Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Rustic walnut pesto

Coming back from my trip to a completely empty fridge, I'm now reacquainting myself with my kitchen and the kinds of food I used to eat pre-California, pre-fast food, pre-lavender-infused everything. One of the last meals I had before the trip was with a beautifully rustic pesto made with walnuts. It started with a bunch of basil I couldn't refuse. It called out to me with such an intoxicating fragrance at the farmer's market that it made me swoon. I used walnuts in place of pine nuts because they're more heart-healthy, and I was also in the mood for a little bitterness.

As for technique, I'm a bit of a techno-phobe in the kitchen. Aside from my KitchenAid mixer, I'm convinced all things taste better the closer they are made to the hands. In the pesto realm, I've read several cooks' opinions that using a mortar and pestle is far superior to the food processor because mashing the basil allows the flavors to fully release whereas processing it just turns the pesto into slop. You're also left with a more vibrant green color. For me, hand-mashing just feels like the right thing to do.

This time around, I wanted to try a method I read about in 101 Cookbooks. I oftentimes find great satisfaction in the long method of doing things, and this process looked so messy and appealing to me. You simply chop the ingredients together one-by-one with a knife or a mezzaluna. And because you're left with nut pieces that are chopped rather than smashed, this method yields a very rustic version of a pesto. I just loved the way it came out with the basil still a bright green, in varying shapes and sizes with irregular bits of nuts and garlic in between.

To serve, I had the pesto on pearl barley instead of pasta because a chef friend of mine eats pearl barley practically on a daily basis and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Cooked right, it has a great toothiness and a nuttiness that goes really well with pesto. I also tossed in some steamed asparagus and some lemon zest for a bright flavor.

Recipe: Rustic walnut pesto
Adapted from 101 Cookbooks
1 large bunch of basil, unbruised leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
1 small handful of walnuts
3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
A few tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, or to taste

Start chopping the garlic along with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. Scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the walnuts, chop. Add the rest of the walnuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a chop so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil "cake" (see photo). Transfer the pesto "cake" to a small bowl not much bigger than the cake. Cover with a few tablespoons of olive oil.

You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Just before serving, give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil. Once tossed with the medium, season well with salt. And if needed, thin the pesto with a splash of pasta water.
Makes about 1 cup.

California recap

Hello everyone. I hope you're having a nice summer so far. I had a blissful, beautiful and relaxing time at the festival. Most of my time was spent at the Lavender Green Cafe making sandwiches and salads and gaining some front-of-the-house experience. I'm not exactly a social creature, but I really got a kick out of making customers happy, especially when they seemed to get excited about the smallest thing. Kitchen-inhabiting chefs don't often get to see the smiles on their customers' faces, but at the end of the day that's what this industry is all about isn't it? Pleasing the peeps.

As for eats, I sustained myself on lavender-infused chicken wraps, BLTs, burgers, salads with lavender-honey-mustard vinaigrette, and crumb pastries with lavender custard, lavender ice cream, and iced lavender green tea and lemonade. Not too shabby a diet for a vacationing volunteer, but I was pretty lavendered out by the end of the first weekend.

Outside the festival, I encountered mostly culinary bombs, including the worst meal of my life at a faux-Brazillian steak house and the most Chinese sushi I've ever had. Life is too short to have such bad meals, and towards the end I had enough of them and decided to consult my trusty Chowhound.

My tummy my senses were appeased with a beautiful dinner at Lucques, Susanne Goin's restaurant in L.A. the plates were simple, elegantly rustic and colorful. And as my friend pointed out, quite feminine. In San Diego, I inhaled about five utterly addictive fish tacos at Blue Water Grill and washed them down with a surprisingly decent non-alcoholic Becks (California = driving, driving and more driving). And on my last day before my flight, a trip to The Hungry Cat in L.A. Though not exactly a value meal, it was made memorable with a watermelon and heirloom tomato salad with feta and the grapefruit-rootbeer soda. And finally, one must never forget the comfort of In-N-Out burgers.

I wish I had taken more time to take careful pictures of everything and I'm actually appalled at myself for my lax attention to photographing food, especially at the festival. But in all honesty I think my mind was elsewhere for once. I hope you'll at least enjoy what's here, a random collection of shots from my trip in a very different place from here called California.