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Pasta alla Liguria and Homemade Pesto

Happy Anniversary to the Greenmarkets! As both the New York Times and New York Magazine highlight they turn 30 years old this week. In a way, it is hard to imagine the city without these culinary resources, they’ve become something of an institution. Specials and the latest seasonal produce are highlighted on blogs, and new arrivals are heralded in the Dining In section of the Times on Wednesdays. The market has even published The New Greenmarket Cookbook (Ed note: this is a 2014 edition, as the previous book is no longer available).

In fact, the markets are such a part of New York life that one of them even played a role in the healing our wounds after 09/11, when it had to leave Downtown Manhattan (along with many of the firms whose employees shopped there during lunchtime). The re-opening of the market that had been at the base of the towers was greeted as a return to something close to normal life and a sign of the city’s resiliency (along with the re-opening of Century 21!).

The market’s own booth at the Union Squaremarket patiently handles queries from anxious foodies asking when the newest arrivals will be there and when whatever is next in season is anticipated. This week’s New York Magazine has a detailed map of the square and all the vendors who are usually there on Saturdays, but my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and take in what is for sale.

There, I’ve picked up wonderful cheeses, delicious handmade sausages, great homemade jams, and lovely freshly-baked bread – for toast of course. Plants and flowers dress up the square and the aroma of lilacs during the spring season makes the trip intoxicating as well. Like lots of folks who visit the market on a regular basis, I have my particular favorite vendors that I search out week after week for their wares.

Many foodstuffs I never thought I would see again once I left Europe, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find there. It’s made the city a great big garden and helped me to keep up my cooking repertoire. Available right at this moment – and soon to disappear – are things like zucchini flowers (see below). Yes, from the vegetable, fiori di zucca as they are called in Italian are usually prepared dipped in a light batter and fried. Not surprisingly, I love them.

Another thing in season and abundance at the moment is fresh basil. Fragrant bunches are for sale at many of the stands, some batches with leaves as big as spinach ones! It’s absolutely gorgeous and it helps to make some of this incredible heat and humidity a bit more tolerable by knowing that this is also a season for such wonderful goodness.

To capture some of this summer sunshine and warmth, I like to make my own pesto. I think that ripe tomatoes and fresh basil smell just like the hottest days in July and August, their peak time. To be honest, it’s often hard to write down a recipe like this, as I usually go by feel and texture and the quality of ingredients on which on can get my hands. As you make this, if you feel you need to add more oil or if you taste it and decide to add more cheese, go for it, that’s what cooking is really about!

Homemade Pesto*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Serves: Makes about a cup of pesto

Ingredients: 3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted 1 large clove garlic 1/4 tsp salt 1 pinch pepper 1/4 cup finely grated fresh parmesan cheese 1/4 cup finely grated fresh pecorino cheese 3-4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Assembly: In pre-heated 300o F (150o C, Gas Mark 2) oven, toast pine nuts until light brown, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. This will release the oils in the nuts. While pine nuts are toasting and cooling, prepare the basil.

Clean basil leaves extra well. You might want to run them through a salad spinner several times to make sure that all the grit (that’s a technical term) is removed from the basil. Alternatively, you could lovingly clean each leaf by hand using a damp paper towel – kidding! You do need to make sure that you really clean it, though. Nothing is worse than biting into pesto and having the dirt grind against your teeth.

In a food processor – I know anathema to some – place garlic clove cut into half, the toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely ground.  Add basil leaves. Pulse. It might take several times to finely grind the basil leaves. Carefully push down the basil to make sure that the leaves are meeting the blades. Add one tablespoon of the olive oil. Pulse several times as the leaves become finer and finer. Add remaining tablespoon of olive oil and pulse again. Scrape down sides of food processor. Add cheeses. Pulse to combine. Taste and adjust salt and pepper if necessary.

Store in the refrigerator in a glass container. Top with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. This will help keep the pesto from getting too dry. Do not worry if the top layer seems darker than the part below. Stir to recombine. Pesto will be good for about a week, if it lasts that long before anyone eats all of it.

Serving suggestion:

Below is a quick and easy summertime dish that shows off the pesto well. As you can see from the photo above, it is also colorful and unique-looking. This makes a great warm weather meal as it can be served at room temperature. It also reminds me of bright, sunny summer days spent on the Mediterranean coast of Italy.  Typically, this is made with a type of pasta called trenette. I haven’t been able to find it here in the U.S. so I substitute linguine instead, which is very similar in shape and texture, if a bit thinner. This is one of my favorite dishes to make for entertaining as it is easy to expand it to feed extra mouths.

Pasta alla Liguria

Prep time: 30 minutes

Serves: 4 adults as a first course

Ingredients: 1/2 16-oz. box linguine (about 200 grams) 5-6 small red new potatoes per person, cut into quarters 8-10 fresh green beans per person, cut in half 1 Tbsp pesto per person Salt

Assembly: In large saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add 1 tsp salt. Throw in green beans. Let cook for 3-5 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove green beans from pan and set aside either by dividing them onto the plates on which they will be served or in a large bowl.

Add potatoes and let cook 5-10 minutes until a fork goes through them easily. With skimmer, remove potatoes and add to the same plate or bowl as the green beans.

If necessary, add more water to the pan. Let come to boil and add 1/2 tsp more salt. Add linguine and cook until al dente. Strain pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid.

Put in same bowl or plates as the green beans and potatoes. Add one large dollop of homemade pesto (about 1 Tbsp) and stir to combine. To make creamier, add 1-2 spoonfuls of pasta water and stir again.

Bring to table. This pasta dish does not need to be served piping hot, but it should also not be allowed to sit for too long before serving it. It is possible to cook the green beans and potatoes at the same time as the pasta but do not allow the latter to overcook.

Buon appetito!

*Kitchen Witch Tip:

Basil is heading into its peak season in the summer. To preserve this fresh taste, a trick I learned several years ago is to make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays. Then, save the cubes in a plastic, sealed bag or container in the freezer. During those cold winter months when dishes need an extra kick, you can pop one into sauces and stews.

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