Monday, August 23, 2010

Guest Peter makes pesto with gusto

Peter has become the doyenne of pesto making, including ones with arugula, parsley, kale, and with basil (the classic). I asked him to document his most recent version. In order to make this a one-dish meal (angel hair pasta with the sauce), we topped it all with some shrimp. Here’s what he submitted:

Specific foods can evoke such powerful memories: I still recall the first time I sampled pasta with basil pesto sauce, for example. One summer night back when I was still in high school in the 1970’s, my dad took the family out for Friday dinner at Pippi’s, a back-in-the-day, family-owned Italian restaurant on Franklin Avenue in Hartford’s South End. In describing that evening’s specials, our waiter was particularly enthusiastic about rigatoni with pesto culled from the owner’s own garden. Pretentious little F.I.T.* that I was, I thought this sounded terribly worldly and sophisticated (basil pesto being to the contrary, like so many Italian classics, simple fare), and ordered it. Knowing how limited my palate actually was, my father sighed, darkly admonished me, “You’re not going to like it,” and ordered a plate of spaghetti and meat balls.

Sure enough, when our entrees arrived, I forced a few forkfuls of my rigatoni before concluding that the pesto sauce, with its vaguely licorice scent and flavor, wasn’t to my liking at all. Without making a fuss, dad handed over his spaghetti to me, polished off my entire portion of rigatoni with pesto with noisy gusto, and life went on.

Fast forward about a decade or so, to a period when both my older sister Susan and I were living in D.C. Like many avid home cooks of at least partial Italian-American descent of that era, Susan was very much in thrall at that juncture to Marcella Hazan, whose “Classic Italian Cookbook” was all the rage for everyone in the U.S. who had aspirations to cook authentic Italian dishes. Susan invited me over to dinner, and served a pasta dressed with Marcella’s “blender pesto” sauce. With a palate more advanced now through daring and persistence, I took one bite, and immediately thought, “I must make this dish.”

And, thanks to Susan presenting me with my own copy of Hazan’s cookbook for my birthday several weeks later, make it I did. I was interested to read that Hazan provided the recipe for blender pesto with some reluctance, writing that the sharp blades of a blender attacked the volatile oils of the basil leaves too violently, resulting in a soupier consistency and a less pungent flavor than making pesto the old-fashioned Italian way, essentially pummeling the basil leaves slowly with a pestle in a large marble mortar. I never would have found the patience to do that in my 20’s even if I’d had a clue as to where in D.C. one could find the right hardware to do so. But I duly noted Marcella’s point: minimal “processing” of the basil leaves was optimal (and, in recent years, it has become a theme song in all cookbooks that, when adding fresh basil leaves to any dish, it is in fact far preferable to stack them, roll them tightly into a “cigar,” and cut them into thin ribbons with the sharpest knife available rather than hack away at them with a butcher’s knife, for exactly the same reason).

Over the years, I’ve gradually tweaked my recipe for basil pesto to a point that pleases me far more than Marcella’s blender concoction. No, I don’t use a mortar and pestle, but I’ve made some significant changes of my own. I like to equate recipes with musical forms, and think of basil pesto as a gem of a chamber choir work, one in which the sections are not subdivided into “soprano I,” “soprano II,” “alto I,” “alto II,” etc., but are all compact and lean. As such, they must all be honed and polished to the point where they all shine, and contribute equally to maximize and compliment one another’s contributions on equal footing. To wit, I found over time that the taste of raw garlic in pesto can hijack the sauce’s flavor, providing a harsh, acrid note that creeps up inexorably. Blanching the garlic for just one minute tames it beautifully

Back to those basil leaves: to achieve the ideal of very minimal processing, I get my freak on by beating the hell out of them with a meat mallet, pretending that the contents of the plastic bag contain some of my favorite nemeses from the National Organization for Marriage and the Family Reseach Council.

The pine nuts absolutely must be toasted: all nuts profit from toasting, but pine nuts in particular turn from wallflower status to miniature bombshells if their flavor and aroma are coaxed with gentle browning.

Marcella Hazan contends that rounding off basil pesto’s flavor with a pat of room temperature, unsalted butter is essential, and that a blend of tangy, briny grated Pecorino Romano and earthy, buttery Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses is far superior in a pesto to just the latter, and I agree with her on both counts. Finally, I add a bit of salt and freshly cracked black pepper to my recipe: both are missing from the majority of basil pesto recipes I’ve consulted, but I think just a pinch of salt pumps up the saltiness of the cheeses, and the pepper adds a welcome bass note.

