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Italians are so fond of pesto, their celebrated basil sauce flavored with garlic, olive oil and cheese, that renowned cookbook author Marcella Hazan compared pesto to good poetry and wrote in The Classic Italian Cookbook: "Every spoonful is loaded with the magic fragrances of the Riviera."
Most cooks know that pesto is a sauce for pasta; according to Hazan, it should be homemade, egg-enriched fettuccine. When I visited Genoa, where pesto was invented, I was surprised to learn that its classic pasta al pesto genovese is cooked and served with potatoes. I guess the rationale for the practice is with a big pot of water already boiling for the pasta, why not cook some sliced potatoes in it too. Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, authors of Pasta Fresca, add a small amount of green beans also, pointing out that they too are a Genoese addition.
I do the same with other vegetables. Usually when I cook pasta for a casual supper, I throw in whatever vegetables will cook by the time the pasta is ready - thin strips of carrots or leeks, slices of zucchini or yellow squash, fresh or frozen peas, green beans or broccoli florets. It's an easy way to make the dish more interesting and colorful and enhance the menu's nutrition.
Eating my homemade pasta al pesto made me realize how delicious the potatoes, green beans and other vegetables taste with the basil sauce. In fact, to enjoy pesto, I don't necessarily need pasta at all. I love pesto with sauteed eggplant cubes, broiled peppers, baked tomatoes, cooked frozen mixed vegetables or a stew of whatever vegetables I happen to have in the refrigerator.
Such pesto-flavored vegetable dishes have become popular. Mary Ann Esposito, in her book on Italian cooking called Nella Cucina, wrote that she came up with her recipe for green beans and potatoes with pesto as a variation of a favorite of hers, potato gnocchi served with green beans and fresh mint.
Deborah Madison, known for her creative vegetable dishes and author of Local Flavors, makes a summer vegetable stew featuring small new potatoes, baby carrots, green beans, sauteed onions, pepper strips, squash and shelled beans, cooked gently together and finished with pesto.
Chef Andrew Schloss, author of Almost from Scratch, even matches pesto with potato pancakes.
POTATOES AND BEANS WITH PESTO>/b>
To make flavorful parve pesto, the key is fresh, very fragrant basil, good garlic and fruity extra virgin olive oil.
Most cooks flavor their pesto with Parmesan cheese. However, according to Hazan, in Genoa pesto is made with equal quantities of Parmesan and a mildly tangy Sardinian sheep's milk cheese that is not as sharp as Roman pecorino. I find that a little kashkaval is a good substitute.
Hazan advises adjusting the balance of cheeses to your taste and adds, "A well-rounded pesto is never made with all Parmesan or all pecorino." She also notes that traditional recipes do not mention pine nuts or butter, but includes both in her recipe.
La Place and Kleiman toast the pine nuts for their pesto, for a more intense flavor. You can double the amount of toasted pine nuts if you like, and sprinkle some over the finished dish.
You can store pesto for two days in a jar in the refrigerator. It will keep two or three additional days, but its color will no longer be bright.
Bring it to room temperature before using.
Purists make pesto in a mortar with pestle (Hazan specifies that old-timers in Italy insist on one made of marble). However, most modern cooks use a food processor for convenience.
2 to 3 Tbsp. pine nuts
3 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 cup packed basil leaves (about 30 gr.)
1â„2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, or a mixture of Parmesan and grated kashkaval or other firm sheep's milk cheese
1â„3 cup extra virgin olive oil
450 gr. small, thin-skinned potatoes, scrubbed
450 gr. green or yellow beans or a mixture of both, trimmed and broken in two
Basil sprigs for garnish
If you'd like to toast the pine nuts, preheat oven to 175 . Toast pine nuts on a small baking sheet in oven until lightly browned, about three minutes. (If you prefer, toast pine nuts instead in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking skillet often, until lightly browned, about three minutes.) Transfer pine nuts to a plate and let them cool.
With blade of food processor turning, drop garlic cloves, one at a time, through feed tube and process until finely chopped. Add pine nuts, basil and cheese and process until basil is chopped.
With blade turning, gradually add olive oil.
Scrape down sides and process until mixture is well blended. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
Halve potatoes if they are large. Put them in a pan of water, add salt and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 25 minutes or until tender; remove with a slotted spoon.
Cover and keep warm. Return water to a boil. Add green beans and cook uncovered over high heat for six minutes, or until just tender. Drain thoroughly, reserving two tablespoons cooking liquid, and transfer to a serving dish along with potatoes.
Whisk enough reserved hot cooking liquid into pesto to give it a sauce-like consistency and add half of it to vegetables. Toss until well combined. Season to taste with pepper and a little salt.
Garnish with basil sprigs. Serve remaining pesto separately.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.