Pesto and the Art of Procrastination

It’s Sunday evening and my computer screen mirrors my blank stare. That grant proposal that I’ve been meaning to get to has not magically written itself. The coming week is going to be beastly.

It would really be best to just finish the proposal tonight.

Seriously.

All three email accounts are checked. The dishes are done. The litterbox is clean. Hell, I’m procrastinating so hard that the plants are even watered.

Write, damn it.

Wait! Isn’t there a bouquet of purple basil that was brought by a brunch guest and is still languishing in the fridge? I don’t imagine that rosemary plucked from my dad’s front yard will be good for much longer. And what of the parsley that arrived in last week’s CSA share?

Screw the grant proposal; there’s pesto to be made!

  1. Toast a handful of pine nuts, walnuts or whatever else you have on hand in a cast iron skillet over medium low heat. Be sure to watch the nuts closely and stir frequently once they start to brown, as there’s a fine line between toasted and burnt.
  2. Rinse and stem your herbs. While basil is traditional, you can make a pesto with just about any herb. I have a particularly fond memory of a cilantro jalapeño and lime pesto that I used to top some grilled pork chops. In this case, I used the aforementioned purple basil, rosemary and parsley. I suspect that it will pair nicely with roast lamb or merguez.
  3. Toss your toasted nuts, a clove of garlic or a garlic scape, and the fresh herbs into a food processor and grind until you’ve got a coarse paste. This will likely necessitate scraping down the work bowl a few times. I find that it helps to start by pulsing. If it really won’t get going, just move on to Step 4. It’s all good.
  4. While cheese isn’t necessary, it is delicious. Mix in a cup or so of finely grated Parmesan, Romano or other sharp hard cheese. (This is an excellent use for that dried out hunk in the back of your cheese drawer.) If you do not already have one, I highly recommend acquiring a rasp, which is often referred to as a microplane in kitchen supply stores. It will make short work of hard cheese, citrus rind, whole nutmeg and your knuckles. Be careful!
  5. With the food processor running, gradually add a stream of extra virgin olive oil until your pesto reaches the desired consistency. I tend to go with less oil, which yields a thicker pesto, assuming that I can always loosen it up later if need be. In this case I used about half a cup of oil. Since you will not be cooking the pesto, this is the time to bust out the good stuff.
  6. At this point, you can call it pesto, but I find that a little tweaking helps. The pungency of the herbs, the saltiness of the cheese, and the grassiness of the olive oil will all impact the flavor. So taste it and adjust as you see fit. In this case, I added the zest and juice of one lemon to brighten the woodiness that the rosemary imparted. I added a little more salt and a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper because I’m into that. Sometimes a pinch of sugar does the trick. Trust your tongue.

Pesto freezes brilliantly. I like to spoon it into ice-cube trays, freeze it overnight and then toss these cubes into a plastic baggie so that I can defrost just what I want on a given night.

The nights are getting colder and the air has that crisp feeling that signals the end of summer. Soon acorn squash and beets will replace the sweet corn and tomatoes and the notion of an overabundance of fresh herbs will seem laughable. Pesto cubes will be a welcome reminder of summer come January.

Pasta Alla Eliana

My sister Eliana continues to camp out on an air bed where my dining table usually resides.  The regular reader (anyone?) will recall that she is 16 and vegan.  One of my goals for Eliana’s visit is to teach her some cooking fundamentals so that she can feed herself healthy meals at college and beyond without relying on exorbitantly priced prepared items from Whole Foods.

Today’s CSA share included a giant eggplant, some purple basil and an abundance of glorious tomatoes.  I was thinking Pasta Alla Norma, which is a traditional Sicilian pasta dish with fried eggplant, tomatoes, basil and ricotta salata.  Ricotta salata is an Italian cheese that’s a lot like feta in its crumbly texture but with a less sharp flavor.

But I am feeding a vegan…

Pasta Alla Eliana

  • 1 large or 2 medium eggplant, cut into cubes
  • 4 tbsp (or so) olive oil
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1/2 tbsp crushed red pepper or to taste
  • 4 ounces tempeh, cut like lardon (roughly half the size of a matchstick)
  • 1/2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1-3 tbsp red wine vinegar (depending on acidity of tomatoes)
  • 10 ounces whole wheat ziti or other large tubular pasta
  • 20 fresh basil leaves
  • 3/4 cup vegan mozzarella shreds
  • 3 tsp nutritional yeast
  • salt and pepper
  1. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat.  (Nonstick would be easier, but I don’t own one and it was fine so long as we made sure to scrape the bottom regularly.)  Add the eggplant in batches so as not to crowd the pan, pouring another tablespoon of olive oil into the pan before each batch.  Cook eggplant, stirring occasionally until browned and softened.  Add all of the eggplant back to the pan along with the garlic, red pepper flakes and salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pan, for a few minutes until you smell the garlic toasting.  Remove from pan.
  2. Put a pot of salted water on to boil.  Heat another tablespoon of olive oil and add your tempeh as well as the soy sauce.  (I know that the soy sauce seems odd here, but it will help give the tempeh a flavor that mimics the guanciale or other cured pork product I would ordinarily be tempted to include.)  Cook stirring constantly until the tempeh is nicely browned and then add your tomatoes.  Cook for a few minutes, throw the eggplant back into the pan, stir in a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and let simmer, adding a little water if it starts to dry out.  
  3. When the water boils, add your pasta and cook until just before al dente (about two minutes less than the package instructs).  Scoop the pasta directly into your sauce, allowing some of the pasta water to transfer, and simmer for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally, until sauce begins to stick to pasta.  Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and vinegar as you see fit.
  4. Dish pasta into individual bowls, topping each with 1/4 cup of the vegan mozzarella, torn up basil leaves and a teaspoon of nutritional yeast.  (While this last ingredient is definitely not necessary, it will lend a cheesy flavor.  And, since it was a staple of my childhood, I’m going to assume that it has some nutritional value.)

