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A Pesto Primer

  • July 5, 2012
First let me banish any misconception that pesto refers only to the concoction using fresh basil as the major ingredient. The word pesto simply means anything that’s pounded, so you could have pesto made using artichokes as the base, or olives, or even celery for example. For this post, it’s all about the basil though, and the classic pesto alla genovese, from the region of Liguria. It may come as a surprise to many of you, but the traditional pesto alla genovese is frequently served using trenette or linguini, and includes potatoes and green beans, cooked in the same water as the pasta. Alternatively, another authentic shape of pasta used in Liguria, is the little twisted squiggles called “trofie” – more on those below.
My friends from Liguria tell me that the smaller leaf basil provides a much more flavorful pesto, but I never actually put it to the test – until now that is. My friend Dorothy, whom I’ve written about before here and here, is responsible for creating a vegetable garden at a local elementary school in Princeton. This year, she received a generous gift of 45 basil plants from Cross Country Nurseries in Rosemont, N.J.
Among the plants are several varieties of small leafed basil, including the ones below that I harvested to make the pesto in the first photo.
 Here’s a photo of part of the garden, including some of the various basil plants. I never knew there were so many varieties of basil. Cross Country Nurseries carries 94 different varieties — from lemon basil, lime basil, cinnamon basil, anise basil and many others — all with different aromas and tastes.
This is just one of the purple leafed varieties.
This one’s serrata basil.
I think this was an anise flavored basil.
This is a lettuce-leaf basil, and Dorothy says it’s great for using as a wrap instead of bread. I can’t wait to experiment more with some of these varieties – in salads, in main dishes, even in desserts. But for now, it’s back to the small-leafed variety for the pesto.
The classic pesto alla genovese uses pine nuts, but I couldn’t find any European pine nuts locally (next time I’m in Philly I know I can get them in the Italian neighborhood on Ninth Street). I’m not eating Chinese pine nuts, since so many people have reported pine nut syndrome as a result. As a substitute, I used pistachios, something I’ve been wanting to do since I ate a fabulous pistachio pesto at Le Virtu in Philly. Make sure you use good quality extra virgin olive oil too. This one was from Casale Sonnino, a villa and farm owned by friends of mine in Italy. It’s simply the best, and you can be guaranteed that it’s unadulterated oil from olives on their property outside Rome that they take to the mill themselves. They take orders, and also rent out their villa to vacationers, so check out their website here. 
I figured since I had the tiny leaf basil, why not try to make pesto the way it’s been made for centuries in Italy — using a mortar and pestle. Decades ago, my brother-in-law gave me an antique mortar and pestle that was actually used at one time as a pharmacist’s tool, and maybe I should have just kept it on the shelf. After years of use, it cracked last year while I was pounding something in it – I don’t remember what. I do use a mortar and pestle occasionally for crushing rosemary into paste and sometimes to break up hard seeds like coriander or black pepper corns. So this year, I replaced the old antique apothecary’s mortar with another marble one – from Williams Sonoma.
It really takes a lot of elbow grease to pound those little leaves, garlic, salt and oil into a paste. Enlist the help of someone if you can and take turns (or surrender to the food processor).
When it’s sufficiently pounded (or sooner if you can’t go any further), boil the potatoes and add the green beans and the pasta in the same water after the potatoes are about 10 minutes from being done.
Drain everything and mix with the pesto and a healthy handful of parmesan or pecorino cheese. I can say that the small basil leaf was very flavorful and pungent, and along with the pistachios, I didn’t miss the pine nuts at all. But one thing that always bothers me is how quickly the pesto goes from bright green to a drab olive green.
So I set off to do an experiment of blanching the basil leaves before making the pesto. This time I made the pesto using my first harvest of the season from my garden – of the regular large-leafed variety.
My neighbor’s daughter Janie was my sous chef, helping me pluck the leaves from the stems.
We blanched the leaves in boiling water (count to 10 and then remove the leaves).
Immerse them immediately in an ice water bath.
Squeeze the water out of the leaves.
And this time I used the food processor, not the mortar and pestle. The color was a vibrant green.
Check out the difference in the colors of the basil – on the left is one made with non-blanched leaves and on the right one made with blanched leaves.
Insung and her daughter Janie were impatient to taste the finished product, but bloggers have to get those pictures first! This version was made using toasted almonds instead of pine nuts, and trofie pasta.
Normally, when the pesto hits the hot pasta, the color darkens to a drab green, but blanching helped it keep its bright color for quite a while.
Now that basil is flourishing in gardens everywhere, make sure you make enough pesto to put away for the winter. It freezes beautifully, provided you omit the cheese until you’re ready to serve.

Pesto Alla Genovese
printable recipe here

The amounts aren’t exact. A lot depends on how firmly you pack the basil into the measuring cup, how large the garlic cloves are, and of course, your taste buds.

4 cups basil, loosely packed
2 large cloves garlic
1/4 cup Italian pine nuts, toasted, or pistachios (salted or unsalted), or toasted almonds or walnuts
extra virgin olive oil – as much as two cups, as needed to obtain a loose pesto.
1/4 cup – 1/2 cup parmesan cheese (or pecorino if desired)

If using a food processor: Tear leaves from stem, wash, dry and place in a food processor, along with the garlic, nuts and a small amount of the olive oil. Start with 1/2 cup and keep adding more until it flows smoothly when you dip a spoon into it, but not so thin that it falls off in a stream. Use your judgment.
Add parmesan cheese if serving immediately. If you’re planning to freeze it, don’t add the parmesan cheese until after you defrost it and are ready to serve.

