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Anelli Siciliani col Pesto and Focaccia al Rosmarino (Pesto Rings and Rosemary Focaccia)

February 2, 2011

In Italian Food, Elizabeth David writes that trenette col pesto “is perhaps the best pasta dish in the whole of Italy” (103). Trenette is a narrow, flat dried pasta typical of Genoa; pesto is that scrumptious basil sauce haling from the same city. Mrs. David notes that the Genoese declare their basil to be the best grown in Italy and that they believe good pesto can only be made with Genoese basil. Ah, to some day taste the real thing!

I remember the first time I tasted pesto. I was in high school. I was at my friend Stephanie’s house. Stephanie was that worldly-wise friend who also introduced me to lattés and the Beatles. She had a bathing suit from J.Crew. In ways that most high school students are not, Stephanie was cool. We made pesto pasta with a little package of Knorr Pesto Sauce Mix. It was delicious. I went home declaring the good news of quick-mix pesto.

I would like to think I’ve come a long way from Knorr Pesto Mix. I haven’t made it all the way to Genoa, but the pesto we made last summer from a mix of our own garden-grown Genoese and Sweet basil is probably nearer the real thing that Knorr. There are three large Ziploc bags in our freezer labeled “Pesto Pucks” we now happily draw from in these cold, winter months. We’ve been making our own pesto from home-grown basil for a couple of years now. For last night’s dinner, I perked up the freezer pesto (which was made with only olive oil, garlic and salt) with freshly toasted walnuts, finely grated Parmesan, a little splash of lemon juice, and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes. Of course, true pesto is made with pine nuts, but for the frugal cook, walnuts make a nice (if not slightly bitter) substitute.

I’ve also been told that making pesto with a mortar and pestle makes a world of difference (crushing—verses the chopping action of a blade—releases the flavours of the basil and the nuts more effectively), but for now—for want of said tool—I make our pesto with a wand blender. And this time, thanks to Elizabeth David, I knew how to serve the pesto in the true Genoese manner: uncooked, unheated and piled in a large glob on top of a bowl of piping hot pasta along with a piece of butter. Mix at the table and top with more fresh grated Parmesan. I held up three bags of differently shaped pasta in front of almost-seven-month-old Jacob and let him choose our shape for the evening, thus anelli siciliani and not trenette. It was great fun spearing several rings at a time (like miniature stacked tires on the prongs of the fork), and the feel of dozens of little rings in the mouth was pleasant in and of itself. Not to mention the pesto…

As for the focaccia. This was Joshua’s doing (and it was beautifully done, wouldn’t you say?). We are taking antipasta seriously, and since friends were joining us for dinner, we wanted to have something to nibble on when they arrived as we were cooking the pasta. I have a little swag of drying herbs hanging above our kitchen sink that I “stole” from the garden I planted outside our first apartment. It’s only a few blocks from our current apartment and on my regular walking route, so I’ve noticed how tall the rosemary has grown, how sprawling the sage is, how thriving the thyme, and I figure somebody should be making use of their lovely aromas. This focaccia was the perfect use for some of the rosemary. Dipped in a little mix of garlic, balsamic vinegar and good extra virgin olive oil, it was just right.

(Side note: I have this wonderful little dish my friend Sarah gave me a few years ago. It has a rough patch of grooves in the centre, on which one is meant to rub a clove of garlic, and then proceed with adding oil, vinegar and any other dipping oil ingredients. It’s a fabulous design and if you ever come across one, you should buy it and use it as often as you can).

I will leave you with Elizabeth David’s pesto recipe because ours was more of a follow-your-heart recipe (any other pesto follow-your-hearters out there?), though I will reiterate the importance of not cooking or heating it—a mistake I have long been making, ever since those Knorr days. Other than this important note, any combination of basil (Genoese if possible), nuts (pine nuts or walnuts), garlic, Parmesan cheese and olive oil that makes you happy will be a success, and, I would guess, something akin to the “best pasta dish in the whole of Italy.”

The recipes:

Pesto (from Italian Food by Elizabeth David)
Now that I look more closely at Mrs. David’s rendition of the Italian recipe, it seems this is very much a follow-your-heart approach as well. What can I say? Cucina casalinga.

For four servings:
1 large bunch of fresh basil
1 handful of pine nuts
1 handful of grated Sardo or Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 – 2 ounces of olive oil

Pound the basil leaves (there should be about 2 oz. when the stalks have been removed) in a mortar with 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, a little salt, and the pine nuts. Add the cheese. (Sardo cheese is the pungent Sardinian ewe’s milk cheese which is exported in large quantities to Genoa to make pesto. Parmesan and Sardo are sometimes used in equal quantities, or all Parmesan, which gives the pesto a milder flavour).

When the peso is a thick purée start adding the olive oil, a little at a time. Stir is steadily and see that it is amalgamating with the other ingredients, as the finished sauce should have the consistency of a creamed butter.

Pasta is cooked as usual, and when it is ready in the serving dish, about 2 tablespoonfuls of pesto (which is neither cooked nor heated) are heaped up on top, and on top of the pesto a large piece of butter. The butter and the sauce are mixed into the pasta at the table. Grated Parmesan or pecorino are served separately.

Focaccia al Rosmarino (from Sundays at Moosewood)

2 TBL dried or fresh rosemary leaves
1 cup boiling water
1 package dried yeast (about 1 TBL)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 TBL olive oil
1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 – 1 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
1 tsp course or Kosher salt
3-4 fresh rosemary sprigs, if available

Crush the rosemary leaves with a pestle or chop them finely. Pour the boiling water over the rosemary leaves in a large mixing bowl. Let the water cool to a temperature comfortable on the inside of the wrist. Add the yeast and sugar.
After about five minutes, when the yeast is bubbling, add the salt and one tablespoon of olive oil. Stir in the whole wheat flour. Add only as much white flour as you need to make the dough pull away from the sides of the bowl. Knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes, until it is smooth and springy. As you knead, add just enough flour to prevent it from sticking. The dough should remain rather soft.
Oil a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, turning it once to oil both sides. Cover with a damp cloth and set it aside in a warm place for about 1 1/2 hours or until doubled in size.
Punch down the dough and knead it for a minute or two. Oil a large baking sheet with olive oil. Stretch and pat the dough on the baking sheet to roughly form a 12″x12″ square. Cover the pan and let the dough rise again for about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Make indentations with your fingertips about every two inches, dimpling the dough all over. Sprinkle coarse salt over the top. Lightly press in fresh rosemary sprigs. Drizzle dough with the remaining 2 TBL olive oil. Bake for about 25 minutes or until golden. Serve warm, cut or broken into pieces.

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