Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Pesto and Salmon Parcels

In my book, pesto is right up there with nectar and ambrosia, as the food that the gods stuff their faces with on Mount Olympus, when they are not busy seducing mortals or sending them on absurd quests for golden fleeces. This little miracle of delight comes from the region of Genoa, in Italy (I know Olympus isn't in Italy, for the record, but since the ancient Greeks and Romans shared a pantheon, I figured it wasn't such a stretch of the imagination), and is made by grounding together fresh basil leaves, toasted pine nuts, Parmesan and garlic, and binding the result in a creamy paste with olive oil and, sometimes, a bit of lemon juice.

It is traditionally done with a mortar and pestle, but us, time savy urban cooks, prefer to use the miracle of technology that is the food processor. Nothing beats the freshly home-made recipe you'll find below (mostly because you get to control the Parmesan and lemon juice quantities and make it exactly to you taste), but in emergencies, I prefer the Fontaine Santé brand of store-bought pesto. I find it tastes fresher and is easier to work with than other brands, because of it's lovely gooey texture.

I will provide you with a delicious classic pesto recipe, and two of the most simple, yet elegant and delicious ways to serve it.

Now, a small ingredients lecture. I am a bit of a snob when it comes to getting certain top-notch ingredients…

If, like me, you keep a basil plant on your window-sill, picking the leaves you need for this recipe straight from it might reduce your plant to a sprout. Since I use fresh basil regularly, I keep my plant for when small quantities are required - 1/3 cup to 1 cup. When you need more than 1 cup of fresh basil leaves, buying a packaged bunch from the grocery store is a good idea, unless you plan on waiting until your plant grows back before using some again. Also, pine nuts are pricey, because they are actually individually extracted from the pine cones. My suggestion is to buy them in bulk, and freeze what you are not using in a sealable plastic container. Parmegginano regiano is an absolute necessity for an authentic pesto. Either grate it yourself or buy it grated, from a fromagerie or a quality grocery store cheese counter. I'll paraphrase the bombastic Nadia G. about this; if it doesn't have to be refrigerated, it's not cheese!! And finally, "olive oil" means "cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil". This liquid gold is worth every penny, both for it's taste and health benefits. My favorite brand is Olio Tribeca, but when I can't find it, I apply a price-quality selection similar to what I'd use buying wine: if you pay less than $ 15, expect to get what you pay for… Target gourmet or ethnic grocery-stores to find the real deal, imported from Italy, Greece or Portugal.

Now that we have established quality standards, let's get cookin'! This pesto is from Jamie Oliver's "Jamie's Dinners", with a few adjustments.

2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 large handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Sea salt
1 squeeze of lemon juice

Pulse the garlic and basil in a food processor with a pinch of salt. Add the pine nuts to the mixture and pulse again. Transfer to a bowl and add half the Parmesan. Stir gently and add olive oil slowly; you need just enough to bind the sauce and give it an oozy consistency. Season to taste and add most of the remaining cheese. Poor in more oil and taste again. Keep adding cheese and oil until you are happy with the taste and consistency. Add a little squeeze of lemon juice at the end.

Toasting pine nuts is quite simple: put your little guys in a small dry frying pan, over medium heat, and toss them around a few minutes, until they are lightly colored, and transfer them into a bowl until you add them to the pesto.

Of course, you can keep everything in the food processor until the pesto is done; I do that mostly because I don't like to clean more dishes than I need. Be careful to get your taste-test with a spoon: there are sharp blades in that food processor! Don't freak out if once pulsed, it looks like you don't have enough basil in there. Once you add the oil and the other ingredients, this recipe will give you four helpings.

It took a couple of attempts before I balanced out the garlic/cheese flavors to my taste (too much garlic drowns the basil taste and too much cheese can make the pesto a bit biter), but practice makes perfect! Even a slightly flawed pesto is a lovely thing so don't be afraid of not reaching perfection on the first shot.

Pesto can be kept in a sealed container in the fridge for up to a week. If you know you won't use it right away, freeze it and simply defrost it overnight in the fridge before using. Yes, this means you can double or triple the recipe and make yourself a pesto stash! Of course, if you start doing that compulsively, you may want to seek a 12-steps program; we can go together!

Now, we all know how delicious pesto can be as a sauce to any pasta dish. My personal favorite way to serve it is to cube two chicken breasts and cook them in a pan with a bit of olive oil, then add them to some freshly cooked penne, and top the whole deal with pesto. Death by delicious. 

But if you are both lazy and love salmon, here is something I found in "Jamie's Food Revolution" and that I am now severely addicted to. The method is for individual portions, but if you have someone to impress, such as in-laws or colleagues, you can use the same steps with one of those huge, long salmon fillets. I am going to assume you already know that salmon is positively full of omega-3, vitamin D and good cholesterol, and spare you the "why you should eat lots and lots of fish" talk…

2 handfuls of green beans
2 lemons
2 7 ounces salmon fillets
4 heaped tablespoons pesto
olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the beans by cutting off the stalk ends but keeping the wispy tips. Halve one of the lemons. Take a yard of aluminum foil and fold it in half to have two layers. Put a handful of green beans in the middle and lay a salmon filet, skin side down, across the beans and spoon over 2 tablespoons of pesto, to cover the fish well. Drizzle with olive oil and squeeze the juice of one of the lemon halves, season with salt and pepper. Pull the aluminum foil together and scrunch them to make a parcel. Repeat these steps for the second parcel and place both on a sheet pan. But the pan in the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let it stand for a minute before carefully unwrapping and checking if the salmon is cooked to your liking. Serve the parcels on plates, with lemon wedges.

I like to have a bit of still-pink fish at the heart of the fillet, but if you like it cooked through, leave it in the oven for 5 more minutes.

Keep some crusty bread around, to mop up the oil and pesto that will remain in the parcels; no waste! It makes quite a filling helping, but it's lovely with a few steamed baby potatoes if you want to add a bit of carbs to the ensemble. A crisp white wine is great with this; my pick would be Vivolo di Sasso, or any nice sauvignon blanc that you like.

This post is dedicated to the loving memory of my friend Alex, also known occasionally as the Mad Macaque, who loved pesto even more than I did, and who passed away 2 years ago. I think of him every time I make a fresh batch, and every time I listen to Bad Religion's "Raise Your Voice" and NOFX's "Stinkin' In My Eye". I miss you, you big moron. Love!

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