Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Simple Supper: Basil Pesto Pasta

I can still remember in the 1980s when basil pesto (pesto alla genovese) became fashionable in Los Angeles where I grew up.  Suddenly, it was on every restaurant menu and bottles of pesto appeared in the pasta aisle in the supermarket.  No one really knew how this mysterious sauce was made, but it seems to involve a lot of hand grinding, so the best course of action was to buy the jar, or even better, the sort-of-freshly-made-plastic-canister in the refrigerated section.  We didn't know any better and it tasted pretty good.  Fast forward to the 1990s and my first trip in Italy. There, in any grocery store, you could find a big bowl of what looked like freshly made pesto. Glistening bright green with flecks of cheese, this looked and tasted amazing.  It tasted reminiscent of the pesto of my childhood but better. A lot better.

Some years later, my best friend was married in Italy and the first course of her wedding supper was basil pesto.  It was served in the traditional way, with green beans and potato mixed in with the pasta.  It was so delicious that I had two helpings, despite that this was just the beginning of a five course meal.

When I finally made pesto myself, I was shocked to realize how
simple it was to make at home, and I find it now hard to understand how anyone could buy the jarred kind.   Perhaps the mystery lies in that you really need to have a food processor or what I like to term a "woozy woo", which is a mini food processor (if you don't have one of these, I suggest you buy one immediately).  If you don't have one of these two items, then indeed, making the sauce by hand in a mortor and pestle could be time consuming...although I bet it really isn't that hard...maybe I will try sometime.  In the meantime, here is how to make one of my family's favorite dishes.  I have substituted tomatoes for the potatoes in the traditional dish, which I think makes for a fresher dish.

Feeds 4 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a side dish

For the pesto sauce

2 bunches basil
50 grams parmesan
75 grams pine nuts
pinch salt
1 to 2 garlic cloves, according to your taste
about 1/3 cup olive oil

For the pasta
150 grams haricot vert
300 grams cherry tomatoes
400 grams spaghetti or other pasta

grated parmesan
a sprinkle of pine nuts

Put a big of water to boil.  Don't forget to liberally salt it.

While you are waiting for the water to boil, prepare your pesto.  In
your food processor, put in a pinch of salt, the pine nuts, parmesan,
garlic and basil. Add in about half of the oil.  Pulse to mix.  If the mixture seems dry and is not grinding smoothly, add some more oil.  You want a thick paste that still has some texture.  You can always add more olive oil if necessary.  Taste.  It should be very flavorful. If it tastes a bit flat, then add a pinch more salt or some more parmesan.  If it is too strong, then add a bit more pine nuts to give it a creamier mellow taste.  Remember, though that the flavor will be very diluted by the pasta so it should be strong.  Set aside.

Prepare the green beans by chopping off the tops and tails.  I like to chop mine in half because it makes it easier to eat.  Slice each cherry tomato in half.

When the water is boiling, add in your pasta and cook for the number of minutes it says on the packet.  About 3 to 4 minutes before the pasta is done, put in the green beans.  When the time is up, take a mug or measuring cup and scoop out a cup of the pasta water and set aside.  Drain the pasta and green beans in a colander. Put the pasta and beans back in the pot (or in a big serving bowl) and pour over the pesto sauce.  Using a big pair of tongs, toss the pasta until the pesto evenly coats the pasta.  If it seems a bit dry, add a bit of the pasta water.  Add the tomatoes, and do a last toss.

Serve hot with more grated parmesan and a sprinkle of pine nuts.

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