Pistachio nuts and Asiago cheese stand in nicely for pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, but stick with Genovese basil. (Kate Lawson / The Detroit News)
Pesto, that wonderful fresh Italian sauce made with basil and pine nuts, garlic and cheese, has been a Lawson favorite since the early ’80s. It was my husband who actually requested I make it, stating it was his favorite and because I grew my own herbs, it was an easy wish to grant.
My first attempt still makes me giggle with embarrassment when I recall trying to strip the tiny leaves off a globe basil plant. I didn’t know the difference between basil varieties then, and figured basil was basil. That was not only a horticulture lesson but a culinary one as well.
From then on I’ve used only Genovese basil (which is so easy to find in most any market) for my pesto, which I serve as a pasta sauce or drizzled over fresh mozzarella as a refreshing summer salad.
Over the years, I’ve substituted parsley, cilantro, mint and spinach for the basil, which were fine, but not a favorite like the original. I’ve also used walnuts and almonds in place of the pricier pine nuts and those, too, were nice, but didn’t produce a “wow.”
But now that I’ve been using shelled pistachios instead of pine nuts and Asiago cheese in place of Parmesan, I’ve fallen in love with the variation and manage to save a few dollars on the dish. I’ve also gone back to the chopping board — instead of making pesto in the food processor, I use a sharp chef’s knife to chop all the ingredients together and blend the flavors.
After making the pasta, I add some chopped red onion to the pot to soften, then add the fresh pesto, which warms it for a few minutes and lets the flavors bloom. Stir in some reserved pasta water, then dump the drained pasta back in the pot, add cheese and toss.
This is one most welcome variation on a theme.
Pasta with Chopping-Board Pistachio Pesto
From “The Splendid Table’s How To Eat Supper” by Lynne Rosetto Kasper. Equally good hot from the pot or at room temperature.
5 quarts salted water in a 6-quart pot
¼ teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper, or to taste
2 large garlic cloves
1 tight-packed cup coarse-chopped fresh chives or scallion tops
4 tight-packed tablespoons fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fine-chopped red onion
1⁄3 cup shelled salted pistachios or almonds
2 tablespoons good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
Pasta and finish
1 pound imported spaghetti or linguine
1 tablespoon good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fine-chopped red onion
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Asiago or Stella Fontinella cheese
Bring the salted water to a boil.
To make the pesto, pile the salt and pepper on a chopping board. Crush the garlic into it with the side of a large knife, and fine chop. Add the chives, basil and onion, and continue chopping until the pieces are cut very fine. Add the nuts to the pile and continue cutting until they are coarsely chopped. Directly on the board, blend in the oil. Taste for salt and pepper.
Drop the pasta into the boiling water and cook at a fierce boil, stirring often, until it is tender but still a little firm to the bite. Scoop out 1 cup of the pasta water and set it aside. Quickly drain the pasta.
Film the empty pasta pot with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Place it over medium heat and saute the fine-chopped onion in it for 1 minute. Stir in the pesto. Warm it for only a few seconds over medium heat to let the flavors blossom — do not cook it. Stir in about 1⁄3 cup of the reserved pasta water to stretch the sauce. Immediately pull the pot off the heat.
Add the drained pasta to the pot, and toss with the pesto and the cheese, adding more pasta water if the mixture seems very dry. Taste again for seasoning, and serve. Serves 4 as a main dish.
Cook to cook: This pasta proves a pet theory: chop ingredients together and not only do you save a lot of time, but their flavors also blend in a unique way.
Per serving: 666 calories; 22 g fat (6 g saturated fat; 30 percent calories from fat); 89 g carbohydrates; 16 mg cholesterol; 604 mg sodium; 26 g protein; 4 g fiber.