Friday, September 3, 2010

Linguine with Garden-Fresh Basil Pesto, Green Beans & Potatoes

The garden that I keep in my back yard is almost entirely shaded. I love flower and perennial gardening in the shade, but as a cook, I would like to be able to maintain a small kitchen garden. The area on the periphery of my yard that is sunny enough to be devoted to a few vegetables and herbs has become smaller and smaller each year as the canopy of our beautiful Silver Maple continues to expand.

For several years now, my "kitchen garden" has been just tomatoes and herbs. I made the decision this year to forgo the tomatoes and now, if you don't count my perennial rhubarb plant, my kitchen garden has become an herb garden.

I miss the tomatoes, but without their massive bulk climbing and crawling everywhere, my herbs have done very well. My basil plants have been particularly happy and I have enjoyed having an abundant supply all summer to tuck into pastas, salads and vegetable ragouts. I anticipate being able to freeze large quantities of pesto—something I haven't been able to do for several years. Before this year, even though I would faithfully plant two or three basil plants in the spring, by mid-summer the tomatoes would have swallowed them up. Perhaps I will even have enough basil to make some basil butter for the freezer too.

Basil pesto is wonderful in many different things—sandwiches, soups, pizza, pasta.... It pairs well with all of the vegetables of late summer—tomatoes, green beans, summer squash, peppers, eggplant—I particularly like it with sweet corn. It seems to have a special affinity for starchy ingredients like potatoes, bread, pasta and shell beans. It is these starchy things that will be dressed with my freezer stash of pesto during the winter months ahead. If you make some pesto, you will find many, many uses for it.

I think pesto should be all about the basil, with the cheese, nuts and garlic adding interest and support. But there is not universal agreement on this. I have a chef friend (you know who you are) that I tease about his version of pesto. I tell him he really isn't making basil pesto—he's making Parmesan-pine nut pesto. Even though I harass him, his pesto is delicious—and a great example of how you should always make things to please your matter what a recipe says. Having said that, be careful with the garlic. Even if you like strong garlic flavor, a little goes a long way.

When I make pesto, I always try to plan far enough ahead so that after I have washed and dried my basil in the salad spinner, there will be time to spread it on towels to allow it to dry completely.  Water left clinging to the leaves emulsifies into the pesto and tends to encourage it to oxidize. I also take a minute to smash the garlic to a smooth purée using my chef's knife and some salt before putting it into the food processor with the basil and toasted pine nuts.  This will insure that it will be evenly and smoothly distributed throughout the pesto.  Finally, don't begin to add any of the oil until the pine nuts and basil are as finely minced as you would like them to be. Adding the oil too early will make it difficult to achieve a uniform and fine mince.

Once the contents of the processor bowl are ready, add the oil in a thin stream with the processor running. Then pulse in the finely grated cheese. I like to use a mix of Parmesan and Pecorino—the Pecorino adds a sharp, salty accent. The final consistency should be thick. If it is thin and runny, you have added too much oil.

One of my favorite ways to enjoy basil pesto is in the classic Ligurian dish of linguine tossed with green beans and potatoes and sauced with pesto. To the instructions given in the recipe below, I would only add that this is not a dish about bright green, tender-crisp green beans—while they shouldn't be falling apart, they should be fully cooked. Similarly, the potatoes should be quite tender. It's OK if they crumble a bit as you toss the pasta.

When I teach pasta in my classes I always emphasize that it is important to save some of the pasta cooking water to correct the consistency of a sauce that is too thick. When using pesto as a pasta sauce, this is imperative. As mentioned above, pesto is thick. In order to sauce pasta, the pesto must be thinned somehow. Many people make the mistake of adding more oil. This results in an overly rich dish that can be sticky and stodgy. Instead of oil, the pesto should be combined with some of the pasta water until it is fluid and sauce-like. I find that people who say that they don't like pasta with pesto have probably never had it made with properly thinned pesto.

It has been such a treat this year to have abundant, garden-fresh basil all summer.  And while I will enjoy having pesto in my freezer to use this winter, I have to say that now is the time to really enjoy basil. Something happens to basil when it is exposed to the cold of the refrigerator or freezer—its flavor becomes slightly sharp...even harsh. Basil fresh from the garden is sweet and aromatic. Grocery store basil (even when sold in a small plug of soil, ostensibly still growing) cannot compare to basil that has been grown just outside of your own back door and has been cut right before you use it. If you have never grown your own basil, you should make a note in your planner to plant some next summer. A small patch of bright sunlight is all you will need.

Basil Pesto

1 clove of garlic, peeled and smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt
1/4 c. lightly toasted pine nuts
2 c. packed basil leaves (about 2 ounces), washed and dried
1/2 c. grated Parmesan and/or Pecorino
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste

Place the garlic, basil and pine nuts in the food processor and process until the ingredients are finely and evenly chopped (stop the food processor a couple of times to scrape down the sides). With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Scrape down the sides; add the cheese and pulse to combine. Add salt to taste. Makes about 1 cup.

Although it is best at room temperature the day it is made, basil pesto will keep in the refrigerator about a week. Keep covered with a film of olive oil.

Linguine with Pesto, Green Beans & New Potatoes

1/2 lb. new potatoes, scrubbed and sliced 1/8-inch thick
1/2 lb. green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths
1 lb. Linguine
1/2 to 3/4 cup Basil pesto

Place the potatoes in a high-sided sauté pan with a lid and add water to just barely cover the potatoes. Season with salt and drizzle with a little olive oil. Simmer the potatoes until they are just tender; set aside.

Blanch the green beans in 6 quarts of boiling salted water. Lift the beans out of the water and spread on a towel.

Add the linguine to the water and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Place a half cup of the pesto in a large bowl. Add enough pasta water (2 T. or so) to the pesto to thin it to a sauce consistency. Add the drained potatoes, the green beans and the linguine and toss to coat. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and more pesto if you like. Add more pasta water if it seems dry or tight. Serve immediately, passing freshly grated Parmesan separately. Serves 4 to 6.


Katrina said...

Love your pesto! That is how I make it now since you shared the recipe in a class. I've always thought it was too garlicky when I've had it before.
Question, you do NOT want the tops of basil to start getting white flowers on it, right? And if not, how do you stop that from happening?

Paige said...

Hi Katrina,

Once an herb begins to flower, the flavor changes (I guess because the plant has moved into "seed production" mode). To prevent this, just pinch the tops of the branches off just below the rosette of leaves/bud that incicates that flowers are starting to form on that branch. This will force two more branches to form where you pinched it back--giving you more leaves and a bushier plant, but also creating 2 more potential flower stalks--so you need to visit the plants a couple of times a week to continue to pinch off new flowers as they begin to form.

Daphne said...

Made this dish and we loved it. We will be having this again.

Thanks Paige!