Just over a year ago, the pandemic hit us. It goes without saying that our lives changed dramatically as many of us have been through tough times, often separated from our family and friends. Looking back, I think that my closest ally to cope with all the stress and never-ending twists and turns has been my Barbican kitchen – although I would preferred not having to deal with the smelly garchey (… sorry to the die-hard fans).

The extended lockdowns have made us slow down and changed our approach to food. We are no longer batch cooking on a Sunday night or skipping a nice homemade meal for a meh Pret sandwich on the go. Despite the never-ending pile of dishes in the sink, I have found cooking at home a real source of comfort.

To me, cooking has become a pastime more than a mere drudgery. Like quite a few of you probably, I have also surrendered to the banana loaf, sourdough and homemade pasta manias. But over the last few months, I have tried some more unusual experiments, including a surprisingly good chocolate and beetroot cake to make good use of the ton of beetroots I got week after week in my veggie box subscription. I have also used this opportunity to reconnect with my family roots from the south of France, preparing some pissaladière (onion tart from Nice), daube provençale (beef stew) or tourte de blettes (swiss chard pie) and keeping these family recipes alive. Cooking has become more than just putting ingredients together.

Another way to cope has been to develop new “signature recipes” – some easy go-to dishes to cheer me up on a weekday night, from a quick carbonara pasta to a hearty lentil dhal. For me, the real saviour has been making homemade pesto. It takes very little time to prepare and will make you travel to the Mediterranean in just a few mouthfuls.

Create the perfect atmosphere to enjoy this dish: pour yourself a glass of Sicilian Nero d’Avola and put some Italian music on (use Radiooooo, an online “musical time machine” that allows you to listen to songs selected by country and decade, so here Italy in the 60s would be perfect). Stand by the windows of your Barbican flat and picture yourself in the cabin of a (Covid-proof) cruise ship in Genoa’s port on an extended stopover, about to sail to the Cinque Terre or the French Riviera…
Now, let’s get cooking. Making homemade pesto couldn’t be easier: once you know the trick, you will never buy some at the supermarket again.

Homemade pesto recipe

To make pesto, you only need a handful of ingredients: basil, pine nuts, parmesan, garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

However, the great thing about pesto is that you can easily tweak the recipe according to what you have in your kitchen and what is in season.

No basil? Use a mix of herbs such as mint, parsley or rosemary… the more, the merrier.  You can also use some rocket or, for a perfect zero waste recipe, carrot tops (just remove thick stems) and beet greens (blanch them a few minutes and strain them well before using).

No pine nuts? Use some almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts or even, like Italian chef Massimo Bottura, some fresh breadcrumbs which will add some extra flavour and body to the sauce – and avoid tossing stale bread!

No parmesan? It works really well with other cheeses such as pecorino but also British cheeses such as Kirkham’s Lancashire from Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Feeling hungry? Add some green beans and diced potatoes and cook them with the pasta for a proper traditional Genovese pesto!

Looking for something fresh? Mix the pasta with some rocket leaves

Pesto only takes a couple of minutes to prepare, so you can make it while the pasta is cooking following these easy steps:

  • Start by halving a garlic clove and rub its cut sides along the inside of your blender or food processor.
  • Blend the herbs and the nuts in the food processor, then add the grated parmesan and finish off with the extra virgin olive oil. I tend to use the following ratio: about 3 volumes of herbs, 1 volume of nuts (or breadcrumbs), 1 volume of grated parmesan, 3 volumes of extra virgin olive oil and a bit of salt.
  • Make sure to keep some of the starch-rich pasta water and add some to the mix to help emulsify the pesto into a creamy sauce. Then mix together with the pasta and serve immediately, without putting the pasta back on the hob.

The pesto sauce goes really well with some fusilli, gnocchi, spaghetti or trofie (now stocked at our local Waitrose). Don’t be afraid of making more: it can be kept in the fridge for a few days – cover it with olive oil in a tight container or a jar. You can also freeze it in ice cube trays and use it later in a soup!

Eating My Way Through The Pandemic, by Adrien Giacchero – from the March 2021 issue of Barbican Life magazine.