The power of a dollop

It’s such a shameful cliche to say it’s all in the details. But cliches achieve their status for a reason: they’re most often true.

Back in college, I took pride in my lack of detail-orientedness. (Detail-orientation?) I was practically detail-averse. I’m an artist, I said. I don’t have brain-space for such things. But somewhere in the transition to the working world, something happened. I became…organized. I began obsessing over minutiae. I started color-coding things.

Well, maybe organized isn’t the right word. My bedroom floor is still blanketed with clothing, and my desk at work is shingled willy-nilly with paper. And truth is, I’ve always been a perfectionist of the highest order; I just didn’t always know which details to tweak to catapult my projects ever-closer to perfection. But now I’m figuring these things out. I’m zeroing in on the little things. I’m learning.

Which brings me to pesto.

I’ve always liked traditional Italian pesto. There’s something oddly comforting-yet-invigorating about a puree of basil, garlic, parmesan, and pine nuts, slopped liberally over pasta. In fact, when I was younger, making pesto was often my only excuse to eat large quantities of parm and pine nuts, with all them skeery fats in them. And, of course, pasta and pesto is one of the most time-honored excuses I know of to bolt down a huge plate of nothin’-but-carbs. Marinara has all those pesky vegetables in the way.

But there are also hard facts to be faced. Most pesto you can get here in the US of A is machine-processed or otherwise completely pureed. The result is pretty homogeneous, fairly heavy, and oddly greasy, and tastes overwhelmingly of BASIL. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, but I’m all about subtlety and texture, and machine-processed pesto is most often lacking both. It’s a difficult confession to make, but well, I’m always ever-so-slightly disappointed with pesto.

Until, that is, one day last summer, when Sam and I were lazing about in the heat, nursing a sudden and inexplicable craving for pesto. We were hampered, however, by two not-inconsequential considerations. Sam, gadget-obsessed engineer though he may be, doesn’t own a food processor. And I’m way too much of a food snob to buy premade pesto.

Fortunately, I found 101 Cookbooks, and a fabulous post on making pesto by hand. I followed her instructions, skipping the mezzaluna she endorses in favor of a large, sharp chef’s knife, piling ingredients together a handful at a time and milling them together with the heel of the knife. And half an hour (and a very sore chopping arm) later, I am a complete and shameless convert.

Pesto by knife kicks the ever-loving butt of the machine-made stuff. Layering ingredients under a hand-wielded blade produces an infinite variety of textures, pushing the secondary players to the front of the stage. Suddenly, there are tiny nuggets of crisp, buttery pine nut and spicy raw garlic; the parmesan is mellow, fatty, salty, rich; the basil happily recedes into the background. There’s nothing heavy or greasy or one-note about it. I’ve made pesto this way numerous times; it’s the only way I’ll make it from now on.

This method demands the best ingredients you can lay your hands on, but the payoff is enormous. Leaving aside the question of swapping ingredients–cilantro! parsley! sun-dried tomatoes!–hand-chopped pesto is just as versatile as food-processed, and a world more sophisticated. It plays particularly well with whole-wheat pasta, the darker and nuttier the better. I haven’t tried it yet as a sauce for pizza, but I’m positive it’ll be divine. And just yesterday, inspired by a fabulous business lunch the week before, I made a batch of pesto for a springtime twist on a Provencal classic: soupe au pistou.

Traditional soupe au pistou is a midsummer minestrone. A bowl of the soup is topped with a dollop of pistou, which is the French version of basil pesto without the pine nuts. I had such a soup at the aforementioned business lunch, and it stuck with me all week. But it’s not quite summer yet–only new-breaking glorious spring. So when I spotted a bunch of gorgeous basil at the farmer’s market, I decided on the spur of the moment to do a springtime twist on minestrone, topped with my beloved pesto. It’s not traditional, and decidedly un-French, but that’s exactly how I roll.

It was one of the best soups I’ve ever made.

Even the first juicy tomatoes of the season were utterly, adorably smitten. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.

Pesto By Hand

Inspired by 101 Cookbooks

1 bunch fresh basil

5-6 large garlic cloves

A couple handfuls of toasted pine nuts

A couple handfuls of fresh-grated parmesan cheese (save the rind for soup!)

Olive oil–enough to moisten and bind the sauce, maybe 3 or 4 tablespoons

Separate the basil leaves and chiffonade them–stack four or five leaves on top of each other, roll them lengthwise, then slice them across the roll into small ribbons. Peel and slice the garlic cloves. In the center of a large cutting board, combine about half of the garlic and one-third of the basil and chop. When the pieces are small but not utterly obliterated, add another third of the basil and chop again. Repeat with the other half of the garlic and the last third of the basil.

Add the pine nuts, a handful at a time, then the parmesan, a handful at a time, chopping well in between each addition. By the end of the process, you should be able to form the mixture into a lump and have it more or less stick to itself. Transfer to a large bowl and pour olive oil over the pressed-together pesto. (If you’re not using the pesto that day, it can be stored this way in the fridge.) Just before serving, stir to combine the olive oil and solids.

Springtime Soupe Au Pistou (serves 6)

2 medium leeks (or one enormous leek, like I had), rinsed thoroughly and chopped

3 large carrots or 6 small ones, chopped

3 stalks celery OR 2 medium fennel bulbs, chopped

8 Roma or similar tomatoes, chopped

3/4 cup fresh peas (I used sugar snaps, out of their shells)

1/2 lb short pasta of your choice–fresh, as always, is amazing

Olive oil for sauteing

1 bay leaf

Parmesan rind, if you’ve got

1 quart water

Salt and pepper to taste

1 batch handmade pesto, plus extra grated parmesan for serving

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot, and saute the leeks, carrots, and celery or fennel for 5-10 minutes, or until the veggies are beginning to soften. Add tomatoes and stir, then cook for 5 minutes more, until the tomatoes begin to soften and give up liquid. Add bay leaf, parmesan rind, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 15-20 minutes, until the soup has coalesced. Remove the bay leaf and parmesan rind. Return to a boil and add peas and pasta, then cover and simmer 3-5 minutes longer, just until the pasta is cooked.

Ladle the soup into bowls and spoon a dollop of pesto on top of each bowl. Serve with a bowl of grated parm for people to add as they wish.

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