Pesto — a zesty northern Italian vegetarian sauce — can be customized in innumerable ways. The basil can be replaced with spinach, arugula, kale, or cilantro; the pine nuts subbed with hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.; and the pecorino romano switched with literally any hard, dry cheese with a high salt content.
However, whenever I tweak this dish, I’m left longing for the original. This is the recipe that’s been passed down through the generations in my family.
Where pesto was born, in Liguria (the northwest coast of Italy), they serve it atop trofie, a little “twist” of pasta that is said to capture just the right amount of pesto for each bite. I’ve found fusilli to be a pretty good — if not entirely authentic — substitute.
6-8oz of basil, washed and stems removed (about three bunches)
4oz of whole pecorino romano cheese
1/3 to 1/2 C pine nuts (more for a richer sauce)
2 T olive oil
~1/4 C milk (more if necessary, note: the Nonna uses heavy cream)
1 small clove of garlic, peeled
Salt and pepper to taste
A pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
1 lb dry trofie (or fusilli)
Traditionally, Ligurians made pesto with a mortar and pestle, but I just throw everything but the milk in the blender or food processor until it’s pulverized and then add just enough milk to make it take on a sauce-like consistency.
(If you’re feeling ambitious, you can add a smoky flavor by toasting the pine nuts lightly on low heat in a pan, then allowing them to cool before adding to the mixture. If you over-toast the pine nuts, they turn rancid and need to be thrown away, so this is a perfectly good way to waste a really expensive ingredient. YMMV.)
Cook your pasta al dente (as there is no other way) and then drain (but do not rinse) and toss with the pesto while the pasta is still hot. Serve immediately.
If you’re not serving the pesto immediately, place it in an airtight container, cover tightly with plastic wrap, then seal the lid. Air contamination will cause the pesto to turn brown. It will still taste fine, but no one will want to eat it. (You might get away with sneaking it onto a sandwich, again, YMMV.)
Exactly once a year, around Thanksgiving, I get a craving for that classic green bean and cream-of-mushroom side dish topped with fried onion rings. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the holiday feast — but it’s made with far-from-perfect ingredients: frozen french-cut beans, Campbell’s cream-of-mushroom soup and Heinz crispy onions. In other words, a processed food nightmare.
This holiday, I’ve tried rebooting this old recipe so my family and I can enjoy this dish without supporting the industrial agriculture juggernaut and subjecting ourselves to known carcinogens in our food.
This dish is far too yummy to remain stuck in the 70s. Give a try with and without the optional “secret ingredient” — the Point Reyes blue cheese — and let me know what you think!
1 Lb fresh green beans, ends removed, cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 C raw dehydrated onions (look for them at Whole Foods)
Steam the green beans to al dente in lightly salted water, about 5 minutes. (My grandfather would let the water cool a bit and then drink it like a tea/health tonic. It’s really good — and loaded with nutrients exuded by the beans when they’re cooking.)
Meanwhile, sautée the onions and mushrooms in 1 T of olive oil until tender and lightly browned, adding thyme plus salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the green beans with the onions and mushrooms in a casserole dish and set aside.
Now create a roux with the butter and flour over low heat and slowly add the milk until you have smooth sauce-like consistency. Optionally, add the blue cheese and allow it to melt into the sauce. Add more milk if the mixture gets too thick. When satisfied with the sauce, pour it over the green beans, mushrooms and onions and stir to coat.
Top with breadcrumbs and dehydrated onions and bake for 10-15 minutes at 325° until the sauce bubbles and the onions on top start to crisp up. Allow to cool for five minutes before serving.
I modified my mother’s classic pumpkin pie recipe to remove all the dairy, sugar and fat (except for the fats naturally occurring in the eggs). It can be made completely guiltless if you bake it as a soufflé in ramekins, but it gets better — albeit more carb-ey and fatty — if you add a bottom-layer of pie crust.
1/4 C yacón, agave or maple syrup (more if needed)
1 T ground cinnamon
1 t vanilla extract
1/2 t fresh ginger, grated
1/2 t ground cloves
1/4 t ground allspice
1 pie crust (optional)
While it’s fine to use canned pumpkin in a pinch, I prefer to start with a whole sugar pie pumpkin. Preheat the oven to 400° and place the pumpkin, washed, upright in a jellyroll pan filled 2/3 full with water. IMPORTANT: Stab the pumpkin all the way through from the top with a knife several times so that it doesn’t explode in the oven.
