I look forward to making dinner every evening. Be it one that falls at the end of a long day or a long week, or one that arrives gently after a quiet weekend day, the simple pleasures of dinner are profound – often the simpler the better. Making dinner makes me happy, whether it is in the intrinsic goodness of what goes into it, or in its associations. Or both.
When the daughter and I were in Italy last summer about this time, among the many foods which had us delirious were the varieties of pesto. There was the familiar Pesto alla Genovese – you know, the green one. Fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, and Parmesan are puréed (“pesto” derives from the verb “pestare,” to crush), then served over al dente pasta. The first time I ever tasted it was in the very American state of Connecticut. My not-yet-husband and I had gone to visit/meet his family. His sisters and their families and we all gathered at their large, rambling family home in what was then a rural part of the state (it’s since been “discovered”). For dinner the first night, his eldest sister, Elly, had brought tubs of it from her freezer – her famous freezer filled from her famous garden, I was eventually to learn. I can picture as yesterday all of us gathered around the white metal rust-dotted table on the patio outside the dining room: bottles of wine, a huge salad, baskets of garlic bread, and great big bowls of pasta with Elly’s pesto were passed around as everyone talked at once. I was the quiet one, trying to take it all in. If the riotous conversation didn’t stun me into silence, the pesto did. I’d never tasted anything better in my life. Later that weekend I asked Elly if she would mind sharing the recipe. She used basil and Italian parsley in a ratio of about 3 to 1, garlic and plenty of it, pine nuts (and were she still alive, she’d be ranting about their price and trying to figure out a way to grow her own), olive oil, salt and pepper. She didn’t add Parmesan to it when she made and froze it; rather she added it when she tossed it with pasta. Years later, when I was working the restaurant kitchen job that cemented once and for all that one day I would go to culinary school, I asked the chef if she used parsley in hers. Her “No,” had a tone and look that implied: why the hell would I do that? Eventually, we had our own garden, though nothing that rivaled Elly’s, and I started making and freezing it just as she did, including Italian parsley because it makes it unique. Like Elly’s. Like Elly. It was my husband’s favorite dinner, and became the daughter’s as well. It is a miracle that she hasn’t turned green for all of it she’s consumed, beginning in infancy and continuing through probably last week.
So we knew our way around Pesto alla Genovese. In Italy, it was Pesto alla Siciliana in its various combinations that made us swoon. Tomatoes were common to all, and usually almonds in place of pine nuts, as well as basil, garlic, and olive oil. Some contained bright mint. Others anchovies and/or capers. The bold flavors of the latter remain my favorite.
I’ve spent much of this summer cooking outside as often as possible; it has been so searingly hot that I’ll go to any length to keep from generating heat in the kitchen. Grilled vegetables have been one my great loves, and it has been a deep pleasure to have experimented with different combinations. So tonight I couldn’t resist the idea of giving this pesto some interesting layers of flavor by grilling and smoking the tomatoes and garlic a bit. I am certain there are those who will howl at such sacrilege: why the hell would you do that? Well, as much as we loved every moment of our time in Italy and each bite of everything we tasted there, here is where I live. And where I am inspired to cook.
I don’t have access to the beautiful, mini-football-shaped San Marzano tomatoes that were everywhere in market stalls in Bologna especially, but the local Saturday farmers market is teeming with our own bright beauties. My basil plants are almost growing faster than I can pluck leaves from them. Almost. And I’ve included a handful of Italian parsley, homage to Elly.
PESTO ALLA SICILIANA
Makes about 2 cups Whatever you don’t use can be frozen in serving sizes
4 cups tomatoes, 1″ dice (you can leave cherry tomatoes whole, as they’ll burst on the grill)
6 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
Sea or kosher salt and pepper
Half handful of Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup pine nuts (I’m allergic to most other nuts, but certainly use sliced & toasted almonds if you wish)
2 anchovy fillets
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 ounces olive oil
Sea or kosher salt and grinds of pepper to taste
- Build and light your grilling fire.
- Toss the tomatoes and garlic with enough olive oil to coat them, about 2 ounces. Season with some salt and pepper. Many recipes for Sicilian Pesto will tell you to chop the tomatoes, salt them, then let them drain in a colander before puréeing them. If you’re going to grill them, there is no need for that step. Excess juices will drip through the grill pan and evaporate in the fire, while at the same time creating some wonderfully flavorful smoke.
- Set your perforated grill pan on the grate to heat. This is the very same as heating a skillet before adding anything to it. When hot (a piece of tomato dropped into it will sizzle), add the tomatoes and garlic. Move them around gently with a set of tongs, but don’t stir them constantly. They want to sit in place and caramelize a bit. After about 5-7 minutes, they’ll begin to release a deep aroma; shut the lid of the grill at that point. If cooking over charcoal, damp down the upper and lower drafts about 7/8 of the way. You should see some dense white smoke emerging from the top; let the smoke infuse the vegetables for 5 minutes.
- Remove grill pan from the fire and pour the vegetables back into the bowl in which you tossed them in olive oil.
- Meanwhile back in the kitchen, pour the tomatoes and garlic into the bowl of a food processor or a blender. Add the basil, parsley, pine nuts, anchovies, and red pepper flakes. Purée while adding the olive oil in a steady stream. Scrape down sides, then purée once more. Finally, season to taste with salt and pepper.
Cook an appropriate amount of a good strong pasta. This is a boldly flavored sauce, and it needs a substantial pasta to stand up to it. I used some beautiful, trine (frill, or lace), sort of like narrow – very narrow – lasagne. Some good pasta-cooking tips: add enough salt to the cooking water so that it tastes like the ocean because the pasta will gain much flavor from it and ultimately you will add less salt at the table; set the timer for 2 minutes less than the cook time suggested on the package; when it goes off, dip a ladleful (about 4 ounces) of the lovely, starchy cooking water out, then drain the pasta through a colander before returning it to the cooking pot. Return the pot to the stove; add the retained water along with as much pesto as you like. Toss to blend everything and cook for a minute or two more, until the pasta is perfectly al dente. Grate a nice big pile of Parmesan to add and toss once more. Distribute among bowls. Pass some additional Parmesan. Breathe deeply; welcome a weekend evening.
If dining alone, by all means serve with a good book.