Saturday, January 22, 2011

Deliciously Sublime: Roasted Asparagus with Pesto

Let's talk about... pesto. That delicious mix of fresh basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Italy is known for many things when it comes to food, one of which is pesto.

Genoa is probably best known as the home of pesto, in the northern province of Liguria. But the love for pesto has spread around the world. While I've always been fond, it wasn't until I went to Italy last year that I truly fell in love. The day was like no other. I was staying in the Cinque Terre in the town of Vernazza. After spending the day exploring and taking in as many sights as possible, I sat down to enjoy a dinner of fresh pasta tossed with pesto. It was a simple meal in an unremarkable restaurant, but the experience was sublime. The memory of that pesto sauce with all its incredible, fresh flavours will always stay with me. It's the combination of texture with a clarity of flavours makes the best pesto in the world.

Pesto can be made in a mortar, pounded to a paste with a pestle, hand chopped like Heidi from 101 Cookbooks suggests, or in a food processor. The word 'pesto' comes from the Italian word for pounded, so many people including Genoese cooks say that true pesto is made in a mortar and pestle. Linguistically and historically I suppose this is true, but in these modern times I'm not convinced it needs to be.

The measure of olive oil you use will always vary a little, depending on how dry the pine nuts are and how moist or dry the cheese is. No recipe can give you an accurate measure. And the nuts should be lightly toasted first to bring out the nutty flavor. According to Marcella Hazan, pesto should be used raw, at room temperature and never warmed up. And generally that's true, especially to preserve the lively taste and aroma of the fresh basil. But I know a dish that disputes this, roasted asparagus with pesto.

I was first introduced to roasted asparagus with pesto at a dinner party with friends. Much to my delight, our hosts Ryan and Sarah made a full Italian spread. Sarah's father is Italian, so she grew up watching her dad make classics like Bolognese meat sauce and pesto. She has kindly shared her family recipe because I loved it so much. By baking in the oven at a high temperature for a short time, the flavours of the pesto and asparagus bond in deliciously sublime way.

In Victoria, some of my favorite deli's to find Italian foods are Italian Food Import (1114 Blanshard St), Ambrosio Markets & Deli in Cook Street Village (1075 Pendergast), Ottavio in Oak Bay (2272 Oak Bay Avenue) and Lakehill Grocery (Quadra and Reynolds Street).

In Vancouver, my favorite Italian deli is Bosa Foods located at 1465 Kootenay Street, Burnaby and 562 Victoria Drive, near Commercial Drive.

Roasted Asparagus with Pesto (serves 2)

2-3 tablespoons of pesto (recipe below)
1 bunch of asparagus, trimmed and stems peeled (watch how-to video)
olive oil

In a baking dish, combine asparagus with a few tablespoons of pesto, olive and salt. Bake in the oven at 400-425 for the 10 to 12 minutes.

using the food processor method

3 garlic cloves, chopped before putting in the processor
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil
1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano , finely grated
5 tablespoons olive oil
salt to taste

Rinse to wash the basil leaves, pat dry with a tea towel being sure to dry well.

Put the basil, pine nuts, garlic and salt in the food processor and pulse to a uniform, creamy consistency.

Transfer to a bowl and mix in by hand the finely grated Parmesan cheese and oil olive. Add oil olive one tablespoon at a time, just enough to bind the sauce and get the consistency you like.

In a sterilized jar, the pesto will keep in the fridge for about a week.


YRS said...

This recipe looks simple, yet delicious. We`ll give it a try this week.

One of my pet peeves about almost all major brands of store-bought pesto: it contains any oil other than olive! Not sure why this is. Maybe other oils keep longer in the jar.

One of my favourite Italian cook books (I almost feel embarassed admitting this) is Francis Anthony's "Cooking with Love, Italian Style." He offers us home cooks easy access to what has often been thought to be a challenging genre. In any case, his pesto recipe is a bit more complex than most. In addition to the main ingredients, he sexes it up a bit with walnuts, butter, nutmeg and grated orange peel.


Melody Wey said...

Thanks for sharing your favourite Italian cookbook YRS! I'll have to keep my eye out for this one. Often the most unsuspecting cookbooks have great recipes.

I've made this roasted asparagus with pesto dish twice more since my first posting. One variation that worked out very well is: Once the asparagus is roasted, cut the asparagus into one inch pieces and toss with cooked orzo. Top with Parmesan cheese.