A Pesto with Pedigree

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Sicilian Nut Pesto and Pesto Rosso 

 

I can safely say that almost without exception, my taste for the finer things in life waited until I was well past childhood to come out of hiding. In eschewing just about anything that might impart an ounce of nutrition, by the time I turned ten most people assumed I was well on my way to a permanent place in the junk food hall of fame; after all, my principal yardstick for edibility was based on sugar and cheese, with occasional allowances for other things as long as they were drowned in enough ketchup. I’m sure most people who knew me had already written me off as a lost cause, thinking I was doomed to a life of fast food and Velveeta; I might well have been if it weren’t for a sudden explosion in my tastes that happened around this time. I owe it all to pesto.

I can thank my father, the man better known for his affinity for certain members of the gourd family, for introducing me to pesto. At some point in my childhood he started shopping at one of Oakland, California’s most esteemed purveyors of Italian food, the Genova delicatessen. Every time he went he came back loaded with boxes of their homemade ravioli, softly misshapen and bulging with cheese. I was more wary, however, of the pint-sized containers of vivid green sludge that he also brought home, especially as they filled the room with an indescribable pungency the instant the lid was taken off. The abbreviated ingredient list specifying ‘extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, parmesan cheese and garlic’ was the only indication of their contents, but at that point it might have been written in Italian for all these fancy words meant to me. I’m not sure what force moved me to try it the first time (it certainly wasn’t its color – I had an almost religious aversion to anything green), but that one taste was all it took: by the time the first spoonful reached my stomach, I was a pesto convert. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was developing a taste for a pesto with a pedigree, and I would have to wait years until I tasted anything again that would live up to it.

It’s really no wonder this pesto wormed its way into my heart the way it did. The birthplace of basil pesto is the Ligurian coast of Italy, whose capital city is Genoa, or Genova in Italian. Genoa is widely regarded by Italians as being the only place in the country to sample authentic pesto, but I hadn’t realized just how significant this was until I found myself there years later. At this point it was probably at least seven or eight years since I’d last tasted pesto from the Genova delicatessen, and the intervening time had been filled, on the pesto front, with incalculable mediocrity. As pesto had caught on more popularly in the U.S. I’d tried every mass marketed supermarket variety and restaurant version I could get my hands on, but it all paled in comparison to my memories; I’d had some decent results making it myself, but no matter how many ‘authentic’ recipes I tried, it never tasted quite right.  I had even started to doubt my own memory, thinking perhaps the rose-colored glasses of hindsight had made me remember a taste that never existed. Then one day on my first backpacking tour of Europe, I was traveling by train along the west coast of Italy, and I had to change trains in Genoa. Realizing as I disembarked that I had half an hour to kill before my connecting train arrived, I wandered out of the station and found myself on the doorstep of a small supermarket. I stepped inside, grabbed a loaf of bread and some cheese, and was about to leave when I passed a refrigerated case that contained nothing but small plastic containers of emerald green paste. They had no label, for it was assumed everyone would know what these contained; I grabbed one and headed back to the station.

If Proust’s moment came in the form of a madeleine, and Nigella’s came in the form a cheesebread, mine came in the form of this pesto, on a rickety train making its slow path down the coast to Portofino. With one bite my doubts about my recollections were erased – I had never known a simple taste to bridge space and time so seamlessly. I can’t even tell you exactly what it was that made it perfect, but there was a freshness, an intensity and a creamy pungency that had been lacking in every other pesto I’d tried over the years, and just inhaling its fragrance transported me back to my father’s kitchen in California.

I briefly wondered whether all pesto in Italy would be this good, but was soon to discover it wasn’t; in fact, in most parts of Italy the pesto can be as bad as bad pesto anywhere. A few weeks later, an interesting conversation with a hostel owner on Lake Como clued me in to why. We had gotten to talking about the differences between regional Italian cuisines, and I described my experience with the Genovese pesto. He smiled knowingly and replied that a true Ligurian pesto cannot be perfectly replicated anywhere else because of the quality of the basil. The soil around Genoa, he explained, contains a particular mix of minerals that create a basil that is both spicy and delicate, without the harsh grassiness that characterises basil elsewhere. The Ligurians also know how to grow their basil to its maximum potential – it’s always shaded from direct sun and picked before the leaves get too large and tough. I must have looked dubious because he asked his wife to whip some up that evening from the basil growing in the hostel’s garden; when he brought me up a sample to taste I had to agree that although it was very good, it was still a far cry from the Genovese gold standard.

