Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Power of Pesto

I'm sure at one point or another you've all tried pesto, whether it was tossed with pasta, slathered over chicken, or smashed into potatoes to make the most sensationally unique mashed potatoes you'll find (if you haven't tried it, you're missing out). The pesto you're all familiar with is the traditional Genovese pesto made with basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan and olive oil. I'm here to tell you that there's a whole lot of pesto out there that you've maybe never tried. The recipes are simple and straight-forward and can generally be prepared in the time it takes to boil a pot of water. First, I will share a pesto cream sauce with tomatoes that I've made many times over the years. Next, it's time for an adaptation of Giada's sun-dried tomato pesto, followed by a recipe for tomato pesto from one of my favorite cookbooks On Top of Spaghetti, which will change the way you feel about tomato paste. It's a trio of pesto today at Mission: Food! Here we go!

Penne with Pesto Cream and Tomatoes
Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups fresh basil leaves
4 cloves garlic
½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
½ cup olive oil
½ cup grated Parmesan
¾-1 cups heavy cream
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and diced
1 lb penne pasta, cooked al dente

Place basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and pepper in food processor and process until basil is finely chopped. With blade running gradually add oil. Scrape down sides and process until mixture is well-blended. Transfer to bowl and stir in ¼ cup Parmesan. Over medium-high heat cook cream in saucepan until boiling; reduce heat and simmer until thickens slightly. Add Tomato, pesto and remaining cheese. Cook 3-4 minutes until heated through. To serve, toss pasta with sauce.

Cook's note: The fastest and easiest way to peel a tomato is as follows... Score an "X" on the bottom of each tomato with a knife. Bring a pot of water to a simmer and submerge each tomato into the water for about 30 seconds or longer if necessary, checking to see when the skin at the "X" is ready to be peeled. Remove tomatoes from the water, and let them cool slightly. The peel should come right off, sometimes with hardly any effort. To seed them, just cut them in half and very gently squeeze the juices and seeds into a bowl. Now you're ready to chop!

Penne with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 lb penne pasta
1 jar (8.5 oz.) sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil
2 garlic cloves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (packed) fresh basil leaves
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Meanwhile, blend the sun-dried tomatoes and their oil, garlic, salt and pepper, to taste, and basil in a food processor and blend until the tomatoes are finely chopped. Transfer the tomato mixture to a large bowl. Stir in the Parmesan. Add the pesto to the pasta and toss to coat, adding enough reserved cooking liquid to moisten. Season the pasta, to taste, with salt and pepper and serve.

Mostaccioli with Tomato Pesto
(Recipe from On Top of Spaghetti)
Serves 6 to 8 as a first course or 4 to 6 as a main course

¾ cup (one 6-oz can) tomato paste, preferably organic
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon pine nuts
¼ teaspoon sea salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons tomato juice, preferably organic
2 plump garlic cloves, trimmed, peeled, and roughly chopped
1 pound dried mostaccioli, penne, or rigatoni
Freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Combine the tomato paste, olive oil, pine nuts, salt, cayenne, tomato juice, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor. Run the motor until you have a smooth purée. Set aside at room temperature while you cook the pasta. (You can cover and refrigerate the pesto, but be sure to bring it to room temperature before boiling the pasta.)

Generously salt the boiling water and drop in the mostaccioli. Cook, stirring often, until al dente. Drain, reserving about ½ cup of the pasta water. Transfer the mostaccioli to a heated serving bowl. Add enough of the pesto to coat the noodles generously. Add a little pasta water, a tablespoon at a time, if it seems too thick. Sprinkle with cheese and pass more Pecorino Romano and any remaining pesto at the table.


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