Roast the pumpkin at 400° for about an hour, then remove and allow to cool to the touch. Remove all the seeds, stringy parts and the skin and then you’re ready to use the remaining pumpkin flesh for this recipe.
Preheat the oven to 425°
Now comes this easy part: dump everything into a blender and blend on a high for 60 seconds. At this point, I test the mixture for sweetness and add more yacón, agave or maple syrup and re-blend if it doesn’t seem sweet enough.
Pour the mixture into eight ramekins or a pie dish (optionally lining with raw pie crust if you desire).
If you used crust, line the edges with foil so that they don’t burn. Bake at 425° for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 275° and bake for another 35-45 minutes — until a knife poked in the center comes out clean. If you used ramekins, start testing them with a knife at 25-30 minutes as they require less cook time.
Passed on from one nonna to the next, this biscotti recipe perfectly balances the sweet with the savory and the softness with the crunch. The resulting treats make the perfect accompaniment to an espresso, something Italians drink from 11am-on into the afternoon and evening.
About three dozen cookies
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 C brown sugar
1 C white sugar
zest of one orange
1 t almond extract
1 t vanilla extract
1 t orange extract
4 C white flour
2 t baking powder
2 C almonds, lightly toasted and chopped coarsely
1 C semi-sweet chocolate chips
pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Beat the eggs with mixer to medium fluff (no peaks). With the mixer running on low, add the oil, sugar, zest, and extracts. Slowly add the other dry ingredients while continuing to beat on low.
Turn the resulting dough out onto a flat surface, adding additional flour if it’s sticking.
Separate the dough into six even parts, then roll each one out into a log. Flatten each log into a slightly oblique shape about a foot long and two inches wide.
Transfer onto two cookie sheets, three logs per sheet, and bake at 350° for 20-30 minutes, removing when golden brown.
Allow to cool enough to be handled with bare hands, but while still fairly hot, cut the logs on the diagonal into even pieces about 3/4″ wide.
Now, lay each cookie on its cut side and bake again at 350° for about six minutes, only until golden brown. Then flip and repeat for another six minutes. Transfer the cookies onto a cooling rack when finished.
In an airtight container, the biscotti will last at least a week, but Nonna Bucchere says they’ll be long gone before any chance of spoilage.
Dilute the BBQ sauce with the vinegar and pour the solution over the chicken thighs in a zip-lock bag. Close the bag and massage to coat the chicken. Allow to marinate while preparing the pasta toppings.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and sear the green onions over medium-high heat until soft, 3-4 minutes, then set aside. Adding more olive oil as needed, sear the zucchini strips, covered, on medium-high heat in the cast-iron pan until golden brown, ~2 minutes per side. Snip the cooked zucchini into bite-sized pieces and combine with the cooked green onions and basil in the serving dish for the pasta.
Now would be a good time to boil water for that pasta, by the way.
While the water is coming to a boil, using the same cast iron pan, sear the jalepeño rounds on medium-low heat, making sure to use adequate ventilation. Remove from the pan and set aside. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the chicken, bone-side down, and the BBQ sauce. Cook, covered, turning once, until the juices run clear, 4-5 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, cook and drain (but do not rinse) the pasta, then toss it with the onions, zucchini and basil, adding additional olive oil to coat if it seems dry. Top with the grated cheese. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.
The chicken will have a slightly spicy flavor it picked up from the pan (from when you cooked the jalepeños), but serve each thigh with a few more rounds of the spicy green pepper for those who want a little more heat.
For this week’s peek into the Bucchere Family “cookbook,” I’ve adapted and hybridized both my grandmothers’ recipes to create this simple, refreshing beet salad. I often serve it with other simple things like sandwiches but, with its mild sweetness, it also serves as a great accompaniment to a savory meat or fish course.
Golden beet salad with fresh oregano from my deck
1/2 lb of fresh yellow or red beets (but not both together, because the colors bleed when they touch)
Wash the beets, but do not peel them. Drop them into boiling water for 10-15 minutes or until they can be easily pierced with a fork. You can roast them instead in a jellyroll pan at 400° for 10-20 minutes (again with skin on). I’ve found that how you cook the beets doesn’t change the taste of this dish, so it’s entirely up to you.