I could give you a recipe for basil pesto, but it would be futile. You see, unless you happen to be looking out your window on a field of tender Ligurian basil, my recipe won’t get you closer to the real thing than any other recipe. In some ways I regard my uncompromising taste for true Genovese pesto as a handicap; in most situations I would rather not eat it at all than be disappointed. Then again, it has also been something of a blessing, as without this desire to avoid disappointment I never would have started experimenting with other kinds of pestos. As it turns out, chunky herb and nut sauces are made all over Italy, and despite the fact that the basil variety has become the darling of the international dining scene, there exist countless delicious versions incorporating every kind of herb and nut imaginable. I give you, therefore, two of my favorites that you shouldn’t have any trouble reproducing wherever you are.

For my part, I still dream of returning to Genoa one day to reconnect with the pesto of my dreams, but with alternatives as good as these, you can be sure that in the meantime my ravioli isn’t going to go naked.

 

Sicilian Nut Pesto

Source: based on a recipe in Erica DeMane’s The Flavors of Southern Italy 
Yield: about 2 cups
Notes: I was blown away by the complex flavors in this multi-nut pesto from Sicily. Although I briefly considered dropping the mint, thinking it would ove
rpower some of the other flavors, I was so glad I didn’t – the mint adds an underlying note of freshness to the basil that beautifully compliments the rich profusion of nuts. Also note that there are versions of this pesto that contain cheese, but I prefer this one without as there are already so many subtle and complex flavors vying for your attention, and the nuts make it plenty rich without.

1/2 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 plump cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 cup (packed) basil leaves, chopped or torn
2/3 cup (packed) mint leaves, chopped or torn
about 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
salt, to taste 

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Begin by toasting the nuts in separate batches on a baking sheet just until golden and fragrant, about 10-12 minutes for the almonds and hazelnuts, and 7-9 minutes for the pistachios and pine nuts. (If you think you’ll be vigilant enough, you can stick them all in the oven together in different pans, removing each kind of nut as it turns golden.) Set them all aside to cool. Using a towel or moistened hands, rub the skins off the hazelnuts. Combine everything in a food processor (or a mortar and pestle, if you like things done the old-fashioned way) and pulse until reduced to a slightly chunky paste, adding more oil if necessary.  Taste for salt, then store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can use this as a sauce for pasta, or as a topping for fish, chicken, vegetables, or foccacia. It also makes a killer sandwich spread.

 
Pesto Rosso

Source: adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria
Yield: about 2 cups 
Notes: While the above pesto is fragrant, herbal and fresh, this one is gutsy, punchy and robust. It goes well with just about everything, including stronger flavors like red meat and pork. When I use it for pasta, I have no qualms about showering this one with copious amounts of cheese.

10 whole sundried tomatoes, packed in oil
4 cloves garlic
about 20 oil-cured black olives, pitted
1/2 cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and chopped
2 tablespoons (packed) fresh rosemary, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
1 small dried hot chili, or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Combine everything in a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse lightly until a chunky paste is formed. Taste for seasoning, correcting the balance of salt, sugar or vinegar if needed. Keeps covered for at least a week. See above recipe for serving suggestions.

 

A Georgian Feast

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Hachapuri (Georgian Cheese Bread)

"Georgia is as fertile a country as any can be imagin’d, where a man may live both deliciously and very cheap. Their Bread is as good as any in the World; their Fruit is delicious and of all sorts. Neither is there any part of Europe that produces fairer Pears and Apples, or better tasted, nor does any part of Asia bring forth more delicious Pomegranates. Cattel is very plentiful and very good, as well the larger sort as the lesser. Their Fowl of all sorts is incomparable, especially their Wild-Fowl; their Boars-Flesh is as plentiful and as good as any in Colchis… The Caspian Sea which is next to Georgia and the Kurr, that runs through it, supplies it with all sorts of salt and fresh Fish, so that we may truly say that there is no country where a Man may have an Opportunity to fare better than in this.”

