Mint-Basil Pesto

August 25, 2009

As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.
~Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

This is a little follow up from an earlier pesto post…a variation on a theme.

A perennial flowering herb, mint (genus Mentha) belongs to the family Lamiaceae. Decidedly aromatic, with bright zest on the front end and a cool finish, mint is a culinary one man band—used fresh, but also in sauces, teas, beverages, cocktails, jellies, syrups, candies, and ice creams.

In Greek mythology, Minthe was a beautiful naiad (river nymph) who was obsessively charmed by Hades, the stern ruler of the Underworld and husband of the goddess Persephone. Minthe and Hades succumbed to their carnal urges and engaged in an illicit—but far from discreet—affair. The spurned wife took revenge on her husband’s mistress by savagely kicking Minthe repeatedly, transforming her into a pungently sweet mint plant. With each blow from Persephone’s foot, the plant countered by releasing her delightful aroma.

A garden caveat: the root growth of mint is aggressive, vigorous and expansive. Left to its own devices, mint will spread quickly and become a Medusa-like nuisance, so consider planting the starters in a can or bucket first before introducing it to your garden.

A beloved summer aside, mint-basil pesto mates especially well with grilled lamb, chicken and fish.

MINT-BASIL PESTO

2 C fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1 C fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 C pine nuts or walnuts, lightly toasted
Pinch of sea salt

1/4 C parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1/4 C pecorino-romano, grated

1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Put the mint, basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process in pulses into a paste. Add the olive oil and process further until smooth. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheeses and add more oil if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

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Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.
~Albert Einstein

Albert was da bomb.

AGLIO e OLIO

1 lb. dried spaghetti or linguini
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t crushed hot pepper flakes

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T chopped parsley
Parmigiano reggiano and pecorino romano (optional)

Heat water in a large heavy pot to a boil and liberally add salt. Cook the spaghetti until al dente and drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet along with the garlic and hot pepper flakes. When the garlic first begins to change color toss in the drained spaghetti, salt, black pepper, and parsley. Lightly grate with the cheeses (optional and contrary to tradition).

Pourboire: to alter matters more, consider tossing the pasta with drained, rinsed and dried capers then top with a boiled egg cut into quarters or eighths.

When you make his sandwiches, put a sexy or loving note in his lunch box.
~Anne Rice

PANINI

Maybe with the current economic woes and ever expanding disparities in this country’s burgeoning two class chasm, it may be timely to discuss just a simple two ply sandwich…or even a panino. They share an affinity.

Before my panini palaver persists, I have to preface. Even though they are often dissed as nothing more than a portable meal, making a really damn good sandwich or panini demands every bit the same nurturing that many other fine dishes deserve. Unless you fail to thoughtfully coddle them, sandwiches do not merit that “lunch bucket–not cuisine label,” something to be gobbled hurriedly at your desk or in the car. Au contraire! Rather, choice sandwiches are memorable art forms, both inside and out…

A panino is a sandwich made from a small loaf of rustic bread which is cut horizontally on the bias and customarily filled with cured meat, cheeses and greens. The literal translation of panino is “roll” or “stuffed bread,” with the plural being panini.

As with much of food history or gastronomic anthropology (as those phrases are loosely used here and elsewhere), the story of the sandwich is muddled. Such an abundance of cultural variance, criss crossing civilizations, endless definitional nuances, and often bewildering oral traditions…humanity’s comings and goings. The concept of bread as a focal point to the eating experience has been present for eons, so historical precision is elusive (see Pizza & Calzone Dough).

The first recorded sandwich was purportedly assembled by the scholarly rabbi, Hillel the Elder, circa 100 B.C. He introduced the Passover custom of sandwiching a mixture of chopped nuts, apples, spices, and wine between matzohs eaten with bitter herbs…a sandwich which is the fond of the Seder and bears his name.

During the Middle Ages, thick slices of coarse stale bread called trenchers were used instead of plates. Derived from the French verb trancher, which means “to slice or cut,” meats and other victuals were piled on these bread platters, eaten with fingers and sometimes with knives as forks had yet to find prevalence. The thick trenchers absorbed the juices, the greases, and rather primitive sauces, and afterwards the soaked breads were thrown to the dogs or offered as alms to the poor. With the advent of the fork, finger food became impolite which rendered the trencher outmoded.

The first Italian recipe that vaguely resembled a panino was that for panunto (greased bread) described by Domenico Ramoli at the end of the 16th century—he even got nicknamed by his dish.

While references to “bread and meat” or “bread and cheese” are found throughout English drama from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a delay in the evolution of the sandwich ensued. Thankfully, the concept was finally revived in the 18th century by John Montague, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty and patron to Capt. James Cook who explored New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii, and Polynesia; he even designated the Hawaiian Islands as the Sandwich Islands. Rumor holds that Montague was so addicted to gambling that he steadfastly refused to pause for meals and instead ordered his valet to bring him meat tucked between two pieces of bread. While legends vary, it remains beyond quarrel that the word “sandwich” bears the name of John Montague, the Earl of Sandwich.

The sandwich was introduced to the states by the English import Elizabeth Leslie in the 19th century. In her cookbook, Directions for Cookery, she authored a recipe for ham sandwiches, which have evolved into an American tradition in many sizes, shapes and forms.

