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Friday, September 3, 2010

Penne 2

+ poor man's "pesto":

I love pasta but there is a special place in my heart reserved for pesto and pesto alone. In college I would buy a squat little pre-made jar and smear it on grilled cheese or a refrigerated pizza crust, chunks of sauteed chicken, scrambled up with eggs and, of course, on piping hot pasta noodles. A small jar isn't an outrageous expense but there is something to making your own. College students are notorious for eating anything jarred and mold free months after the purchase date thanks to intestinal-friendly preservatives; this sauce will only keep for a few days, assuming you even have any leftovers. With all the bite of fresh garlic and basil you'll never even miss those preservatives! And besides, you're intestines (and wallet) will thank you for making this.

The funny thing about pesto is that while widely available in pre-made versions or on cafe menus the star ingredient, basil, is an enigma. I can't count the number of times I failed to find even one wilted, sickly package of fresh basil at my local grocery store. Once, I went to three different chains trying to track down the 2-3 cups (packed) basil necessary for a pesto recipe (of course all three stores were totally sold out). Pre-packaged herbs can also quickly run up your grocery bill but if you don't trust yourself with a basil plant of your own try your local farmers market. Not sure if your town has a farmers market? Check out http://www.localharvest.org/ to find one near you. After all, if there is anyone who understands the starving student it is the frugal farmer.

The day I have an herb garden over-run with basil plants, and my very own dish washer, is the day I will consider myself completely and irrevocably domesticated. Until then, this recipe easily satisfies my pesto-dependency by using fresh and dried basil as well as more readily available ingredients like garlic, walnuts and Parmesan cheese to fill out the sauce; just use as much fresh basil as your budget can afford. I found the original recipe, Pasta with Walnut Sauce, in a book called "Simple Suppers Quick and Easy, Proven Dinners"(2007). I've tweaked the method a little bit, upped the basil and added the most affordable of college kitchen ingredients: cheese. Buying a head of fresh broccoli means you can use half to make your "pesto" and the rest can be served with a little butter (and lemon) as the perfect side. At just a few dollars a pound broccoli is just as affordable as it is tasty. This pesto would also be great on slices of toasted, buttered baguette as an appetizer.

Notes: My senior year our apartment occasionally held "Family Dinners" where we would each chip in to cook and then sit down and eat like, well, a family. To say it didn't happen often enough would be the understatement of the century. But, a dish like this (read: one that uses lots of potent fresh garlic) is best served to a crowd. Try it out at your next hall/apartment/family supper. Red pepper flakes and dried basil are two indispensable spices; I like them especially on pizza or tossed into a stir-fry. They will keep almost indefinitely in a cool dark place but when your pepper flakes start to loose their fiery red color it is time for a new bottle; otherwise, they will have little to no heat.

Grocery List:
1 head of broccoli
fresh basil, one package

Serve 2-4 (serving 4: Double the pasta but leave the rest as is. You will have plenty of sauce.)

4 ounces penne pasta
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted
1-2 cloves of garlic, according to taste
1 cup fresh broccoli florets
chili flakes, to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 teaspoons water
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
fresh basil, as much as you can afford
salt, pepper

1. Bring a pot of water to boil over high heat. Trim the broccoli, discarding the stems. Add some salt to the water followed by the broccoli.
2. Cook the broccoli for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain immediately and set aside to cool (if you are feeling especially culinary "shock" the broccoli in a bowl of ice water to keep the bright green color and crisp texture). Keep the water boiling.
3. Meanwhile, toast the walnuts in a dry pan over low heat until they are fragrant and golden. Remove to a separate bowl.
4. Peel the garlic and add the clove(s) to the walnuts along with the fresh basil, dried basil, chili flakes and Parmesan cheese. Process this mixture in a food processor until the garlic and walnuts are thoroughly chopped.
5. Add your pasta to the boiling water and cook according to package directions.
6. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the walnut mixture and puree again. Add half the broccoli followed by another two tablespoons of olive oil. Puree again, adding 1-2 teaspoons of water until the pesto reaches a smoother consistency (it will be very thick). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
7. Drain the penne and toss with the pesto, drizzling with a little extra olive oil. Serve immediately. (I use about 2 tablespoons per serving.

Leftovers: The pesto will keep for a 2-3 days in an airtight container in the fridge but may start to loose its spring green color.

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