      -The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies (1686)

Clinging to the east coast of the Black Sea and tucked into the southern folds of the craggy Caucasus, the Republic of Georgia is a lush, mysterious land. Despite being no bigger than Ireland, the country’s frontiers encompass everything from subtropical rainforest to alpine glaciers to desert plains, and thanks to its strategic location along the fabled silk road to Asia, has played host to travelers, traders and tourists alike for the better part of a millennium. Unfortunately, Georgia is better known these days for its turbulent recent history, and has achieved more than its fair share of notoriety for being the birthplace of the Soviet Union’s most despised and tyrannic despot. Finally though, fifteen years after regaining its own political identity, Georgia is beginning to emerge from the shadows of its past and is being recognized for what it really has to offer. This is, of course, its cuisine.

There are two legends that Georgians tell to explain the creation of their country, and fascinatingly, both involve food. In the first, the Georgians claim that when God was distributing land to all the peoples of the Earth, they were too busy feasting and drinking to show up at the appointed time. When they finally arrived, they were dismayed to learn that all the land had already been given away. They explained to God the reason for their delay, and God, obviously recognizing the value of a people who would rather be feasting than fighting over land, took pity on them and gave the Georgians the part of the Earth that he had been reserving for himself – naturally, the most beautiful part. In the second legend, God took a supper break while creating the world, and became so involved with his meal that he inadvertently tripped over the high peaks of the Caucasus, spilling his food onto the land below. This land blessed by heaven’s table scraps was Georgia.

I bought my first cookbook on Georgian cuisine on a whim; since I pride myself on the breadth of global coverage contained on my bookshelves this seemed like an obvious gap to fill. I had never actually had Georgian food, I didn’t even really have an idea what might set it apart from the cuisines of its more well-known neighbors, including Turkey, Russia and Iran. I imagined it must be some kind of pan-Eastern European/Middle Eastern fusion where you might get dumplings and beetroot with your shashlik. Why else would it be so obscure? I had barely finished the book’s introduction, however, before I was convinced I had just stumbled upon my most exciting culinary discovery of the decade.

Precious few books on Georgian cuisine exist in the English language. Paula Wolfert devotes some of her excellent Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to an exploration of Georgian cuisine, arguing that despite the fact that the country doesn’t touch the Mediterranean, it is in flavor and spirit similar enough to deserve an honorary inclusion. Darra Goldstein, whose book The Georgian Feast expertly combines anthropology, history and a comprehensive gastronomic survey of the country, is the one who best sums up my own impressions: "Georgian food is reminiscent of both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tastes, the result of a rich interplay of culinary ideas carried along the trade routes by merchants and travelers. Today their cooking represents more than a melange of the flavors of other regions. Georgian cuisine stands distinct among the foods of the world, a vibrant, inspired interpretation of indigenous ingredients."

The thing that appealed to me instantly about Georgian cuisine is both its familiarity and its exoticness. The foundations of the cuisine are all well known to the European palate: hazelnuts, walnuts, cheese, yogurt, plums, corn, peaches, apples, cherries, cilantro, basil, tarragon, dill, mint, cinnamon. What is not familiar are the preparations: beets with sour cherry sauce; beans with pomegranate and fenugreek; eggplant with walnuts and saffron; chicken with cilantro, dill and plums; rice with raisins and honey. It’s as if the familiar flavors of Europe had been handed to someone who was instructed to forget everything he knew about the continent’s gastronomic heritage and instead reinvent the wheel, which somehow he managed to do with subtlety, sophistication and finesse.

Perhaps the most iconic Georgian dish, and the one I was eager to try first, is a savory cheese bread called hachapuri (or khachapuri). The dough for this bread is traditionally unyeasted, instead leavened with baking powder and soured with yogurt, and the cheese inside is either the soft, crumbly imeruli, or in the western part of Georgia, suluguni, a creamy, slightly rubbery cheese akin to a ripened mozzarella. It’s purposefully quick, so that it can be whipped up in a hurry when unexpected guests arrive, and rich, so they won’t leave hungry. Strangely enough, I found the most compelling recipe for this dish in Nigella Lawson’s most recent book, Feast, in which she dedicates a full chapter to her enchantment with Georgian food. What captivated me about Nigella’s version was its background story. She recounts how she first tasted an extraordinary hachapuri one night in a Georgian restaurant in St. Petersburg, an experience which prompted her to spend the next several years trying to duplicate the recipe. After dozens of failed attempts, she says she stumbled into a Georgian cafe in East London by chance, ordered a cheesebread, and had a truly Proustian moment as she came face to face with exactly the bread she had been trying to recreate. Her recipe is called Nana’s Hachapuri, after the kitchen matriarch of that small cafe who consented to allow Nigella to witness and document the recipe for the best cheesebread this side of St. Petersburg.