Once cooked, let the hot beets rest for another 10 minutes (or so) until they’re no longer too hot to touch. At this point, the skins should just fall off. Once you’ve removed all the skin, slice the beets up into bite-size chunks and place them in a serving dish. Add the olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to coat.
And . . . you’re done.
The dish can be served as is at room temperature or allowed to chill for up to three days in the fridge.
Optionally, you can crumble goat cheese on top. If you do, wait until right before serving. Unless you like pink goat cheese, that is.
Start with the sauce, since longer cooking times lead to a richer, sweeter taste (and lasting relationships). Pour the olive oil and one piece of the diced onion into a large pot and apply medium-high heat. When the one piece of onion starts to sizzle, add the rest of it. (Now’s a good time to open the cans of tomatoes, if you haven’t already.)
Stirring often, sautée the onions until golden brown, then reduce the heat to medium-low, pushing all the onions to one side of the pot. This should cause the olive oil to pool on the other side. You’ll need at least a tablespoon, so add more if necessary.
Now comes the part you’ll want to practice before trying to impress your special someone. (Or just do it before she arrives, leaving plenty of time to air out the house if needed.)
Understanding how to work with garlic makes the difference between tantalizing him or bringing her to tears. The secret: medium-low heat and good timing. Add the minced (or pressed) garlic to the hot oil and sautée until fragrant, but not burned. (If you burn the garlic, throw everything out — including the onion — and start over, knowing that your house will be safe from vampires for weeks.) When the garlic is “ready” (usually < 30 seconds, but use your nose), mix it in with the onion briefly, and, working quickly, add the cans of tomatoes and stir, raising the heat back to medium-high.
If you smell anything acrid, if your nose hairs are burning or if your eyes are watering, throw everything out and start over.
On the other hand, if things seem to be going well, add the oregano and about 3/4 of the chopped basil, reserving the rest for sprinkling on top. Add the bay leaf, salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to taste. When the sauce starts to bubble, reduce the heat to create a nice, even simmer. Give it a stir every ten minutes or so to make sure it’s not burning. Taking a break to stir means you can stop and give someone samples, so she can taste the subtle sweetness emerge from this Southern Italian staple, something many of us call “gravy.”
Now, it’s time to let the machines do the work. Use a food processor to pulverize, in this order: the bread, the cheese, the quartered onion, the garlic, the basil and the egg. Combine with the milk, 1T of oregano, salt, pepper and the crushed red pepper (optional) and mix into the ground meat, something that we traditionally do with our bare hands. The mix should stick and hold together, but barely. If things seem too dry and aren’t sticking together, add a little more milk or another egg, beaten. If things feel too loose, add some breadcrumbs. Be careful not to use too heavy of a hand with either, as this is a really good way to screw up a nearly complete recipe.
Now is another great time for samples. Take a pinch of the raw meatball mix and share it with your guest. (How this part goes might be a leading indicator of things to come.)
Form the meatballs (using your bare hands is best). They should be larger than golf balls but smaller than cricket balls. As you form each one, drop it into the sauce. Continue until you’ve finished the mix. Continue to simmer on low heat for at least 30 minutes to several hours (adding water as needed to keep those babies submerged). Try not to stir, at least initially, until you’re certain that the meatballs have cooked through and solidified. Even then, stir carefully! Remember, we designed these puppies to crumble when touched with a fork.
Instructions (Pasta & Serving)
When you’re about 20 minutes from your special dinner, cook the pasta to al dente, drain, combine with sauce and 2-3 meatballs each. Top with the remaining chopped basil and grated pecorino romano.
Whereas I normally appreciate feedback on my recipes, I’ll understand if you’d rather keep the results of this one all to yourself.
Had more fun last week with Farmigo’s amazing meats, this time searing Casa Rosa Lamb Chops in my cast-iron skillet.
This meal was too simple to deserve a recipe. I cut the chops into four pieces and seasoned them with sea salt, pepper and sumac. After searing about 2 minutes per side in a covered skillet, I served on a bed of fresh oregano with a side of strawberry jam and sprinkled with a pinch of pink Hawaiian sea salt.