Wednesday, May 21, 2008

a nice big dinner : a post by the two of us.

Alice's words and recipe...
Every summer, it seems like Portland goes through almost a month of muggy, grey days that are warm, but not sunny. Okay, I know- everyone tells me that I don't know what "muggy" is until I've experienced an East Coast summer. If it's as bad as everyone says it is, I don't think I want to find out. But on a gross day, all you want to eat is something chilled and tasty. Sometimes at my house, that means salad rolls or sushi, but I don't always find those to be particularly filling or satisfying.

Summer invited us over for dinner yesterday, and while we sat around trying to think of something to cook that would go with her homemade focaccia bread and white bean salad, I flipped through the new issue of Bon Appetit. It had a bunch of really amazing looking noodle dishes and I started thinking about pasta. Summer dug around her kitchen for a minute trying to locate necessary items and they just weren't there, so we left the boys with her husband and dashed over to Trader Joe's to pick up the handful of ingredients we'd need for a pesto.

I have to admit that I wasn't raised in a particularly adventurous culinary environment. I love my mom's cooking (who doesn't love their mom's cooking?) but raising four kids with distinctly different tastes, it wasn't like she had the option to try a lot of new things when we were young. We had our dinner staples, and I didn't even know pesto existed until I was a teenager. I started with the prepackaged stuff, and never realized how easy it was to make until I met my husband, the culinary school grad. We don't use a recipe, we just throw ingredients into the food processor until it looks right. But the ingredients list is almost always the same.

Fresh Pesto:

You'll need:

Fresh basil (I recommend heading to Trader Joes for these if you have one in your area. You can get a really good-sized box of basil for about 2 dollars and
it's always pretty fresh. You'll want a lot of basil.)
Raw Pinenuts (also cheapest at TJ's)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
A couple cloves of garlic
Salt & Pepper to taste
A small food processor or blender


Start by toasting your pinenuts in a small pan. Just heat up a frying pan to medium-high heat and throw a good-sized handful of pinenuts in, let them toast until lightly browned. Transfer to a bowl to cool.
In a food processor or blender, add a clove or two (or three!) of peeled raw garlic, your pine nuts, a small handful of parmesan, and as many basil leaves as you can stuff in. Drizzle some olive oil in and pulse a few times to start breaking up the ingredients. Add more olive oil, basil leaves, and parmesan as needed, until you reach your desired consistency. Some people like it smoother, some like it chunkier. I like chunky, with lots of basil.
Toss with some freshly cooked noodles- or, like we did in this case, some chilled noodles for a cold pasta.

You can freeze pesto and save it for later, you can spread it on delicious crusty bread, dip things in it. You can even rub it all over your face if you want.

Summer's words and recipes...
I really love the first signs of summertime here in Portland. Yes, it can be cloudy and muggy, but being raised in California, I still find comfort in warm weather. Also, I am absolutely in love with summertime meals. Sure, I adore the hot soups and oven-baked comfort foods of the colder months, but few things can compare to sun tea, fresh market-purchased produce, and colorful summer foods.

Since Alice's husband was up in Seattle for work for the day, I invited her to our house for a nice dinner. I had already started a loaf of foccacia, so as stated above, we decided to go with a white bean salad and pasta with pesto to go along with it. The combination of the three foods ended up being one of my favorite kinds of meals: delicious pasta, warm bread with butter, and fresh salad, along with wine and cold drinks.

Another thing I love? Cooking with a good friend.

Olive Oil Foccacia: from Apples for Jam cookbook


1 3/4 cups warm (comfortable to your fingers) water
1 (1/4 oz.) package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon honey
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
5 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup hot water


Put the water, yeast, honey, half of the olive oil, and 3 fistfuls of the flour in a bowl. Mix with an electric beater until smooth. Cover and leave 20 to 30 minutes, until it all froths up and looks foamy on the top. Mix in the rest of the flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt. Now, using a dough hook, mix for 4 to 5 minutes so that it is well incorporated. If you don't have a dough hook, then mix it with your hands in the bowl, just slapping it from one side to the other, as it will be too soft to knead. Cover the bowl with a couple of cloths and leave it in a warm and draft-free place for about 1 1/2 hours, or until it has puffed up well.
Lightly grease an 11 by 15 by 1 1/2-inch baking pan. Punch down the dough to flatten it. Spread the dough out gently into the pan, right out to the edges. If it won't stretch easily, leave it to relax for another 5 minutes and then gently stretch it out, starting from the center. Make sure the dough doesn't break anywhere and that it is spread more or less evenly. Put in a warm, draft-free place. So the dough doesn't stick to the cloth, arrange four glasses around the pan and drape a couple of dish towels or a towel over them like a tent to completely cover the pan. Leave for about 45 minutes, until the dough puffs up.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a small bow, mix the remaining oil with 1/2 cup of hot water and 1 teaspoon of salt and stir until the salt dissolves. Make some dimples on top of the bread with your fingertips and then brush well with the saltwater mixture.
Put in the oven and bake for around 20 to 30 minutes, until the bread is golden, a bit crusty here and there, and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove from oven and let cool a little before cutting into pieces. This is best warm but can also be served at room temperature or reheated.

Note: I also recommend adding fresh chopped herbs (rosemary or thyme) and parmesan and maybe some olives or sundried tomatoes to the top of the bread before baking.

White Bean Salad:

Ingredients: (may be altered to your own taste or what you have on hand)

A big bunch of fresh baby spinach, stems chopped off & rinsed
1 can of Great Northern (or Cannellini) beans, drained
About 2 small carrots
good-quality cheese (I used Creamy Havarti, purchased from a cheese farmer)
Balsalmic Vinegar
Olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper

Fill a serving bowl with your baby spinach. Pour white beans on top. Peel carrots directly into bowl. Crumble as much cheese as you'd like on top. Drizzle with vinegar and olive oil and add salt and pepper to taste. Toss and then enjoy!


Sophia Sparx said...

Mmmm I love pesto - this sounds amazing.
For more great pesto recipes, check out:

kickpleat said...

i love your blog! the photos and recipes are stunning. at least all that pacific northwest weather creates beautiful light for taking pictures!

Nicole & Amanda said...

I too didn't discover pesto until at least college! My family was very focused on prepackaged dinners, although my dad did love desserts from scratch (mighty sweet tooth!), so I started off baking. But now I love making all things from scratch. Pesto is so great because it can be made with any combination of herbs and nuts - whatever is on hand and always tastes delish. Try Cilantro, Water cress, walnuts, macadamia nuts, etc. yum!