The Sunday post, al pesto

Trenette al pestoOK, I’ll be cheating this week. Twice. First of all, this Sunday post is about something we had yesterday. This week has been horribly packed, and given Sourcesense is running its very first public venue in two days from now, the best way to think of me at the moment is a sleepless caffeine-filled body bag, rushing around as an hypnotized muppet in his quest to have everything (including our new website, but that will lead to many other posts) set up perfectly for tuesday. Knowing in advance I’d have little or no time on sunday, this post has been cooking (pun intented) throughout the week, the finishing touch being added this morning, before I delve into slides again. Read on for the next cheating.

Given I had little to no time for serious stuff, I decided to settle for an old time favourite: pesto. Some of you might remind that I was born and raised in a small town near Genova, which means pesto is to me the mother of all dishes, probably the first real food I ate after my mom’s milk, and close to being a religion. Pesto is faily easy, and it’s all about ingredients: grab the right stuff, put it in a mortar, start squashing and presto!, you have pesto. OK, the mortar bit isn’t quite a piece of cake, but it really makes a difference. You can use a food processor, but you have to be extremely careful, as we’ll see in a minute.

The whole deal with pesto is being able to preserve the flavour of its main ingredient. Ligurians consider basil a gift of God, pure green gold which needs to be carefully selected and processed. Selection is key: real pesto is done using basil coming from Prà, a very small piece of land near Genova which recently was awarded a food quality certification. There is actually a slim chance you will be able to find the real thing in your grocery store, if you have to settle for less keep in mind these few criteria:

  • you want young basil, with small leaves. This is not a grown-up game: if all you can get is something that closely resembles a banana leaf in size, do settle for something else such as a basil-flavoured tomato sauce: that stuff just won’t do for pesto, as it’s far too hard to squash, and most of the kick is gone;
  • you want to smell it, and it has to smell like – well – basil. Grab a leaf, shred it with your hands, and smell it: what you want to avoid is even the single distant memory of mint. Basil is a stupid guy, and as we like to say, easy to fall in love with mint. It’s enough to have a single mint leaf close to your basil plant to ruin everything. To be safe, I’d even avoid mint-flavoured chewing gum and candies while dealing with basil. This is the worst thing that might happen to your pesto, as you’d end up with a mint sauce instead than what you intended to eat;
  • stay away from variants such as red or black basil. Making pesto with that stuff is an abomination you don’t want to tell me about.

As if selecting the right stuff wasn’t hard enough, processing basil to make pesto can be a nightmare. You have to keep in mind is how young basil is afraid of two things: metal, and heat. Cut basil with a steel knife, and you’ll end up with hay. Heat basil up, and all you’ll get is a dark tasteless mash. Combine steel blades turning at high speed generating attrition and heat, and you end up with the perfect description of a food processor, and a perfect reason to stay away from it. Here goes something to remember: the darker the basil becomes when processed, the tasteless it gets. You really want to preserve bright green color, as that will mean your job was excellent.

All this said, we’re back to our kitchen table, which will have a few ingredients lined up. Basil, of course (just leaves, say 30-50 of them), 1-2 garlic cloves which have been cut in two and cleaned up from the inside gem, a handful of pine nuts gently toasted to enhance flavour, a generous handful each of pecorino and parmesan cheese, and olive oil. If you’re brave enough to use a marble mortar with a wooden pestel, start squashing the garlic, then start adding basil leaves with some grains of rock salt, which will help you during the shredding process.

As soon as basil enters the mortar, no squashing is allowed anymore: you need to gently roll the pestel against the mortar walls, shredding the leaves as you go. As soon as basil juice starts to form in the bottom of the mortar it’s time add and crush the pine nuts, then cheese goes in. By now, hopefully, the mortar will have a bright green paste circling around the walls, and this is when half a glass of olive oil (you want a ligurian one, gentle in flavour) enters the picture, drop by drop. Taste, adjust seasoning and rejoice: you have a great pesto, and an aching arm which will remind you for days of what pesto (whose literal translation is “smashed”) really means.

