THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
One of the beauties of living in the United States is the availability of land. Give that land to a Chef and instead of bougainvilleas and roses you will find herbs and vegetables.
In fact, a few months ago we decided it would have been a good idea to dedicate part of our backyard to herbs and vegetables. We planted tomatoes, zucchini squash, mix greens, jalapenos as well as rosemary, oregano, mint, chocolate peppermint, thyme and sage.
Since then, the garden has become a source of inspiration for my dishes and culinary creations.
This year we had particular luck with basil which has been growing lushly during the whole summer despite the 110 degrees Arizona weather. So, what a better chance than this to have friends over to harvest our plants and teach them about pesto?
Pesto comes from Liguria, a long narrow mountainous strip of land that goes from the French border as far as northern Tuscany. Its population of fishermen and peasant farmers eked out an existence, adopting a frugal attitude toward life that even today is often branded as stinginess. The local cuisine reflects this need to use what this sun-kissed but demanding land can produce: excellent olive oil, succulent walnuts and pine nuts, flavorsome wild herbs such as borage, rosemary and basil, plenty of fish, and meat from the mountains such as rabbit, wild boar, and goat.
Liguria’s most famous invention, pesto, is an example in kind. Made according to tradition, by crushing tender young basil leaves (the plant was recently awarded DOP status to protect how and where it is grown), pine nuts, garlic, and grated cheese in a mortar and then adding fragrant olive oil, it turns the humble dish of pasta into a flavorsome pleasure. Pesto is most often served with gnocchi, “trofie” (twists of fresh pasta), or “trenette,” wider version of the flat linguine. A classic dish, “trenette col pesto alla genovese,” also includes potatoes and green beans. As an alternative to a pesto-flavored first course, you can try “pansotti,” egg pasta stuffed with ricotta and borage and often served with a walnut sauce, or “ravioli alla genovese” with a rich meat filling.
For the main courses you can enjoy traditional dishes such as “burrida,” a fish stew made with tomatoes, “baccalà in zimino” dried cod served over a bed of spinach or spring greens, or fresh anchovies either fried, stuffed or baked with wild fennel. If you prefer meat, try the flavorsome local lamb, roasted or stewed with artichokes, or rabbit, especially delicious when roasted with Liguria’s aromatic olives.
Despite basil being the most predominant flavor and ingredient in the creation of this simply wonderful dish, pine nuts are also a vital element for the success of Traditional Pesto Genovese.
Pine nuts (pinoli or pignoli), tiny, pale, teardrop shaped nuts, are used in cooking and baking throughout Italy. In Tuscany, they are baked into pastries. In Umbria, they are roasted with meats. In Sicily, pine nuts are paired with all kinds of seafood.
Then there’s Genoa where pesto, that famous and fragrant fresh basil sauce, originated.
Though basil is the dominant flavor, pounded as it is with olive oil, grated cheese, and garlic, it’s the addition of pine nuts that gives pesto its supple texture and richness. (Traditional pesto, the only kind most Genovese will eat, is pounded in a mortar and pestle to release essential oils, enhancing the flavor and creating an inimitable texture.)
Indeed, pine nuts have long been entrenched in Italian cuisine.
Roman soldiers ate pine nuts as they marched into battle. In 1666 Pope Clement IX decreed a pine nut plantantion be planted on the coast near Rome to ensure a steady supply. And archaeologists uncovered piles of the savory seeds preserved in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. Pine nuts play a role in other food cultures as well, including Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East. Native Americans from Mexico to Idaho have relied on it for thousands of years, often grinding the nuts into flour, while China has considered the nut a cherished delicacy since the 7th century.
Pine nuts are harvested from inside the pine cones of certain varieties of pine trees. I remember when I was little, me and my dad walking around the ‘Pineta’ (Italian name for a forest of pine trees) looking for pine cones. Once we had a bag full of them we would sit down, find two stones and break the shells to reach the real treat: the ‘pinoli’.
We would spend hours and hours in the summer time searching for the right pine cones. Needless to say that often a stomachache was the deserved result of hours of pine nuts eating.
And still nowadays, the technique for retrieving the nuts didn’t change much. It is simple but labor-intensive: the trees are either shaken or prodded by long, hooked poles in order to knock down their cones. The cones are then heated, softening their shells to allow the kernels to be removed and de-skinned. (It’s this labor intensive process that makes them so pricey.)
China is currently the world’s largest producer of pine nuts. But it’s the Italian pine nut, harvested from the stone pine, that is the real prize. While the Chinese variety can be quite strong tasting, the Italian is sweeter and milder, with a true nutty flavor. Portugal, Spain and North Africa all produce a similar nut. Check the packaging to see where the pine nuts are from; more often than not, Italian pine nuts, which are slightly more elongated than the Chinese, will cost more.
No matter which variety you buy, be sure to taste the nuts before using; because they are high in fat, they can go rancid quickly.
Pine nuts may be used straight from the jar, but often they are toasted, either on a baking sheet in a low oven or in a dry skillet over medium heat, to intensify their nutty flavor. Use pine nuts wherever you might use walnuts or almonds; they’re especially good toasted and added to green salads and can add the perfect toasty note to a pasta or fish dish.
Recipe to follow below..
Wipe basil with damp paper towels to remove any dirt (do not rinse); tear any large leaves into smaller pieces. Combine basil, pine nuts, garlic and pinch salt in a mortar. Using the pestle with a rotary movement, grind ingredients against the wall of the mortar until ground to a paste. Using a wooden spoon, stir in cheese to combine (you can use both if you would like, half of Pecorino and half of Parmesan) .Stir in oil, 1 tablespoon at a time, to desired consistency (you do not have to use all of the oil).
If you do not have a mortar, you can use a food processer. Make sure to place the mixer’s bowl in the freezer before using it and when you do use it in pulse mode so that you will not overheat the pesto.
Pesto should never be cooked over the stove. Make sure to stir it in always at the end and never on a hot stove.