I can’t say tasting it caused a Proustian moment for me, but rather the opposite: upon first bite I saw, stretching out before me, the vision of many, many Georgian feasts to come.

Nana’s Hachapuri

Source: Nigella Lawson’s Posted on 57 Comments

A Lesson in High-Stakes Dining

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A few months ago there was a well-known meme making the rounds to which I added a question before passing it on through the blogosphere. “What’s on your all-time foodie dream list?”, I wanted to know, wondering what kinds of gadgets, destinations and experiences my fellow food enthusiasts found creeping into their fantasies. My own answer (besides the obvious goals of acquiring a good ice cream maker and traveling to some new culinary hotspots) was this: “A chance to eat in some of the world’s finest restaurants, just so I know what all the hype is about: El Bulli, Pierre Gagnaire, Le Cinq, The Fat Duck, Arzak, Troisgros…”. At the time, eating at any of these three-star apogees of cuisine seemed like an impossible dream, or at least one that involved several more years of penny-pinching before its fulfilment. I certainly never would have believed you if you told me that within six months of writing about this dream, I would be able to tick one of those meals off my list. Yet somehow, one afternoon last December, it happened.

Despite the significance of that particular meal, it took me a long time to decide if I even wanted to write about it. The problem was that I felt slightly uncomfortable about my lack of experience with the mighty Michelin. Before last December, I had never so much as set foot in a restaurant awarded a single star by this most illustrious of foodguides, let alone one that held three stars, their highest honor. The reason is not hard to find: although the exact price categories vary by country, a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant is expensive. A dinner at a one-star restaurant in Edinburgh, for example (of which there are two), can easily set you back £100 (about $180) per person with wine. And that’s for a restaurant that, in the Michelin ratings key, is “worth a stop”. At the three-star level (“worth a trip” in Michelinese), the sky’s the limit, but I have heard rumors of dinners for two in some of Paris’ most esteemed establishments coming in well over the 500-euro mark even before you’re handed the wine list. To think of these numbers just boggled my mind, simultaneously intriguing and repelling me. But most of all, I just wanted to know what food at this level actually tastes like. How can a plate of food – or several, as the case usually is – be deemed to hold this much value, and would it, when I finally experienced it, be the most amazing thing I had ever eaten?

As it turns out, my first experience with a Michelin recommendation couldn’t have come at a more controversial time for this venerable institution. Long commanding the undisputed spot at the top of the European restaurant-guide pile, the Guide Michelin has always been synonymous with impartiality, rigorous standards, and exceptional quality. A single star awarded or not has meant the difference between success and failure of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of European restaurants, and for chefs of a certain caliber, these stars are like a drug that is impossible to resist – either a chef doesn’t have it and wants it, or does and is terrified of losing it. There is no indifference where Michelin ratings are concerned. The crisis that confronts Michelin now, however, is that cracks are starting to appear in this previously rock-solid system. First there was the scandal of the recently recalled Benelux guide in which a restaurant that hadn’t even opened yet was awarded stars. Then there was the juicy tell-all memoir of Michelin inspector Pascal Rémy who revealed that the institution is not impervious to lobbying, bribery, and perhaps worst of all, granting immunity from negative reviews to a select group of famous names. Add to this the scandal of triple-starred Bernard Loiseau who committed suicide after hearing rumors that he was about to lose a star. And finally, there’s the embarrassment of more and more chefs getting fed up with the whole charade and actually attempting to return their stars because of the pressure and expense they bring. According to this article in Travel & Leisure, these crises for Michelin are being taken more seriously in France than just about anything else, including riots, political cartoons and uncertainties about Europe’s integrated future.

But back to my own meal. The opportunity to shoot to the top of the Michelin ladder popped up out of the blue when Pim informed Michele that she’d managed to secure a table at Pierre Gagnaire at the precise time we would be eating our way through Paris together. It didn’t take us long to agree to join her. Pierre Gagnaire, one of France’s top names, is well known for his cutting-edge approach to fine dining, which like Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal is very much geared towards ‘pushing the envelope’. He’s a solid experimentalist, perhaps not taking as deep a scientific approach to flavor, color and texture as the other two, but equally brilliant in his own way in that he improvises much of his menu, changing it almost daily. The other equally impressive thing he is known for is being the only triple-starred chef to file for bankruptcy, which he did at his first restaurant in St-Etienne in 1996, only to reappear on the scene and defy the odds to open a second (and far more successful) three-star in Paris just a few years later.

