Cooking class with the Laughing Lemon – the pesto battle

So, for over 40 years, I consistently refused all cooking classes my Mother ever offered. I am even (semi) proudly self taught. My poor suffering testers guests are all alive and still show up for dinner every now and again. What would make me, food-blogger wannabe, take cooking classes all of a sudden? Have I gone softie, in my old age?

Well, not really… The analytical and brainy answer would be something along the lines of filling the gaps in my culinary knowledge. Which is fancy to say  I have no clue about Italian cuisine, including pasta and its sauces, pizzas and risottos… It is not the kind of thing Portuguese and Spanish tend to cook , and, lets face it, not its secrets are exactly passed along generation to generation. It can try, but clearly, it is not my forté…

The right brain answer was – of course – because I wanted to. I had heard so much about the Laughing Lemon and learnt so much with his blog and posts on the, that it seemed even disgraceful to have missed his classes for years.

It was probably one of the best things I did to fill my culinary knowledge gaps. And, it was not only educational – it was also great fun. With infinite patience,  Jack showed us different methods for making a pasta sauce, and explained which pasta types are appropriate for each sauce style. To make it even better, we even had time for a demonstration of old vs new cuisine techniques (and eat them). I can promise you the Internets if filled with pages and fora discussing this particular issue – should a pesto be made with a mortar or a blender? Which one of the methods gives a better pesto? Does it matter, really? The battle of pesto was served…

The class was divided in two: the Team Mortar, with all the persons who had a bad day at work; the Team Blender, with all the persons who were calm, cool and collected. Both teams got the usual ingredients: fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and Parmesan cheese. And, this was what happened:

Team Mortar 

The crushed garlic, basil, pine nuts and salt were dropped  in a big mortar. Then each of the team members used the pestle to grind the ingredients down to a paste. After 20min of great effort, the cheese was folded in and  evenly mixed with the green paste (a lot more grounding, needless to be said). Finally, the olive oil was added little by little, mixing with a wooden spoon until well incorporated in the mix. At the end, Team Mortar had a green paste with some floaters and pellets.

Team Blender

Chit-chated for 28 min, and then suddenly realized Team Mortar was * almost * done. Quickly placed the ingredients in the blender, and buzzed it three times (app) until it was homogenized.  Then  checked for consistency and taste (a little more salt), buzzed a few more times, and a perfect smooth and green mixture was obtained.

Everyone tasted both pestos and voted as honestly as they possibly could. It was a close draw, but the smoothness and consistent taste stilted the scales in favor of the Blender Team.  It seems that normally, the Team Mortar wins, but not with this tough crowd.

For more information about the Laughing Lemon cooking classes can be found here.

Spaghetti and meatballs in a tomato sauce with basil

Comfort food for a bitterly cold day…  For the this dish, I pulled recipes from 2 different books. The meatballs are a modified version of Carlos Horrillo and Patrick Morcas‘ take. The tomato sauce is the famous tomatada by David Leite  I use ever so often.

Spaghetti and meatballs in a tomato sauce with basil

Ingredients for the meatballs

  • 2 yellow onions, chopped
  • 500g ground beef and pork
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon dried persil
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • Salt and pepper freshly ground
  • Olive oil to taste
  • Flour as needed

Ingredients for the tomato sauce

  • 3 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions cut in half lengthwise and sliced into thin half moons
  • 2 springs fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 garlic gloves minced
  • 1 kg very ripped tomatoes, seeded and chopped* (or a couple of canned tomato, preferably san marzano, chopped, juices reserved).
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of double concentrated tomato paste, to taste
  • 1 small fresh medium red hot chilli pepper, such as Serrano, stemmed, seeded and chopped (it optional. Sometimes, I just add a few drops of piri piri sauce).
  • Freshly grounded salt and black pepper to taste.
  • Fresh basil
Ingredients for the spaghetti 
  • Spaghetti
  • Boiling water
  • Salt
  • A little bit of olive oil


Heat the stove the 190 oC (=375 oF).

Place a large heavy base, non stick frying pan on a low heat with 2 dashes of olive oil. Add the sliced onions, a pinch of salt and pepper then sauté gently until soft and tender. When it is done add the minced garlic and let it fry for a 1 minute more.  Set aside to cool.

In a bowl combine the meat with the herbs, the eggs and the caramelised onion. Once the mix has aggregated, roll the  meatballs with your hands. Roll them in flour so all the surface is coated.

Place a large heavy base, non stick frying pan on a low heat with 2 dashes of olive oil. Gently brown the meatballs, about 5min, adding more olive oil if needed. Reserve the frying pan.

Place the meatballs in a baking tray coated with olive oil and put it in the stove for about 30min or until they feel solid.

In the meanwhile, start the tomato sauce. Use the frying where you browned the meatball. Add more oil if necessary, and heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onions, parsley and bay leaf and cook until nicely golden, about 15min. Add the garlic and cook for 1 min more.

Turn the heat to medium low, stir in the tomatoes and their juices, the tomato paste and chilli pepper, if using. Bring to a simmer, cook, lid ajar, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down, about 30min.

Once the tomato sauce is done and the meatballs are out of the stove, you will need to combine both. Just drop gently the meatball in the frying pan, making sure the surfaces are coated. Let it simmer gently for about 20min.

In the meanwhile, boil spaghetti.  Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. If cooking dry spaghetti, use a mimimum of 500ml of water for each 100g. of dry spaghetti. Once the water is boiling, you will need to add the spaghetti. Reduce the heat so that the water is on a slow boil. Let it cook as said in the package. When ready, drain and add some olive oil to avoid sticking.

On a plate, put the spaghetti and on top the meatballs and the tomato sauce. Add a basil leaf for decoration and extra flavor.