If using a mortar and pestle, start with the washed and dried basil leaves, garlic and nuts and add a small amount of coarse salt to help break down the leaves. Pound with the pestle and slowly add a little bit of olive oil. Keep working the mixture with the pestle and add the rest of the oil as needed. The process takes a lot of patience and time.

Inspired by the Alban Hills

  • August 5, 2011
This dish of orecchiette with pancetta, zucchini and zucchini blossoms was inspired by a lunch my son and I ate on our way from Abruzzo to Rome. We’d knew we’d be driving right through the Alban Hills, and a series of towns known as “Castelli Romani,” where one of my close friends, Clo, owned a home. Since her death two years ago, her son George and daughter Claire have now taken over running the place, called Casale Sonnino, which produces some of the best olive oil you’ll ever taste. They also open their 18th century villa to paying guests and it’s a great retreat for anyone who wants to be close to Rome, but away from the frenetic tourist masses.
How would you like to fling open the shutters in the morning and wake up to this view?
George treated my son and me to a wonderful lunch at a restaurant in the nearby town of Monte Porzio Catone. My son ordered this platter of penne with zucchini, zucchini blossoms and pancetta – loaded with cream and deliciousness.
I had been eating so much pasta at that point, I decided my waistline needed a break. I ordered the stuffed zucchini, a recipe very similar to one I posted on my blog last summer, only this dish used the long zucchini, while mine were the round variety.
As you can tell, zucchini recipes abound in restaurant menus right now all over Italy – and why not? They’re so easy to grow and vegetable gardens here and in Italy are bursting forth with enough zucchini to feed a small country.
When my friend Dorothy asked me to do a cooking demonstration for a weekly group she hosts called “The Suppers Program” – a group that helps people learn about good nutrition to combat mental and health issues of any sort – from diabetes, depression, obseity and alcohol abuse, for instance – I was happy to help her out and meet a lot of nice people too – people interested in improving their physical and mental health.
 Refined sugars and grains were taboo, Dorothy said, so I thought of a zucchini dish – stuffed zucchini two ways – filled with meat in this recipe:
and a vegetarian version filled with brown rice and cheese in this recipe.
A few nights later, I also made this quick pasta dish for myself using pancetta, zucchini and zucchini flowers. I omitted the cream that gave the dish I ate in Italy a luscious flavor and texture, but if you’ve been swimming your laps lately, feel free to indulge.


Pasta with Zucchini and Pancetta

Printable Recipe Here

For two people:

1/2 pound pasta
6 ounces pancetta, sliced into bits
1 medium zucchini or 2 small zucchini, sliced
10-12 zucchini flowers, sliced into bits (make sure you check for visitors)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup onion, minced
salt, pepper to taste
pasta water
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

Saute the pancetta in a saucepan. You may need to add a little oil, but not much since the pancetta gives off a lot of fat when it starts to cook. Before the pancetta is completely cooked, add the olive oil, onions and sliced zucchini and saute, seasoning with salt and pepper. Let everything cook for a few minutes, then add the minced garlic and cook for a few minutes more.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta and drain it directly into the pan with the zucchini, adding some of the pasta water to make a loose sauce. If you want to add cream here, you could slowly add about 1/2 cup.
Stir everything together until it’s all amalgamated nicely, then turn off the heat and add about 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Stir in the zucchini blossoms and serve at once, with more parmesan cheese.

Casale Sonnino Olive Oil

  • January 30, 2009

If you read this blog, you care about food and the basic ingredients you use in your cooking, including extra virgin Italian olive oil.

But are you really using extra virgin Italian olive oil? Or are you the unsuspecting owner of a bottle of hazelnut oil from Turkey, or sunflower oil from Argentina?

It’s not so easy to know, even if you buy olive oil that you think is a well-known, well-respected, international brand. A lot has been written about fraud in the industry, including a well documented piece written a while ago in the New Yorker Magazine entitled “Slippery Business,” the trade in adulterated olive oil.

Aside from the question of whether it’s really olive oil, there’s little way of knowing (assuming it is olive oil), how the olives and trees were grown and maintained, whether they were overly sprayed with pesticide days before picking, whether they were sitting around too long before milling, subject to bruising, whether all the olives came from Italy or whether the oil in the bottle really was the first cold pressing.

Casale Sonnino, vineyards and olive trees

That’s something I don’t give a second thought to when I buy olive oil from Casale Sonnino, a villa and vineyard in the hills outside Rome owned by my friend Clo Sonnino Treves.

The olives from the 700 trees on her property are hand picked by a small group of local women in the traditional manner. Nets are strung below the olive trees to capture any falling fruit before they hit the ground to prevent bruising. The olives are transported within days to a local mill, where Clo’s son George supervises the pressing from start to finish. I can always be sure that their extra virgin olive oil is the first cold pressing from estate grown olives. Like grapes, olives for oil come in many varieties. Casale Sonnino olive oil uses Broccanica, Rosciola, Venina and the Tuscan Leccino.

Clo’s daughter Claire says that last November’s harvest produced a bumper crop and the most delicious batch in recent memory.

Casale Sonnino

I’m planning to put my order in soon since the shipment arrives from Italy in February. You should too if you want to try a truly artisanal, truly exquisite, unadulterated extra virgin olive oil. Contact Claire to find out about prices and/or place your order. She can be reached by email at claire@casalesonnino or at 516-767-7188.

She can also tell you about the Casale itself, an 18th century ancestral home that is rented out by the week to vacationing family groups, artists and travelers all year long. Their website is