Sunday, 30 October 2011

the politics of pesto

pesto with toasted almonds 
i cannot recall the first time i tried pesto but i am certain that it was made by mama. i took to it instantly. what's not to like about the delicate peppery notes of basil combined with the slight bite of garlic, fruity olive oil and most importantly the rich oiliness of pine-nuts. in pakistan, pine-nuts (called chilgoza's) are often eaten in the winter. shelling them is tedious and messy as the flaky brown skins are fragile. i was taught by my aunt to gently bite them on the defined edge of the shell and then chip the shell to reveal the slim nut. ever since i have spent many a satisfying evening shelling and eating chilgoza's by the fire. the italian food that i enjoyed growing up conveniently abbreviated itself to three p's - pizza, pesto and pasta. 

pesto is as contentious as it is famous. it's popularity around the world has meant that it has been through transformations, some of which have rightly been cause for consternation. some adaptations have been out of necessity. for instance as much as we loved 'real' pesto there were times when mama used nuts other than pine-nuts as they are very expensive. pesto's temperament demands a oily nut so mama tried walnuts. more recently i made pesto made with toasted almonds. almonds aren't as oily as walnuts or pine-nuts so your pesto will have to be adapted accordingly.

personally, i don't understand why people buy jarred pesto. aside from being bulked up with ingredients that don't belong in pesto at all (scala's classic basil pesto contains cashew nuts, glucose and potato flakes?!) it tastes really nasty. i have never committed the culinary crime of buying pesto. the only jar that ever set foot in our household was the one that o bought with him from his bachelor days and which he ate on a winter night last year when i couldn't be fussed to cook. 

pesto is really easy to make and fortunately there are a number of fantastic guides on how to make good pesto. on one o one cookbooks heidi has written on how to make pesto like an italian grandmother. the post is as instructive as the comments beneath it so if you want to get to grips with the politics of pesto i'd definitely recommend reading it. felicity cloake's 'how to make perfect pesto' is equally accessible

as a general rule of thumb you want a nut that is oil intense. if you are using something that is less oily like almonds then up the oil content a bit. i want to try brazil or macadamia nuts as a base for pesto as they are very oily. use a good quality parmesan or pecorino or both. i like pecorino with almonds as its saltiness interacts well with the almonds. with pine-nuts i much prefer parmesan which is has a more delicate flavour. always toast the nuts. for pine-nuts i usually toast them in a pan as they burn very quickly. almonds can go in the oven but you still have to be vigilant. i toasted mine for ten minutes at a hundred and eighty degrees celsius shaking the pan once half way through. i substitute raw garlic with roasted but this is only because i find raw garlic over-powering. 

i have always been curious about pasta shapes and their relationship with sauce. the geometry of pasta explores this relationship. in italy pesto is usually eaten with trofie pasta whose slightly extruded bellies catches the pesto and lets you wipe up remains of pesto on the plate. i usually use a good quality linguine and interestingly found that the ligurian trenette are quite similar. in the absence of trofie, the thickness and flat surface area of linguine are good with pesto. when it comes to pesto, i never use wholemeal pasta as i find that it overpowers the flavours. 

to make the pesto you will need
25 grams basil leaves, washed gently and dried on kitchen towel
120 grams almonds, toasted 
6 cloves roasted garlic, squeezed from their skins
a generous amount of olive oil
100 grams fresh pecorino cheese, grated

put the almonds in a food processor and grind them coarsely. you can add a little olive oil to get the blades moving. then add the roasted garlic and pulse briefly. add the basil leaves and pulse for short spurts just until the leaves mix to make a rough paste. then add the grated pecorino and enough olive oil to give the pesto a dropping consistency. 

boil the linguine until al dente. reserve two to three tablespoons of the water in which you boiled the pasta to loosen the pesto. return the pasta to the pan, add the pesto and toss to coat the strands. then, tuck in.

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