PETER PIPER PICKED A PECK OF PERFECT PESTO
“What,” pondered Peter Piper in his parlor, “shall I make with all this stuff?”
When was the first time I tasted pesto? I truly can’t remember. As you recall, I grew up in a small, engineer-friendly town in the shadow of NASA’s rockets, daughter of the Space Age, raised on the new-fangled and the packaged. Whether boxed, canned or frozen, it was all homely fare, nothing gourmet. Our part of the planet seemed to be utterly untouched by The French Chef or The Galloping Gourmet, even though we religiously watched them on tv. It was as if we lived in some closed-off, pod-like culinary community only receiving the ultramodern, faddish inventions of the food industry, products and ideas meant to recreate a real, homey, old fashioned atmosphere, modernize it for our (read: our mom’s) convenience and bring it right to the dinner table.
Pesto was worlds away from the creamed chicken and noodles, the tv dinners and the jarred tomato sauce. What passed for Parmesan cheese came in a green shaker can, basil I had only ever heard of on British tv and pine nuts…. pine nuts?
We grew up thinking that pasta was either those cans of kid-friendly O’s or squiggles of mushy pasta shapes smothered in tomato-y or cheesy sauce, chemicals galore (but we loved ‘em anyway, didn’t we?) or the pasta we got at home, spaghetti tossed with mom’s sauce (jar? can?) and served up with dry (sorry mom) meatballs. The occasional dinner out at Rocco’s Italian Restaurant down in that mini strip mall on A1A opened my eyes to what could really be Italian food, thick ruby-red sauce blanketing angel’s hair pasta or golden fried eggplant slices, all served to us on those red-and-white checkered tablecloths, the traditional candle stuck in the Chianti bottle as centerpiece. But still no pesto. The Italian food we saw in the states (or maybe just where I lived) was quintessentially Southern Italian brought over from Naples how many generations ago, rich and filling, heavy on the pizzas and red sauce, the experience somewhat “Disneyized” for the American public.
Maybe I had my first taste of pesto at my oh-so-cosmopolitan cousin’s apartment in New York City in those heady years after college, small town girl trying to get it right in the big city, living on slave wages and taking culinary refuge in his chic Manhattan apartment whenever I could. Or was it my brother, gourmet that he was, who introduced me to the magic that is pesto? In Italy? I truly don’t remember, but I do know that I’m nuts about the stuff. The rich flavor of pesto, both delicate and sharp, both tangy and smooth, pure elegance.
I buy pesto by the jar, an Italian brand, of course, because my sons, gourmand and food-aware as they are in their lively, multi-cultured world, eat it by the spoonful, would eat it every day if they could. But last week, JP came to me and pointed at the beautiful, lush kitchen garden he had planted for me and said “You must do something with all of that basil or it’s going to rot and the plant won’t grow anymore.” So homemade pesto it was. So easy to make I wondered aloud why it was that I had never made it before, why I didn’t make it regularly? Well I know that the ingredients can be pricey, but oh is the outcome worth it! So I decided to serve Pasta al Pesto one night and make Pesto Swirl Buns the next as I had leftover pizza dough in the refrigerator. Fabulous!
I must admit that for the photos I did use an excellent quality jarred pesto for the Pesto Swirl Buns, but I so wanted these for dinner and I wanted to show you what great things can be made with pesto, either homemade when you have it, jarred when you don’t. The Buns I am sending over to Susan of Wild Yeast for Yeastspotting, her weekly All Things Yeast event.
PESTO ALLA GENOVESE
2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 to 4 cloves garlic
½ cup pine nuts
¼ tsp salt or to taste (don’t skimp as this brings out the flavor of the other ingredients)
1/3 cup olive oil
Place all the ingredients in a blender and whiz until smooth. Add more cheese, garlic or salt as desired to taste.
Makes 1 jelly jar full.
PASTA AL PESTO
For 4 people
1 lb (500 g) dried spaghetti
Make the pasta as directed on the package. Drain and place into a large serving bowl. Toss in the pesto (if you like, you can warm the pesto first).
Serve with additional grated Parmesan cheese. I like to serve this with a fresh tomato salad, a loaf of fresh Italian bread and a good red wine.
PESTO SWIRL BUNS
Bread Dough (I used about ½ - ¾ of my pizza dough : see recipe here)
1 pot pesto
Allow the dough to rest at room temperature if it has been in the fridge. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a long rectangle about ½-inch (1 cm) thick. Mine may have been about a foot long or a bit longer.
Spread the pesto evenly all over the dough coming all the way to the edges except for the far edge. Roll the dough up lengthwise as tight as possible. Slice into 1 ¼ to 1 ½ inch (3 – 4 cm) wide pieces. Lay cut side up slightly space apart in a parchment lined baking tin. Allow to rest 15 – 30 minutes (they should rise and spread out a bit).
Preheat the oven to 425°F (225°C). Lightly dab the surface of the buns (the dough part not the pesto) with an egg wash (beaten egg) and sprinkle with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until puffed up and lightly browned all over the surface.
Best eaten warm, but these were fabulous for two days after they came out of the oven, re-warmed or eaten at room temp!