Thursday, September 04, 2008

Pesto: For eating now and for the freezer

The area of Genoa, on the Mediterranean coast of Italy, is home to 'pesto', known in Italian as 'pesto alla genovese'. (The name pesto comes from the Latin for 'pounded' or 'crushed'.) This intense sauce of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and aged tangy cheese, is used primarily as a dressing for pasta. Pesto is most classical as a dressing for 'tagliatelli', a flat egg noodle, and the pasta with my favorite name, 'strozza preti' (priest stranglers). In Genoa, potato is often cooked in with the pasta. Pesto is also served with potato gnocchi, the little fork-scored dumplings.

Genoa is the home of the great navigator and explorer, Cristoforo Colombo, Columbus to us, who sailed for the Spanish Crown. Genoa is also the homeland of the Donderos, a very regional clan. My great-grandfather sailed from Genoa to New York in 1861, worked for a while in Ontario (my grandfather was Canadian born), and finally settled in New Hampshire. Genovese have migrated in small numbers, rather than in mass movements, to wherever ships sailed in the New World. Pesto, and 'Sardo Pecorino', a sheeps milk cheese used for it, are made in Argentina, and pesto and tagliatelli (and even Donderos) are found in Peru.

While pesto is Genoese, similar basil sauces, like 'pistou' from Marseilles, are found through the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. These days, as traditional food names are stretched, there is a 'pesto rosso', a red sauce of dried tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and cheese. (I'll work on that for a future blog.) And very recently, arugula is being incorporated into pesto, along with or even in place of the basil. As pine nuts ('pignoli') get more expensive, walnuts or even cashews are sometimes substituted. The cheese for pesto is traditionally Pecorino Romano or Parmesan, or a combination. A milder, but authentic, variation in the herb is my preference, replacing 1/4 of the basil with fresh parsley.

Basil is still plentiful, but will be fading as the weather gets colder. This is still a great time to make pesto, to enjoy it now and to freeze for enjoyment in the winter. Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for a week, putting a layer of olive oil over the surface to keep the green from browning. For freezing for later use, it is better -- but not esential -- to omit the cheese, and put it in just before serving.

Traditionally the pesto is held at room temperature while the pasta (containing some small chunks of peeled potatoes) is boiled. Before draining the pasta, a quarter cup of the pasta water is removed and stirred into the pesto. When the pasta is drained in a colander, after brief shaking it is transferred to a large pasta bowl and tossed with the diluted pesto. The dish is finished with more grated cheese.

The recipe makes enough pesto for pasta for six people. There may be some pesto left over, which can be stored in the fridge for later use, coated with a layer of olive oil to reduce color change. Or make several recipes worth, depending on your supply of basil, withhold the cheese, and freeze the extra in meal-sized portions in zip-locked plastic bags (add the cheese after defrosting, just before eating).

A dry red wine, Italian or South American, or an American Zinfandel, goes well with this dish, as does warm, crusty bread.

Pesto with Pasta Tim

1-1/2 cups fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1/2 cup parsley leaves, flat 'Italian' type preferred, lightly packed
3 tablespoons pine nuts (or walnuts)
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
5/8 cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese, or a mixture

12 to 16 ounces pasta
2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 1/2-inch chunks
Salt for boiling
Grated cheese for garnish

Put basil, parsley, pine nuts, garlic, oil, and salt in a blender or food processor. Pulse it a number of times, scraping down the container with a spatula. Do not puree the herbs, but chop them until they are small specks. Remove the mixture to a bowl. If the pesto is to be eaten soon, stir in the cheese. Taste a little (it's strongly flavored), and add salt if necessary.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons salt to the water. Add the potatoes, and when the water returns to a boil, add the pasta and stir immediately so it does not stick together. Let boil, stirring frequently. When the pasta is tender to the bite, remove 1/4 cup of the pasta-boiling water and stir it into the pesto. Drain the pasta in a colander, shaking once or twice, and transfer it to a large serving bowl. Toss the pasta with the diluted pesto. Sprinkle with a little more cheese to serve.

Alternatively, for freezing, make the pesto without the cheese. Place in meal-sized quantities in zip-lock bags in the freezer. To serve, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, stir in grated cheese and then some of the pasta boiling water. Taste, and add a little salt if needed.


Blogger Katie Mae said...

I really enjoy this new recipe. Tonight I am making a pasta dish a lot like your Winter Pasta with butternut.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Tim Dondero said...

Katie Mae: Thanks for your comments. No matter how much I love spicy curries and other Asian food, pasta dishes feel like "home" to me. Be sure to try some of the interestingly shaped -- and named -- pastas. Tim

5:47 PM  

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