Rethinking what we know about pesto
We've all eaten pesto alla Genovese, the pasta sauce made from sweet basil, nuts, garlic, cheese and olive oil. But you haven't eaten pesto until you've eaten one like that I experienced recently.
The first time I tasted pesto was at a long-gone health food restaurant in Seattle called Mother Morgan's (motto: "Mother Morgan will beat you with a spoon if you eat meat."). It was served over whole wheat pasta, and for some time I thought you had to serve pesto over whole wheat pasta. I thought it was a dish.
Now I know that the term pesto means paste and that there are many kinds of pesto characteristic of many regions of Italy. Still, pesto alla Genovese is the one we Americans know best.
That first taste of pesto all those years ago was a revelation. For years, I told people that when I die, don't embalm me, just slather me with pesto. I'll go happy.
I immediately took to the combination of sprightly vegetable freshness backed by intense perfumy flavors, the richness of the nuts, cheese and oil, the toothy texture — everything about it. I quickly set out to learn how to make it and thought I made a good one.
Well, what I didn't know you could put in a bath tub.
In Hilo last week for the Merrie Monarch Festival, some friends took me to Cafe Concerto, a tiny, unpretentious, one-chef operation where Lando Landi, originally of Livorno in Tuscany, staffs the entire kitchen, which is probably no larger than yours.
After we tasted his pasta with pesto, I HAD to know more. It was a second revelation: It had texture. It was a beautiful vibrant green. It was not at all oily. There was a depth of flavor I'd never before experienced.
I called him to beg an interview. He agreed to meet me for a few minutes before he had to start cooking on a Thursday afternoon.
Now don't think you're going to get a recipe. He doesn't DO recipes. He has everything he needs to know in his hands and his eyes and his mouth and his memory.
But what I will give you are the hints and tips he shared with me. If you like to play in the kitchen, as I do, perhaps you'll want to give this a try. Take a reliable pesto recipe and alter it to incorporate these features.
Landi, who has taught at Hilo Community College, is a natural teacher and loves to challenge students. Throughout the interview, he would shoot questions at me. "What does al dente mean?" I gave him my definition. He shook his head. "What is the dente?" I searched my Romance language files and came up with "Tooth?" And he said it means "with your tooth." Meaning a little chewy, never gummy. But that's what it was like talking to him.
Challenging. Smart, smart chef.
As to pesto, he said there are 163 varieties of pesto in Italy. Pasta alla Genovese is just one of them.
Anyway, his ideas for pasta with pesto for four people:
• Take a handful of walnuts. Blanch them for a scant minute in boiling water, drain, place in a towel and rub them between your hands to frisk off the skin. Be gentle; you don't need to remove all the skin. The purpose of blanching is to remove the bitterness. He uses walnuts, he said, because "with only pine nuts, it's very rich; with the walnuts, it remains a little bit coarse."
• Take a smaller handful of pine nuts. Spread them in a baking pan. Place them in a 350-degree oven and toast them until they release their scent and turn a golden brown, stirring frequently to prevent sticking or burning. "You smell it; you don't let them go more than this color," he said, pointing to a bowl of roasted pine nuts that were golden brown.
• Place 4-5 cloves of peeled garlic in a food processor and pulse very briefly; the garlic should remain coarse-textured.
• Add a handful of basil leaves (washed and well-dried) and another of Italian parsley (some stems are OK, but, again, well-dried). He just takes a bunch of parsley and twists below the leaves and uses whatever breaks off on the leaf end. He cautions against using too much basil.
• This is important: Along with the basil and parsley, add a little salt (maybe 1-2 teaspoons), a pinch or two of black pepper and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. The salt keeps the basil from turning black and also from becoming bitter (ever noticed how store-bought pesto is unattractively dark and swimming in oil? Nasty.)
• Add the nuts, and a little grated Parmesan (the best quality you can afford — no green cans, please). The purpose of the Parmesan, he said, is "to give it a bite." Pulse briefly to coarsely chop the ingredients.
• Now, pulsing but not overworking the mixture, drizzle in a small amount of olive oil. You can use pure olive oil but it's best made with a very good quality extra-virgin olive oil. The mixture should NOT be a smooth paste; it should be slightly grainy and coarse, flecked with bright green. Turn it out into a bowl.
• Meanwhile, boil a large pot of heavily salted water and choose your pasta. The preferred pasta in Genoa is reginette, wide ribbons with a curly edge, like lasagna noodles. "The wave catches the sauce." If you prefer, you can use penne rigate; the ridges also "catch the sauce." Landi recommends using Italian brands of pasta, because they are made with semolina, a high-gluten flour. American brands are not; they grow mushy and soft easily. His brand preferences are, in order, Barilla, DiCecco and Buitoni. Barilla uses a svevo wheat, a high-protein strain that was developed in a partnership between Barilla and wheat growers.
• Boil the pasta just until it is al dente. "When you touch it, it should flex," he said, but there should be a slightly raw bit in the middle. "Overcooked pasta, you cannot digest. You don't want to eat pasta with a spoon. If it comes out like glue, throw it away," he said.
• Final step: After the pasta is cooked, drain it but save a little cooking water. Blend the pasta with the pesto and then drizzle in maybe a couple of teaspoons or perhaps a little more of the hot cooking water. This creates a creamy texture.
After all this detail, Landi concluded by saying, "Italian food is the simplest cuisine in the world. Simple and fast; the only thing that takes a long time is the ragu (a meat stew or thick sauce from the north of Italy)," he said.
I respectfully submit that what makes Italian cuisine "simple," however is a complex interrelationship of pristinely fresh, high quality ingredients (not always available in American supermarkets) and the deep knowledge of their own regional cuisines that Italian cooks possess.
I asked him if every Italian Mama would know all that he had told me; or was this kind of detail the purview of only professional chefs. He looked at me like I was crazy (or possibly a little slow on the uptake).
"Of course!," he said. "Anybody can cook the recipe but if you don't have the taste in your mouth (meaning, you know what it's supposed to taste like), there's no way you can do it."
So, I recommend you go over to Hilo and find out what pesto is supposed to taste like. Then follow chef Landi's tips and techniques and make your family and friends as felice (delighted) as I was.
Cafe Concerto: 808 Kīlauea Ave., Hilo, HI 96720; 808-934-0312 (call to check their hours/days open).