This is a weeknight dinner I made for an impromptu gathering of out-of-town guests. This meal can be pulled together with no advance preparation in as little as an hour-and-a-half.
The first course was basic gnocchi al pesto. The gnocchi were store-bought, but the pesto was made with basil from my neighbor Beppi’s garden.
Its strong, verdant flavor can be used not only on pasta, but as a condiment for so many dishes–pasta, soups, stews. Tonight I’m serving pesto because it’s flavor is emblematic of summertime, but also because it’s quick and easy to make. For the pesto recipe, visit my prior post (pasta with shrimp and pesto).
For eight persons, I used the following proportions–4 packages vacuum-packed gnocchi, a cup of pesto, and 4 tablespoons butter. At the last moment, just as the gnocchi are finishing (and not a moment before), the pesto and butter get blended in a large mixing bowl (the heat of the pasta melts the butter), along with a half-cup of the pasta cooking liquid. Toss in hot gnocchi and gently fold and stir with wooden spoon. Immediately spoon into heated individual pasta bowls. The pesto is not cooked, therefore the pasta loses some heat in the saucing process. Once exposed to the air, the pesto will begin browning within minutes, so be sure your guests are seated and ready when the pasta is served. Sprinkle with plenty of grated cheese.
The main course presented a challenge, since I wanted something that needed little or no advance marinating, roasting or braising. Something from the grill would be perfect, but most grilled meats or fish could require at least 10 minutes or more on the grill, with constant vigilance and attention to flareups and even browning. I wanted something that I could truly cook in an instant, as soon as the pasta plates were cleared.
Shrimp fit the bill perfectly. They can be grilled for 2 minutes or so per side with little or no flareups. An hour before dinner, I prepared a little rub, using a about a half-teaspoon each of salt, black pepper, red chili flakes, fennel seeds and lemon zest. I coated the shrimp with the rub and sprinkled with a drizzle of olive oil and let them rest, while we ate our pasta.
After the pasta plates were cleared, I tossed the shrimp on the hot grill. While the shrimp grilled, I tossed the salad, which consisted of a combination of fresh red and green lettuces, cherry tomatoes, shaved carrots and cucumbers. The dressing was my usual red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper.
In fact, washing the basil for the pesto and washing the lettuces for the salad were the most time-consuming part of the preparation for this meal. Since all the vegetables were freshly picked, they required a triple wash and spin-dry. If you were using pre-packaged triple-washed greens, your prep time would be even less.