If all this sounds like something the late Phil Hartman’s recurring character of “The Anal-Retentive Chef” on “Saturday Night Live” might have made, and a far cry from the old, “Dump everything in the blender and puree” technique for preparing this classic sauce, I remain unapologetic. The results are well worth the extra effort: you could say that I’ve out-Marcella’ed the famously persnickety Marcella Hazan herself (who absolutely, by the way, should be played in a biopic by Paul Sorvino in drag).

Basil Pesto

(Note: if you wish to freeze this sauce, and you are encouraged to do so, resist the temptation to add the butter and cheese before freezing. Your dairy-free pesto will keep beautifully in the freezer for up to four months, and waiting until it’s fully thawed before adding the butter and cheeses will result in a flavor and texture virtually identical to one that’s perfectly fresh).

--2 cups packed basil leaves;
--2 large, unpeeled cloves garlic;
--1/3 cup pine nuts;
--7 Tbls. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
--1/4 tsp. kosher salt;
--1 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
--1 Tbl. unsalted butter, room temperature
--1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
--1/3 cup Pecorino Romano cheese

1.) Put the basil leaves in a large plastic Zip-Loc bag or similar clear plastic sealable bag, press out all the air you can, and seal. Using the flat side of a meat mallet, beat the crap out of the basil leaves on a flat, sturdy surface until all the basil leaves are bruised, and have turned from bright green to Forest or Loden green in color. Cut open the bag with scissors, and scrape the bruised leaves into bowl of food processor fitted with a steel blade.

2.) Bring a small pot of water to a simmering boil. Skewer the unpeeled garlic cloves, and submerge in the simmering water for 1 minute. Run under cold tap water to stop cooking. Peel the cloves, either mince them very finely, or run them through a garlic press, and add to food processor.

3.) Toast the pine nuts in a small, heavy-bottomed skillet set over medium-low heat until very lightly browned and fragrant, which will take just a few minutes. Immediately transfer the nuts to a paper towl to cool (don’t leave them in the skillet: carry-over cooking, if you do so, may cause them to char, which gives an “off” flavor. (Note: I store all nuts, including pine nuts, in the freezer to maximize their shelf-life. Through trial and error, I’ve learned that pine nuts fresh from the freezer will toast perfectly in my microwave on high in just 2 minutes, 45 seconds. You might want to try this method as well, especially if you have, as I do, a carousel microwave, but it’s even more imperative with this technique to transer the pine nuts to a fresh, cool plate so that residual heat from the one on which you nuke them doesn’t cause them to burn).

4.) Add cooled pine nuts, salt, pepper, and olive oil to contents of food processor. Process for five one-second pulses. Pause to scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula, then process for five additional one-second pulses.

5.) Transfer contents of food processor to a large bowl. Whisk in butter and cheeses.

6.) Pesto will be fairly thick at this point. It’s your choice as to whether you prefer a longer strand pasta (i.e., linguine) or a stubbier cut (rotini, campanelle, gemelli) to enjoy with your pesto sauce, but whatever pasta you choose, a minute or so before the pasta is perfectly al dente, spoon out up to a ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water to whisk it into the pesto before you drain the pasta and add it to the pesto to combine. This final step will loosen the pesto’s consistency, and the starchy pasta water helps the pesto sauce adhere to the pasta.

*F.I.T. = Fairy In Training, a “junior miss,” in-denial version of the fully-formed, more mature F.O.D. (Friend of Dorothy). Cf: the younger version of himself that serves as the protagonist of Simon Doonan’s BBC Series, “Beautiful People.”


Mary said...

What a great recipe. This really sounds delicious. You asked about chickpea flour. It will probably work but I don't think the flavor will be the same. It would, however, be great for folks who can't have gluten in their diets.

Joann said...

This was neither the first, nor the last time Dad ended up eating what you ordered in your youth!

Peter said...

Boy, ain't that the truth.

Incidentally, we served the angel hair/pesto/shrimp dish with green and wax beans from our backyard "recession garden" incorporated into the pasta mixture, at room temp, and a side "Caprese" salad of cherry tomatoes, basil, and smoked mozzarella in a simple balsamic vinaigrette. Given that the beans, basil in the pesto and salad, and tomatoes were all home-grown, this was about as "locavore" as it gets on a hot August night here, and really satisfying, too.

Jenn said...

YAY!! Welcome to the world of guest blogging Petter! And what a great recipe to be blogging about. I have made many pestos, but can you believe I had never heard of adding butter to it. I must try that next time I make mine. In fact, I will be following your recipe next time I make it, I use all the same ingredients, just a different process. Oh, and I love the F.I.T reference, very cute!!! Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe with us Peter!

Pam said...

This is a wonderful recipe! It sounds delicious! Funny with the memories and your father. Love Marcella Hazan too. Great post Peter!

Mommy Katie said...

I am a new follower and I would love a follow back!!

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