As most of you don’t have any religious commitment to pesto, you’re allowed to the food processor shortcut, which literally means “toss everything in the bowl at once and fire it up”. What I can do to spare your poor basil and pesto from a very unhappy ending is a word of advice: use the maximum speed your blender can handle, in order to minimise the time your leaves touch the blades, work fast and, if you can, chill the bowl beforehand, putting it in your freezer for a couple of hours (pesto then becomes a rush against time, but it can be fun).

Pesto can be used in a number of ways, but the most traditional (and, by far, preferred) way of consuming it is with pasta. You have two choices, really: either “trofie”, which is a typical fresh pasta nearly impossible to find outside Liguria, or “trenette”, which is a kind of flat long pasta, similar to linguine. I will forgive you for using linguine if you can’t find trenette, but eternal damnation is waiting for you if you give up to spaghetti. If you want the stick to tradition and get the extra kick (and believe me, you do), you should go for the “pesto avvantaggiato” (which I translate quite liberally and geeky as “pesto++”): all it takes is one medium-sized potato sliced in 0.5cm cubes, and a good handful of green beans, chopped in 4cm chunks. The vegetables have to cook in the same pan you’ll be cooking pasta in, and you have to be careful about timing. Just know potatoes and beans require 10 minutes of cooking, read the cooking time for pasta, taking no less than two minutes off, and adjust cooking times accordingly: if your pasta requires 12 minutes, you take two off and end up with 10, meaning you can throw everything together. If you need just 8 minutes for pasta, throw the veggies, wait for two minutes then add pasta in. Easy, huh?

Unfortunately, we have a problem now (and a general advice): the proper way of cooking pasta requires finishing it up in a sautée pan. Pasta, once drained, is still thirsty, and will happily keep on absorbing liquids: if you just add the sauce and dish the result out, by the time it gets to the table your precious pasta will be either soggy or dry. The finishing touch in the pan, which seals the pasta and provides an excellent way of mixing it with the sauce, usually involves a) saving a cup of water from the boiling pot, b) throwing sauce, pasta and some water in the sautée pan and c) “stir fry” for a couple of minutes over high heat, slowly adding cooking water should it dry out. This excellent and easy technique, unfortunately, cannot be applied to pesto for two reasons: basil, as we know by now, is scared of heat, pesto is a cold sauce and should be used in warm environments at most. Also, pesto contains a lot of cheese which can’t stand direct heat as well without getting bitter in taste and chewy in texture.

There are a few solutions here, and everyone fiercely defends his. You can just forget about the stir fry part and throw pesto and pasta in a bowl, but in my opinion this is a recipe for sogginess. You can forget about temperature and stir fry using a very vigorous approach to avoid cheese from sticking, but I think this is just plain pesto murder. My compromise: grab a cup of water from the boiling pasta, add a spoonful of olive oil and mix. Throw the liquid in the frying pan together with pasta and perform the sautée bit. That will seal the pasta using harmless stuff such as oil and water, finishing it up perfectly and giving it the nice, shiny, and glossy look you’d expect. Let the pan cool down a bit, then carefully add the sauce in, mixing it in until shiny and blended. If you want to preserve tradition, this recipe includes adding some fresh soft cheese to the sauce (the real thing is called “prescinsoeua”, but it’s as hard to find as it is to pronounce it correctly if you’re not a Ligurian native): I had some good results using “squacquerone” (soft cheese from Romagna) but I expect that won’t be an easy quest as well for anyone outside Italy. I’ve been told that cream cheese gets pretty close, and I should really try some cottage, assuming I can find some with a sourish taste. Your mileage may vary, of course, but do try adding some fresh cheese, as it really makes the difference, adding a nice fresh and slightly sour taste to the basil aroma, the sharpness of garlic and the nutty flavour of pine nuts and olive oil.

Back to cheating now: I have to confess that despite my origins, I use a few shortcuts. First of all, I have to deal with poor basil, but hey, living in Milano that’s not my fault. Also, while I do indeed use the mortar, I rarely have the hour or so required to shred the basil: I found a good compromise is roughly cutting the leaves with a ceramic knife (if you don’t have one, ask Santa, as it really makes a world of difference when cutting vegetables), which avoids oxidation and doesn’t have any peculiar chemical reactions, leaving the basil untouched in color while shaving a good twenty-thirty minutes on the pestel. You might want to try it, and I hope Fabrizio will forgive me.

Now, back to those slides…

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