My memories are punctuated by many flavors and scents. The full flavored aroma of tomato, the richness of browned onion, smoky grill marks on slices of eggplant and squash, the depth of roasted red peppers, the sweetness of garlic cooked slowly in olive oil, the pungent and sharp scent of basil. A warm, late summer day at Pepper Place Market takes me back to all of the times and places where I have cooked and enjoyed those flavors.
An old friend walked into my kitchen for the first time, and remarked that she knew it was my restaurant from the starring role played by basil. Not surprising as it has long been one of my favorites, pairing wonderfully with everything from vegetables and pastas to chicken and lamb, even giving a great twist to creamy and fruity desserts. But for me foremost is the classic combination of basil with garlic, pine nuts, cheese and olive oil that transforms into Pesto Genovese. My first memory of pesto is from Santa Margherita, a small coastal town south of Genoa, where my family dined when I was eleven. A wonderful blend with pasta, probably linguine, is what I remember now, although I cannot picture the trattoria or cafe where we it was eaten. Rather I remember a more embarrassing incident a year later in Venice, when my father was told that we could get linguine with pesto in an out of the way restaurant by a canal. All six of us sat in the dining room, ate the bread, olives, drank our water, but were unceremoniously uprooted when my father was told that pesto could only be served in Genoa. I still feel some guilt that we walked out without paying for what we ate...not to mention that the 12 year old boy was still hungry!
Pesto has often played a starring role in my food. Pesto crusted chicken, lamb rack with pesto and red wine, tortellini with pesto and grape tomatoes, sundried tomato pesto in an appetizer cheesecake, to name a few, but the late summer definitely makes me think of ratatouille. A classic of Provence, in the south of France, it features eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and pesto; or pistou as it is known there. In fact these ingredients, with the addition of white beans and some broth, make a classic Soupe au Pistou. A slow simmering of the vegetables, beans and aromatics is finished with the addition of a large dollop of fresh pesto, just before serving. Further south on the Mediterranean coast in Spain some roasted bell peppers will be added to make classic escalivada and samfaina dishes. I keep these dishes in the refrigerator or freezer to make a quick meal either as an omelette, frittata, tarte or side dish; often with the addition of interesting cheese.
A pot of ratatouille is simmering on my stove as I write this on a rainy day, cooking up what I brought home from last Saturday’s market. In fact the cooler weather is making me think that I will add some of those white beans, and make it a heartier soup, almost like a vegetable stew. The memories brought on by these savory aromas bring past meals to mind, of the great places and friends that have punctuated my life. I hope that the same is true for you, as we break bread and share food with family and friends. Enjoy!
This recipe for Pesto is my own version of the classic, featuring roasted (browned) garlic and Asiago cheese, to bring out the sweetness and take out the sharp taste of the raw garlic. Store the pesto in the fridge, make sure to cover the top of the basil with a little oil to keep it from browning. It also freezes well, and is a great last minute addition to a soups!
Franklins Basic Pesto BASIC PESTO RECIPE MAKES ABOUT 11/2 CUPS
3 TB pine nuts
1cup (packed) basil leaves
¼ cup grated asiago or Parmesan cheese
2 TB browned or roasted garlic
½ cup olive oil to taste salt and pepper
Chef Franklin Biggs writes about food for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org