Gagnaire’s restaurant struck me as tastefully modern, with a notable absence of the gilded opulence that I’d been conditioned to expect from a temple of French haute cuisine. The space felt almost cozy, with low ceilings, hushed voices and plush, heavy chairs – the tables, however, were enormous, the porcelain and silver plentiful and gleaming, and the seemingly endless parade of tuxedoed wait staff reminded me that I was most certainly dining in the big leagues. Luckily Michele and I knew what we would order even before we arrived, and so spent only a moment perusing the a la carte menu (which nonetheless quickly threatened to send me spiralling into sticker-shock). We both ordered the €90 menu du marché, a multicourse tasting menu of seasonal vegetable-based preparations that included in total about twelve different dishes, some served together and some on their own. Our selection of starters was by far the most daring part of the meal, including things like cucumber jelly with peeled grapes, sweet potato and mussels; cold-smoked haddock atop a fluffy poached meringue marshmallow; and artichoke ice cream with chewy tapioca and fresh coconut. Two larger
courses followed, one combining a disk of fresh foie gras mousse with soft stewed leeks and curry-scented langoustines, and the other a remarkably rustic slab of roasted pork belly atop a medley of Asian-spiced root vegetables. Dessert was another assortment of small, quirky offerings; I remember in particular a chocolate and hazelnut terrine with spiced carrots, and a crispy pancake with orange sorbet, calvados sauce and candied red pepper.

As we quickly realized, everything from Gagnaire’s kitchen had a surprise element, often relying on the unexpected interplay of salty and sweet, vegetable and fruit, and hot and cold. It was all perfectly executed, expertly cooked and served with inscrutable professionalism by our personal chorus of black-clad servers. The dishes were light yet substantial, and for the relatively low cost of the meal offered an enormous variety of experiences. The feeling of being treated like royalty for three hours certainly wasn’t unpleasant either. But was the food some of the best I’d ever had? Not by a long shot. In fact, I have a hard time even bringing myself to say that it was anything more than just moderately good. There were elements that really stood out, and I could appreciate how much time and effort had gone into everything from concept to execution, but to me the contrasts were too discordant, and the combinations too complex to find anything truly delicious. Instead of a fantastic meal, it was an exercise in focus as I struggled to identify strange flavors and textures and simply ‘get’ what the chef was intending with each dish. In fact, I left feeling slightly deflated; not disappointed exactly – though I might have if I had spent much more than I did – but just slightly sobered by the thought that I had just partaken in one of the most prestigious and applauded dining experiences on the planet, and the most appropriate adjective I could find to describe the meal was interesting.

There are certain meals that stand out crystal-clear in my mind despite the number of years that have elapsed since they happened, meals whose pleasure overwhelmed me to such an extent that at that moment I thought I was enjoying the best food of my entire life. These meals encompass anything from a simple, perfect pizza to a multicourse banquet eaten at a restaurant selected by chance. For the most part, I realize now, these meals were so special because they took me by surprise – I didn’t approach them expecting anything out of the ordinary. Unfortunately the thing about dining in the upper echelons is that there is inevitably expectation involved. With so much at stake for reputations, wallets and tastebuds, the consequences of anything less than perfection are severe – and unless everything is perfect (which it rarely is) you are very often going to be disappointed. Perhaps this is just par for the course at this level, but it will certainly give me much to reflect on before committing to my next high-stakes meal.

I must say I’d certainly hate to see Michelin close up shop. After all, guides – however flawed – still perform an important service and help us to discover places that are more likely to give us what we seek. The only thing I would hope is that the current crisis will act as a catalyst to break the institution from the shackles of its own tradition. A world where only restaurants that charge hundreds will get top accolades and where a chef is driven to suicide by the thought of losing a star is obviously not how things should be, and likewise there are many superlative eating experiences out there that don’t garner a single mention because the plates are not porcelain and the wine list not expensive enough. I certainly do intend to visit more of the restaurants on my list as the opportunity permits. But I’m also going to keep firmly in mind that whatever the guidebooks recommend, ultimately life’s true three-star meals will always happen when we least expect them.