Sunday, 13 February 2011

Kitchen Conquests: Year-Round Love

How do you feel about Valentine's Day? I've always been slightly suspicious and given it my best shifty-eyes. I'm not suspicious of love, but of this notion that your desirability is measured by how many or how few cards and presents you receive. It's lovely to do something nice for your significant other, but there's also that lame get-out clause where if you buy a card and a dusty teddy bear from the garage you get Valentine brownie points that last the rest of the year. That's never worked for me. I'm more about small heartfelt gestures specific to the person than "You won't believe how much these South African lilies cost me! I ROCK! Can we do some horizontal dancing now then?"

Garage flowers. Where romance goes to die.
Basically, I could take it or leave it. So what does this have to do with food? Bear with me.

17th January 2011 was International Day of Italian Cuisines as decided upon by Gruppo Virtuale Cuochi Italiani (GVCI)  - an online group of over 900 professionals working in the Italian food industry around the world. On this day, chefs of Italian inspired food all cook a particular classic dish in celebration. Nice idea. This year's dish of choice was Pesto Alla Genovese, which is by far one of my favourite Italian meals. Do you know when I found out about this special day? On 17th January. My initial reaction was to sulk, pout, whine and panic about that the fact that I'd be ostracised by the Italian cooking community. Woe is me. I am neither Italian nor a chef, so I have no idea how this might come about. First reactions are curious things.

I gave it some more thought. Does making Pesto Alla Genovese on a specific day chosen by a committee of Italian chefs make me love Italian food even more than I already do? Of course not! I express my excessive love for Italian food every single week. Probably to the point where you'll soon get sick of me mentioning it. Love for anything, or anyone for that matter, can't be summed up in a prescribed task carried out on a single day. It's year-round love.

I'd be like, dude, please, get your own plate. 
I made the pesto, but I made it a few weeks later. The results were beautiful and I'm so glad I waited for an evening where I could give it the time and correct ingredients it deserved. If you visit the GVCI webpage here, you can follow the video showing you how to make the pesto according to their recipe. I decided to follow the recipe in The Italian Kitchen Bible. My grandfather bought it for me when he found me flicking through it in a shop some ten years or so ago. It looks like a cheap book but if you're a total Italian cooking novice it's an excellent introduction to the basics.

I mentioned in a previous post that I made homemade pesto for the first time  a few months ago. I made that in a mini food processor though. The pappas at the Gruppo Cuochi would surely frown upon my mechanised pesto. This had to be done properly in my pestle and mortar. I originally bought one years ago to grind Indian spices, so it's not very big. It was big enough to glean enough pesto for three generous portions of pasta though. Okay, here we go.....

I started by grinding the garlic with the salt to make a paste. Two cloves might not seem a lot, but it's important to remember that the pesto never really cooks, so the garlic stays pretty pungent. Something to bear in mind if you're Googling for Valentine dinners. Once the salt and garlic are indistinguishable you'll need to add your pinenuts and start grinding again.

Feel free to put on some music with a sexy beat while you make this pesto. You'll be grinding a long time. You might as well enjoy it. Just make sure you don't tell the Italian pappas. They wouldn't approve of such vulgarity. This is a particularly good one if you're looking for suggestions:

Once the pinenuts are combined with the garlic and salt, which shouldn't take long, it's time to add as much basil as your arm can manage and grind it into the paste. This will take a while and if it's been some time since you went to the gym, your arm might struggle a bit. This is why the music helps.

Once everything seems suitably combined, it's time to add the cheese. Apparently the authentic cheese ratio is 2/3 Parmigiano Reggiano and 1/3 Pecorino. I didn't have any Pecorino, so I just used 3/3 Parmesan. For some reason I decided I shave the cheese instead of grating it. I thought it might combine easier. This turned out to be false. Grate as finely as possible. Unless you're enjoying the grinding so much you want to make it last longer, of course. Each to their own.

After the cheese has combined completely with the bright green paste, start mixing in some good quality extra virgin olive oil. It needs to be enough to make a sauce to easily coat the pasta, but not so much that you dilute the flavours. Adding lemon juice isn't technically allowed in this dish, but after tasting I felt strongly that it needed some acid to cut  through the richness, so I squeezed in the juice of one small lemon.

That's reminded me, I switched to a small wooden spoon once the oil was added to bring everything together into a more even consistency.

taglierini I mentioned in this post. It couldn't be more perfect.

After the pasta has cooked, which should only take a few minutes with egg pasta, drain briefly but return it to the pan before all the cooking water has slipped away. At this point I added a very small knob of butter to loosen the pasta, then quickly mixed in the pesto. The proper way to mix pasta and any sauce is to add the pasta to the sauce. Sadly, my mortar could bearly hold the pesto, let alone the pasta. So I had to do things in reverse. When it comes to pestle and mortars at least, size really does matter. The results, however, were so deliciously good it's making me crave it just looking at this pictures. Happy grinding!

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