Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dining al fresco (includes the best pesto recipe we’ve found)

I had planned on continuing my series on taking control of your source of food , but with another glorious spring day here in Toronto, I sent the staff in the Blechta Test Kitchens home early so we could all enjoy the fine weather.

One of our favorite things about the warm weather months is dining outside. We don’t care if it’s eating a sandwich in the shade of a tree, sitting on the elegant terrace of a fine restaurant, or enjoying a leisurely meal out on our patio; if the weather is nice (or even close to nice), we want to eat outdoors. The only thing that will drive us indoors is driving rain or temperatures below fifty.

We often visit the tip of the Bruce Peninsula about four hours drive north of us. For years when they were younger, we took our two boys camping on Flowerpot Island, an island six miles out in Georgian Bay. Of course we had to cook all our meals on either an open wood fire or our white gas camp stove. We’d take a bit of fresh food for the first few days (eggs, bacon, a bit of meat, some milk, and fruit), then we’d make use of freeze-dried meals dry food we made up at home (pancake batter and such). Ever since my boy scout days, a bit of wood smoke and the smell of bacon cooking makes me nearly swoon. We taught our sons to appreciate the same things.

(Sidebar: Vicki and I went to Flowerpot by ourselves a few years back and it was her birthday the first night there. Believe it or not, I made her lobster risotto with wild mushrooms on our little gas stove. It was a long, involved process, but I got through it eventually and the meal tasted fantastic with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc chilled in the water off our campsite. Don’t know if we’d attempt something that complex again, but as a one-off, it was pretty spectac.)

Anyway, our patio is now all set up and we’ve decided we must have a lunch out there since Vicki is off to a rehearsal this evening. So we both dropped tools and started prepping. One of our favorite choices for a hot weather Italian meal is pesto. Our garden tomatoes make this perfect, but with them not available for at least 3 months, we’ll have to make do the pasta part of the meal.

There is just something about eating outdoors. What do you enjoy most about eating outdoors? A particular recipe, a particular location, a particular food?


For years we searched for the perfect pesto recipe and eventually found it. The secret turned out to be the amount of pine nuts. Even in Italy, we were disappointed by the pesto we ordered there twice. (Forget the stuff that comes in jars! Even in Italy, that was a mockery of what this intense dish can taste like.) Pine nuts can be very expensive if you buy those small jars you find in the spice section at your supermarket. A much more reasonable price can be found at your local bulk food store. They’re usually fresher, too.

Your basil must be fresh and free of grit, so wash it carefully – and then make sure you dry it thoroughly using layers of paper towel or a particularly absorbent tea towel.

With all great food, pesto is merely a by-product of great ingredients. Use great olive oil and only real Parmesan cheese. Domestic versions need not apply!

If you don’t like the raw garlic taste (like Vicki), put the garlic cloves in the pasta water as it’s coming up to a boil. A bare minute will do it. If you’re using fresh pasta (which you should), you may want a bit more than a pound for four people. It’s heavier because it’s still moist, so you don’t get quite as much volume for the weight.

It’s very important to measure every ingredient! This recipe owes as much to chemistry as it does to flavor. The authentic way to make this is using a mortar and pestle. I tried it once for a single portion and it was an awful lot of work for not that much difference in texture. Take a pass on authenticity.

The real secret of this recipe is pan toasting the pine nuts. It adds so much more flavor than just dumping them in raw – not that raw is bad. Most people make and enjoy pesto using raw pine nuts. This is just better. Try it both ways and you’ll see what I mean.

2 garlic cloves
2 cups basil leaves (pack them in fairly tightly, washed, then dried thoroughly
½ cup pine nuts
¾ cup Parmesan cheese (or half Parmesan, half Romano)
²⁄₃ cup olive oil (good quality only!)
1 lb pasta (linguine or fettuccine)

1. Put a large pot of water on to boil.

2. Pan toast the pine nuts until lightly browned. Careful! They burn easily. Keep them moving.

3. In a food processor, first chop the garlic, then add basil leaves a handful at a time. Scrape down the bowl and lid.

4. Add toasted pine nuts, then cheese and finely dribble in the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Process only until well blended. Set aside.

5. When the water boils, salt it and add the pasta, cooking until just al dente. You don’t want your pasta to be flabby.

6. Just before your pasta is cooked, take out a few tablespoons of the hot water, add it into the pesto and blend for a few seconds. This will freshen it and add to its “mixability”.

7. Drain the pasta and put it the back in the hot pot. Add the pesto to the pasta, mix well. If needed for blending, you can add a bit more pasta water (but only if you’ve saved it beforehand. Serve on heated plates.

Hint: If you have any pesto sauce left over, put it in a dish, pour a thin layer of olive oil on it, then cover tightly. It will keep fresh for 10 days or you can freeze it for several months.

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