Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Home Made End-of-Summer Pesto and Not Only

Now that you have found, collected and shelled a bagful of pine nuts (or maybe, hmmmm, you just went out and bought some) go ahead and reward yourself with a delicious pine nut treat.

I always think of pesto sauce when I think of pine nuts even though the main ingredient is fresh basil leaves. Maybe I think of pesto because I like pasta so much and this classic from Italy's Ligurian Coast goes so well with it! Purist Ligurians will tell you that pesto should be served over trofie, a twisted, flour and water pasta, maybe with the addition of green beans and sliced potatoes. 

Other pesto purists will tell you that you should only hand chop all of the ingredients or smash them in a mortar and pestle (pesto gets its name from the Italian word pestare to smash or crush).

I'm a purist up to a point: I want to make sure that I am using the best quality and freshest ingredients I can find (what's fresher than hand-picked pinoli and home-grown basil?) while at the same time trying to get dinner on the table for two other humans and into bowls for three furry friends. So for me the food processor works just fine.

The basic procedure for making pesto - grind leaves, nuts, garlic into a paste and thin with oil - can be applied to a variety of other combinations of greens and nuts. 

One of my favorite "pestos" is made with peppery arugula leaves and almonds. This is such an easy pasta sauce (or even topping for bruschetta) and all of the ingredients except the arugula are things you may already have in your refrigerator or pantry! And best of all, you can literally prepare it in the time it takes to boil the pasta! 

The finished product!

Homemade Pesto

4 cups fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic, smashed slightly
2-3 tablespoons pine nuts (pinoli)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup grated parmigiana cheese
Salt to taste

First decide if you will be using a mortar and pestle to make your pesto or a blender or food processor. Purists will opt for the mortar and pestle.

Add the basil leaves, garlic and pine nuts recipient of your choice and begin smashing or pulsing until the mixture has the consistency of a slightly rough paste.

Slowly add the olive oil and parmigiana cheese until the mixture becomes a loose paste; add salt to taste.

The pesto is now ready to serve over pasta or can be frozen for future use. 

Makes about 1 cup of pesto

Arugula and Almond Pesto

About 4 cups of fresh arugula leaves
2-3 tablespoons raw almonds
Pitted black olives, Greek or Gaeta are best, optional
1 small clove garlic, optional
1 or 2 sun-dried tomatoes, optional
Chili pepper, optional
¼ to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiana cheese

In the bowl of a food processor or blender, pulse together the arugula, almonds, black olives, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes and chilli pepper until the mixture becomes a slightly smooth paste.  

Slowly add the extra virgin olive oil in a slow stream until mixture loosens a bit.

Slightly before pasta is done cooking, add about ¼ of the pasta water to the pesto mixture and pulse.

Salt to taste.

Toss immediately with the hot pasta and serve with freshly grated parmigiana cheese.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pinoli Romani: The Art of Collecting Pine Nuts in Rome

The American tourists stared as they walked past us, not knowing what we were greedily gathering and tossing into our bags along the perimeter of the Circo Massimo, the large green space in the center of Rome that was the fictitious site of the chariot race scene made famous in the film "Ben Hur".

Roman Parasol Pines along the Circo Massimo
"They're collecting pine nuts" one of them said, stopping his family to show them what the prized bounty they were casually walking over looked like. “A small bag costs €4 to €5 in the stores” he excitedly explained to them. The group glanced over at our quickly filling bag, and then looked down to the sidewalk that a minute ago held no interest to them. And why should it? To the untrained eye, these camouflage-colored nuts of our fervent hunt are just part of the Roman street scene. But to anyone who knows, they were walking over one of the costliest ingredients in Italian cooking!
Circo Massimo, like other public parks, sidewalks, parking lots, private gardens and archaeological sites in Rome, is full of Pinus pinea, Roman Stone Pines or Parasol Pines as they’re more romantically called. At the end of Rome’s long, hot summer, giant, dry pine cones along with their seeds drop to the ground from trees (dangerous to cars and walkers, considering how many pine trees there are in Rome!) offering a free Roman delicacy to anyone willing to do a little hard work to get their prize.

Beware: Falling Pine Cones

There are lots of free edibles for the taking in and around Rome, like wild chicory, arugula, mint…spontaneous growths that appear along the side of a road, anywhere there is a bit of green. When the season’s right it’s not uncommon to see hunched figures along a major roadway digging up greens of all sorts. Pine nuts are another delicious freebie of Rome.

Empty Pine Shells
Every Italian school child knows the pleasure of cracking open tiny pinoli. The pine nut in its hard, outer shell is put on a rock and with another rock it is gently cracked open. Come down too hard on the shell, and you crush the delicate nut meat inside. The work is laborious and can be messy. If it weren’t, pine nuts wouldn’t cost up to €60 per kilogram.But your hard work will have paid off when you make your first batch of late summer pesto. The ingredients are few but must be of the best quality: a bunch of fresh basil leaves (preferably home grown), a handful of pine nuts (collected by you, of course), grated parmesan and/or pecorino cheese, garlic and enough olive oil to turn it all into a luscious paste. 

Or you can just eat them straight out of their shell. My boyfriend Alfonso has perfected his pine nut cracking skills over the years and now puts them to good use as part of his exercise routine in a pine laden park by our house. During his one-and-a-half minutes of recovery time between sets of lunges, sit-ups and push-ups, Alfonso finds, cracks open and eats a pine nut. Great source of iron and magnesium! But none of the precious nuts get brought home to me.