In our cooking series Quickies, we invite chefs, bartenders, and other personalities in the world of food and drink who are serious hustlers to share their tips and tricks for preparing quick, creative after-work meals. Every dish featured in Quickies takes under 30 minutes to make, but without sacrificing any deliciousness—these are tried-and-tested recipes for the super-busy who also happen to have impeccable taste.
Me: After a long day in the office, I want a big bowl of comforting pasta in a fresh, like-nonna-makes-it sauce.
Also me: Don't have the energy to make a ragu from scratch on a weeknight.
Sound familiar? Then pesto is for you. But not the gloopy jarred stuff you dumped over your pasta as a poor student. Robert Chambers, head chef of London's British Italian restaurant Luca, is here to show us that homemade pesto is one of the easiest—and tastiest—pasta dishes out there.
"I was raised by my Italian grandmother and she always cooked very classic Italian food. There was never any shortcut cooking!" remembers Chambers. "I'm also from Luton. If you know Luton, you'll know that it's hard to find good restaurants, so we cooked at home, pretty much all the time."
And when pesto is so ridiculously easy to make, there's really no excuse for using the jarred stuff.
"The first time I tried one of those pestos in a jar was at my aunty's house—she wasn't a very good cook!" he continues. "She tried to give me this pre-made pesto and I would never eat it again. Not when you know how quick and easy it is to make fresh pesto. It's straightforward and uses good ingredients."
Chambers' recipe uses the traditional mix of olive oil, fresh basil, Parmesan, and garlic but throws a curveball by including spinach and replacing the conventional pine nuts with pistachios. He explains: "Pistachios are a nice nut and they're green which adds to the colour of the pesto. You can quite easily make the pesto with something like hazelnuts. As long as you have something nutty in there."
With the ingredients weighed out, Chambers sets a saucepan with salted water to boil—"The idea is that by the time you've made the pesto, the water is boiling, and you're ready to drop in the pasta."
Next, garlic, lemon zest, pistachios, salt, spinach leaves, and half the amount of olive oil go into the blender for a short blitz. Chambers then chucks in the basil, the remaining olive oil, and Parmesan and blends until super smooth. He says: "We're not going for a traditional pesto where it's still a bit grainy. We want it really smooth."
Pesto done, Chambers sets it to cool in a bowl over iced water.
Next, it's time to cook the pasta. Chambers puts spaghetti quadrati—a four-edged noodle—into the now-bubbling water, but explains that you can use just about any pasta you like.
"We use a quadrati pasta because we found it holds its al dente and the sauce well," he says. "But spaghetti would be just as good or another one of my favourites is bucatini. It has a little hole going through the middle so it sucks up a bit of the sauce. But as long as you get the pesto right, any pasta will taste nice."
He adds: "When I cook at home, it's always pasta. I eat pasta a hell of a lot. And a lot of it."
While the pasta is cooking, Chambers warms up the pesto in a large pan, adding a little pasta water, olive oil, and roughly chopped pistachios. When the spaghetti is al dente and water drained, he tosses the pasta through the pesto so it's fully coated.
RECIPE: Pistachio Pesto Spaghetti
The final touch is freshly cracked black pepper, a shaving of Parmesan, and more chopped pistachios.
"The key lies in the ingredients. If you have really good ingredients, a meal doesn't have to take an hour and a half. You can be eating in just 20 minutes."