl. If you have any left, finish the bowl with a sprinkling of nuts and a few smaller basil leaves.
Feel free to play with my pasta recipe, or with Gennaro’s (I’m sure he won’t mind!) to suit your own tastes, or just to use whatever you happen to have at home. I rarely buy aubergines, so roasted courgette would also work beautifully here, and pine nuts would also make a good substitute in the pesto. The tomatoes serve to cut through the richness of the sauce, but if you don’t have any, finishing the pesto with a generous amount of fresh lemon juice would also be a good call. And remember to take your bowl and sit outside, pretending you’re perched at a table outside a little back street Italian trattoria.
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