Admittedly, nothing about this dish is seasonally correct–pesto is a summer dish and peas are a spring vegetable. However I spotted some beautiful tender young basil at my produce market today and it made me feel like I could conjure a taste of summer.
Pesto is native to the town of Genoa, where my neighbor Beppi’s late wife was born. Although she took no part in the operation of Beppi’s restaurant, she made the pesto that was served (see “About” section of this blog for more background on Beppi). Beppi makes pesto a couple of times a summer and freezes it in individual plastic containers which he uses throughout the year. His pesto is a labor of love which starts out with him picking the smallest leaves from his basil plants, while sitting on a little wooden stool in the middle of his garden. The leaves are washed, then left to dry in layers of paper towels for a couple of days. He makes his pesto with the standard basil, pine nuts, parmiggiano and pecorino cheeses, olive oil, pine nuts, and the tiniest touch of garlic.
My pesto is not quite as laborious (I use a salad spinner) and at different times of the year, I might add slightly different ingredients. In the winter I add some parsley to the basil and tonight, I’m substituting walnuts for pine nuts. The parlsey adds its own hearty fresh flavor to the sauce and also keeps it from turning brown as readily. The walnuts have a heartier flavor than pine nuts and I think the added combination of parlsey and walnuts give the pesto a slightly deeper woodsier character than my summer pesto.
I don’t use garlic (at all) in my pesto. I never serve raw garlic in anything–although I like the initial heat and taste of it, I find that it really overtakes my palette and obscures every flavor that comes after it (for about two days).
I’m adding chicken breast to this dish because it’s a nice bland complement to the rich pesto. I cut the chicken tenders into small chunks and brown them in olive oil, then toss the cooked cubes in with the pasta. It’s one of the few uses I have for white meat chicken and it really works well with pesto. It also makes the dish a hearty balanced main course.
Pasta with Chicken, Pesto and Peas
1 lb short pasta such as “maccheroni” (pictured) or ziti or cavatelli
1/2 lb chicken “tenders” (or breast) cut into 1″ cubes
1 c. frozen peas
2 tbls olive oil
1/4 cup fresh pesto (see below)
Heat the olive oil in a broad skillet and saute the chicken tenders until they’re golden and cooked (about 8 -10 minutes) then taste and add salt.
In plenty of salted water, boil the pasta. When the pasta is a minute shy of being done, add the frozen peas to the pasta water. When the pasta is done, place pesto in the bottom of a large mixing bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of pasta water to thin the sauce. Add the pasta, peas and chicken. Sprinkle with a combination of grated parmiggiano and pecorino.
2 c. basil leaves, tightly packed
1/2 c. parsley leaves, tightly packed
1/4 c walnuts
1/4 c. grated parmiggiano
1/4 c. grated pecorino
1/2 c. extra-virgin olive oil
salt to taste
Place walnuts in food processor and pulse several times to begin pulverizing. Add basil and parsley and pulse a few more times. Add cheeses, then, with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until a nice paste forms. It should be liquid enough to pour but not runny. Taste and add salt if necessary.
Store in something tall with minimal exposed surface area–a mug or measuring cup. Always make sure the exposed top surface of the pesto is totally submerged in olive oil or it will blacken. When you remove some pesto from its container, immediately re-cover the remaining pesto with oil. In this way, it will keep for at least 10 days in the fridge with minimal blackening.