This provided a solid dinner for two people with enough leftovers for Eliana’s lunch tomorrow.  Here’s what it looked like once we mixed it up.

And here’s a little tomato porn, just because.

Tomato Time: Pizza!

Yesterday I worked the second of my two volunteer shifts as a member of the Prospect Park CSA.  I get the sense that not everyone is a fan of this membership requirement, but I find it to be great fun.  While the good folk at Windflower Farm do all the work, I get all the glory.  This week was particularly glorious, as tomato season is upon us.

My 16-year-old sister is staying with me for a couple of weeks while she attends a Shakespeare camp.  She’s coming up on her first anniversary as a vegan so I’m cooking a bit differently than usual.  Tonight we managed to polish off six plum tomatoes, one medium-sized tomato and four ping pongs (cutest tomato name ever).

Vegan (or not) Fresh Tomato, Sweet Onion and Corn Pizza

  • 1 small batch whole wheat pizza dough (half a ball of dough from the Whole Foods freezer case worked perfectly for a midweek meal, but you can easily make your own)
  • 1.5 pounds fresh tomatoes
  • 1 large sweet onion (Walla Walla, Vidalia, etc.)
  • 1 cup shredded vegan mozzarella (fresh mozzarella, feta or even goat cheese would also be great)
  • 3-4 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 ears sweet corn
  • 10 leaves fresh basil
  • salt and pepper
  1. Turn broiler to high and place a large cast iron skillet with one tablespoon olive oil in oven.  Line a roasting pan or a baking sheet that has sides with foil and drizzle one tablespoon oil across it.  Slice tomatoes and onion approximately 1/4″ thick and spread on baking sheet in a single layer.  Drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil over the top, add salt and fresh-ground black pepper and place on the top shelf directly under the broiler. 
  2. While this is cooking, cut the kernels off of the corn.  (If your corn is as sweet and fresh as mine, go ahead and munch on some while you wait.)  Check on your roasting veggies and, if your oven is a little uneven, rotate the pan.
  3. When the tomatoes begin to dry out and the onions turn brown at the edges, pull them out.  Turn off the broiler and set your oven as high as it will go.  Remove the cast iron skillet and tilt to spread the oil.  Stretch dough into a disc roughly the size of the skillet by rotating your hands along the edges and allowing gravity to pull it down.  If the dough sizzles when you place it in the pan, great.
  4. Sprinkle all but a couple of tablespoons of the cheese over the dough then top this with a layer of roasted tomatoes followed by the roasted onions.  Add the corn and then sprinkle with the remaining cheese.  (Were we not going vegan, some Romano would have been the way to go here.)
  5. Place your pizza on the bottom rack of the oven and bake until the crust just starts to brown.  Sprinkle with chopped basil and, if you are so inclined, a bit of good quality olive oil.

We ate this with a simple salad of red leaf lettuce and tomatoes dressed with red wine vinegar, good olive oil, Dijon mustard and black pepper.

This is what a happy vegan looks like.

Mid-July CSA Salad

The tomatoes are here!  Tonight’s CSA share included basil, cucumbers, scallions and some truly glorious tomatoes.  I had a wedge of red cabbage left over from the five-spice kale and cabbage slaw I made for a Fourth of July Party.  And I has some feta–yet another great emergency protein source.

Mid-July CSA Salad

  1. Finely slice a quarter of a head of red cabbage and toss with a teaspoon of salt in a wooden bowl.  The salt will start to break down the cabbage, allowing it to wilt and more fully merge with the rest of your salad.  (Fun fact: sauerkraut is just cabbage, salt and, possibly, seasonings that have been left to ferment.)
  2. Peel a few cucumbers, slice them up in half and scrape out the guts, which will make your salad too watery.  Then dice them and add them to the bow. 
  3. Add a couple of diced tomatoes.  Some folks would have you de-seed these as well, but there was no way I was wasting any of that glorious tomato goodness.
  4. Add a few thinly sliced scallions and some basil chiffonade.  Chiffonade is fancy chef speak for thinly sliced.   I find the best technique is to stack the leaves (about 10 in this case), roll them into a spiral and then slice the whole stack.
  5. Crumble two or three ounces of feta and toss that in too.
  6. Drizzle with a tablespoon of good quality olive oil, a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar and some fresh-ground black pepper and toss it all together.

You could toss some toasted whole wheat pita bits or some quinoa in if you’re looking for something a little more filling.  If you are a patient person, you could let it sit for a bit so that the flavors meld.  Alternately, you just could pour a glass of Vinho Verde and get to work.

Eat Your Veggies

I’ve taken on a full CSA share this year. This is an ambitious quantity of vegetables, even for a serious vegetable lover. My goal is to keep some staples on hand that will allow me to convert pretty much anything into a quick weeknight meal. Whole wheat flatbread and ricotta cheese are on the list.

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Tonight I seasoned the ricotta with nutmeg. I used a vegetable peeler to shave thin slices of zucchini and marinated them in lemon juice, fresh basil and a fruity olive oil. I topped it off with a few sliced cherry tomatoes and some scallions that I halved and grilled in the same cast iron pan that I used to toast the flatbread. When making something this simple, it’s important to season each element.  I added salt and pepper as I went and then sprinkled a little fleur de sel over the top.

I ate this with some green leaf lettuce dressed with Greek yogurt, white wine vinegar, a minced garlic scape, pepper and a bit of honey. For dessert I polished off some strawberries that were definitely not going to keep through my long weekend in Sonoma. Then I turned a bag of leafy greens over to my appreciative neighbor and dragged out the suitcase.