With the demand for haste emerging in the last century, sandwiches—from simple to elegant–have risen to become a staple of western civilization, for both rich and poor. Panini have slowly evolved from being basic worker’s fare to become trendy morsels on the food scene.

On panini preparation: brush the outside of the panini with extra virgin olive oil and fill it with whatever whets your palate—cheeses, cured meats, herbs, etc. As with pizzas and pasta, do not overload the sandwiches as the bread should be allowed a place at the table too. Proportions = “perfection.”

Should you own a panini grill, by all means use it. If not, use a ridged grill pan and place another surface, such as a small cutting board or another pan on top of the panini as they cook. Place a weight on the board or pan to press down the panini, causing those signature ridges and thinning the sandwiches overall. Turn and repeat. The panini should be cooked to golden brown with grill marks and the innards pressed narrowly…usually slightly oozing with luscious cheese.

Recipes will follow on a subsequent entry, as I may have already overstayed my welcome with these ramblings. In the meantime, consider:

pesto, arugula, watercress, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, garlic, tapenade, mozzarella, brie, gruyere, talleggio, fontina, pecorino, goat cheese, proscuitto, serrano, coppa, soppresatta, and pancetta, arugula, chard, basil, radicchio, baby spinach, extra virgin olive oil, truffle oil or salt, garlic oil, ciabatta, pain au levain, or baguette artisanal breads.

P.S. Use your imagination, as the possibilities prove endless.

A Cupboard Not Bare

January 19, 2009

Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a riceless pantry.
~Chinese proverb

Before traipsing into the kitchen or addressing the grill, some thought needs to be given to the provisions on hand. Not only would it be unrealistic to expect all ingredients to be locally fresh throughout the year, but the time constraints of daily life often demand an impromptu table. Having a well supplied (and periodically restocked) pantry is simply essential for home cooks to produce remarkable meals without a last minute forage at the neighborhood market. Some cupboard items can even prove superior to the fresh versions in certain seasons or preparations while others only come in pantry form.

The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to be fairly comprehensive for the lay cook. Of course, you will tailor your pantry to suit your palate and home cuisine. However, before you reject this list due to storage size restrictions alone, please keep in mind that almost all of these items are carefully housed in the cabinets of our minimalist urban kitchen with a small frig.

Oils –- extra virgin olive, canola, peanut, grapeseed, vegetable, white truffle, avocado, walnut, sesame

Vinegars — red wine, balsamic, champagne, apple cider, sherry, port, rice wine

Spices & Herbs — black peppercorns, white pepper, green peppercorns, pink peppercorns, mixed peppercorns, cayenne pepper, salt (sea, gray, kosher), herbes de provence, fine herbes, ras el hanout, za’atar, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, tarragon, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, savory, celery seed, mustard, turmeric, cardamom, paprika, pimentón, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, curry powder (homemade) & curry paste, fenugreek leaves, garam masala, caraway seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon (sticks/ground), chipotle chile powder, ancho chile powder, star anise, sesame seeds (black, white), allspice, anise seeds, saffron threads, wasabi powder, rubs (i.e., asian, ancho chili, dried mushroom, rosemary & pepper, tandoori, basic barbeque), local hot sauce(s), barbeque (preferably near home) sauces

Grains & Pastas — rice (white long grained, wild, brown, jasmine, basmati), polenta, risotto, pastas (potentials: taglilatelle, linguini, spaghetti, penne, lasagne, orzo, tortellini, orcchietta, capellini, farfalle, capaletti, cavatappi, cavatelli, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, papparadelle, ravioli, vermicelli), couscous, Israeli couscous, rice (cellophane) noodles (vermicelli–bun & sticks–banh pho)

Asian –- soy sauce, shoyu, white shoyu, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce/paste, sriracha, nuoc mam nhi(fish sauce), nuoc mam chay pha san, hoisin sauce, red, yellow & green curry pastes, mirin, sake, coconut milk, miso pastes (white, red), oyster sauce, wasabi paste/powder, five spice, tamarind paste, mirin, rice flour, panko bread crumbs, kochujang, gochu garu, konbu

Garlic, shallots, ginger, potatoes, yellow & red onions, dried chiles

Mustards, chutneys, capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, tomato paste, harissa, tahini, creme fraiche, pickles

Canned tomatoes (san marzano + homemade), stock (homemade/canned)

Legumes –- lentils (several colors + lentils du puy), garbanzos, cannellinis, white beans, black beans, navy beans

Booze — red & white wine, cognac (brandy), port wine, Madeira, sherry, eau de vie

Baking — flour, sugars (white granulated, raw cane, light brown, confectioner’s), baking powder, cornstarch, cornmeal, yeast, cocoa, dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa)

Flavorings –- almond extract, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, Tabasco, Worcestershire

Dried fruits — currants, apricots, figs, prunes, currants

Nuts –- pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, unsalted peanuts

Honeys (local, raw, unprocessed), mi-figue mi-raisin, raspberry and strawberry preserves, apricot jam, pure maple syrup, peanut butter

Dairy –- whole milk, unsalted butter, eggs, buttermilk, heavy whipping cream

Fruits –- lemons, oranges, grapefruit, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, heirloom tomatoes

Cheeses –- parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, gruyère, marscarpone, roquefort or gorgonzola, feta, fontina, manchego

Meats proscuitto, serrano

Spreads tapenades, caponata, hummus