Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Trofie with Perfect Pesto

I distinctly remember the first time I had pesto -- sublime insouciance, a revelation on my tongue. Then the 1990's happened and everybody served pesto on everything. On bread, on fish, on pasta, on pizza, on your breakfast cereal. It was served year round with old, flavorless basil and too much garlic. It turned me off pesto for a good long time. In fact, I don't think I had eaten pesto in more than a decade.

This passed winter, while perusing my mother-in-law's bookshelves, I discovered Waverly Root's comprehensive guide to the regional foods of Italy, titled, simply enough, 'The Food of Italy.' (Published in 1972 by Vintage Books, a division of Random House. I think it is out of print now, but if you can lay your hands on it, give it a look.) At any rate, in Root's book, I discovered that pesto was invented in Liguria (as was ravioli, so I personally owe those crazy sea-faring Ligurians a big debt of gratitude.) Liguria is the province right around the knee-cap of the peninsula that extends out into the Mediterranean as you can see in this map, and the basil grows thick and lush on the hillsides there. From Root's book:

"... Liguria is famous for the herbs which grow on the slopes of its hills so thickly that in the day before natural scents had to compete with the fumes of automobile exhausts, fuel oil, and the exhalations of chemical factories, ships beating into port against an offshore wind counted as their first landfall the fragrance of sweet basil, blown far out to sea." 
My basil doesn't grow quite so lush as that, but it's been booming the last couple of weeks.

So I had a choice -- either whip up a batch of Green Goddess Dressing (which I love, but which doesn't keep long) or whip up some pesto. I decided on the pesto and re-learned the lesson I always learn with Italian food:  it's always all about the quality of the ingredients.

If you have old, out of season, flavorless basil, your pesto will be to proper pesto as Taco Bell is to Rick Bayless.

In other words, don't even bother making it if the basil was picked more than 24 hours prior to consumption. Pesto is strictly a summer and early fall food. Period. So either plant a pot of basil (it really is worth it), or buy it at the farmer's market and plan on cooking that day. Don't be afraid of it. The prep is remarkably easy.

What you will need:
basil -- a large bundle
pine nuts -- about 3 ounces or so
freshly grated parmesan cheese -- about two palmfuls
1 clove of garlic -- coarsely diced
extra-virgin olive oil
Pasta -- for pesto, I love Ligurian Trofie (you'll probably have to hit a specialty market or Italian groceria to find it; I've never seen it in a big supermarket)

The Prep:
Nothing could be easier, so this should make my friend Hildy Johnson happy. Not so much choppy-choppy -- the cuisinart does all the work.

Wash the basil and pull off all the leaves -- even (especially) the little baby ones. Toss those in a cuisinart. Add the pine nuts and parm. (Note, if you can, get this at an Italian market. It's just better that way.) Drizzle in several glugs of good quality olive oil and pulse until it's almost smooth. Taste for salt. I don't usually need any, but you should check at this point.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a big palmful of salt and the pasta. Make sure to stir right a way. Trofie sticks more than some pastas. When the trofie is rolling, put about a cup full of the pasta water in a bowl. When the trofie is al dente, strain it, immediately return it to the pot, with the pesto and a bit of the pasta water as needed. (You'll probably only need about 2 tablespoons, but it's good to have on hand if it needs to be thinned a bit.)

Serve with more grated parm and enjoy.

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