A Runner’s Delight – Pasta con Pesto di Zucchine Arrostite

As this is an Italian food blog, I have so far shared very little about my other passions in life. Well, at least, apart from hating the Finnish winter with a passion I suppose.

However, this time I can reveal that one of them is running. I love the endorfin rush, doses of fresh air and the feeling of just simply everything making more sense (and of being less grumpy about the most disastrous baking attempts) that you get by simply putting one shoe in front of the other.

I also participate in some half-marathon events every now and then, and even once went to a “running school” to prepare for them. In the school, I learned about this brilliant concept of “carb loading”: in the day or days before your running event, you try to stock up on carbohydrates to increase your body’s reserves for the long endurance work-out. It really is an Italian food lover’s dream, isn’t it? An order to eat as much pasta as you like. Ingenious. Well, ok, I do know that carb loading is a lot more relevant when getting ready for a full marathon. Yet I choose not to let that minor detail get in the way between me and my big bowl of pasta. And I still refuse to believe that pasta is bad for you. Just look at the nation full of happy Italians.

I completed one half-marathon just yesterday and hence dutifully did some serious carb loading the day before. I chose a recipe from a cook book called “Le ricette della prova del cuoco“. It turned out be at least as brilliant as the carb loading concept. You make a supertasty simple pesto sauce of roasted zucchini, pistachio, fresh mint and olive oil, and combine it with the pasta and parmesan. And naturalmente, you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy it – just look at the nation full of happy Italians!

Pasta with Roasted Zucchini

Serves 6

480 g (farfalle) pasta

500 g zucchini

40 g parmesan

60 g pistachios

fresh mint (to your taste)

1 bayleaf

olive oil

salt, pepper

Clean and peel the zucchini, and then cut them in half (lengthways). Place the halves on an oven tray covered with a parchment paper, and season them with salt, pepper and some olive oil. Bake them in the oven at 175C for at least 30 minutes and cool down.

Grate the parmesan. Boil the pistachios in hot water for three minutes (I skipped this step as I was using roasted and saltes pistachios), and once cooled down, peel them. In a blender, mix the pistachios and 50 ml olive oil. Add the roasted zucchini and continue blending. Finally add the fresh mint and again continue blending until you have achieved a nice pesto paste. Put the pesto sauce into a bowl and season it with the grated parmesan and salt (if needed).

Cook the pasta in salted water with the bayleaf. Combine the ready pasta with the pesto sauce and serve.

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Creamy Calories – Panna Cotta al Pistacchio

One of the side effects of learning Italian is that it brings new meanings to Italian dishes that I have eaten before. Take panna cotta for example which I always found a nice and fresh dessert. Well, when I realised that it actually translates as “cooked cream”, suddenly the image of its freshness evaporated as fast as my dreams of winning the Great Finnish Bake Off.

On the other hand, now that any illusions regarding the lightness of panna cotta have been cleared up, why not go full monty (I have no idea if you are supposed to use this phrase this way but it sounds funny; in case not, I apologise…) and throw calorie counting out of the window of my Helsinki apartment all the way to Stockholm. In fact, this recipe (from the March edition of La Cucina Italiana) with pistachios and white chocolate probably includes the annual energy intake of your average Hollywood star. However, I did reduce the amount of cream of this recipe though by substituting some of it with milk and I think you could quite safely use 450 g milk and 150 g double cream (instead of 150 g milk and 450 g double cream).

There were a couple of practical challenges when making this dish. Firstly, I did not manage to find any pistachio paste in Helsinki. Fortunately the cooking site Giallo Zafferano came to my rescue with a separate recipe for the paste. Secondly, as I am still in the planning phase of buying new batteries to my kitchen scale, I failed to estimate the amount of gelatine correctly. Hence, I ended up with a dessert which was served as a custard rather than a cool, pretty and sophisticated “loaf” as in the picture of the magazine. It was quite delicious nevertheless!

Pistachio panna cotta

Serves 6

450 g double cream

150 g full fat milk

150 g (caster) sugar

120 g white chocolate

80 g pistachio paste

9 g gelatine sheets

crumbled pistachios

Soak the gelatine in cold water. Heat the milk, 300 g of the cream (or alternatively just 450 g milk in total) and the sugar in a pan but do not bring the mixture to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Squeese the excess water from the gelatine sheets. Add the gelatine and pistachio paste to the pan. Stir well and let the mixture cool down and filter it.

Whip 150 g cream. Add it to the mixture, stir gently and pour it into a rectangular cake/ bread loaf pan (to achieve that loaf-like shape). Put the panna cotta into the fridge for at least 3 hours.

For the chocolate topping: melt 100 g of the white chocolate in a bain marie. Remove from the heat and add 20 g of the chocolate. Spread the warm melted chocolate on a parchment paper. Sprinkle the crumbled pistachios on top. Once the chocolate has cooled down and “re-frozen”, cut different shapes of it to decorate the panna cotta.

Pistachio paste

120 g unsalted pistachios

60 g sugar

14 g water

Shell the pistachios and gently roast them on a pan to remove the brown thin peel of them (as much as possible). Blend the pistachios into a small crumble. Heat the water and sugar in a pan and bring them to a boil of 121C degrees. Pour the hot mixture onto the crumbled pistachio and blend again until you have reached smooth(ish) paste.