It has come to my attention that many of you do not visit Local Lemons in search of an easy weeknight meal. Is it because I make things like this 5-hour lamb bolognese? Or maybe because my homemade chicken nuggets take over 2 hours? Okay. You have a point.
Today, I’m making a change. I’m going to show you how to make authentic pesto from scratch and have dinner on the table in 30 minutes. Come on, if Rachael Ray can do it, why can’t I? (Geez, never thought the day would come when I mention Rachael Ray). Anyway. By authentic, I mean in technique. Obvious there is no basil in this pesto. And for a good reason – it’s March! If you’re making basil pesto right now, you better live in the tropics (or LA, or Miami). This pesto is authentic because it uses local ingredients that are all in season. Plus, it’s made with a mortar and pestle. This is the most important kitchen tool for making pesto. If you are using a food processor, you’re truly missing out. The food processor pulverizes and jumbles all the flavors, leaving you unable to distinguish the unique qualities of each ingredient. Don’t believe me? Do a side-by-side comparison. I guarantee you’ll never make pesto in a machine again (and you’ll probably never order it at a restaurant again either.)
I mashed together fresh spring asparagus, garlic, walnuts, chili peppers and sharp cheese into a thick, pungent paste softened by a light stream of high-quality olive oil. When the pasta was ready, I tossed in some spinach leaves, an egg and a heaping spoonful of the bright green pesto.
Wait, did I lose you at the egg? I love adding an egg or two to pasta dishes when I want a touch of creaminess without adding cream. I never add cream to pasta. Never. Bechamel, yes. Cream, no. All it does is dilute the vim of the rich sauce you lovingly prepared, while adding tasteless fat and heaviness. Eggs, on the other hand, enhance the flavors in your sauce. Especially if the eggs are farm-fresh, and the sauce is a pesto. The trick is to not let the eggs scramble. Crack an egg into a small bowl, add a teaspoon of the hot cooking liquid from the pasta, and lightly beat. After you drain the pasta, put it back into the pot and quickly stir in the eggs. Don’t hesitate or you’ll have chunks of egg instead of a light coating surrounding each noodle. Now add the pesto. And now enjoy a seasonal, from-scratch meal that took a total of 30 minutes. Take that Rachael Ray (Gr, there I go again!).
A note about cheese, because I just found my new favorite. It’s incredible. Sharp, nutty, crumbly, intense–and it’s local. Erin and I have been recipe-testing for Little Mac, and received a nice sampling of cheeses from Vella Cheese company. Their Oro Secco, a dry jack cheese that’s aged for 2 years, is amazing. I hate using such a generic word for such a special cheese, but amazing it is. The only problem is that it’s pricey, too much so for our mac and cheese. But perfect for this asparagus pesto. If you can’t find it, use regular dry jack in its place.
Asparagus Pesto with Pasta
4 servings / Cooking time: 30 minutes
About 10 stalks of asparagus, woody ends removed
2 -3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Handful of walnuts
2 dried chili peppers (optional)
Handful of spinach, washed and torn into large pieces
Top-notch olive oil (I use California Olive Ranch Arbaquina. It’s affordable, bold and so tasty.)
1/2 cup Oro Secco cheese, finely grated (Or dry jack, or a hard, sharp cheese of your choice)
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound pasta (I used elbows, only because I had a ton on hand from mac and cheese testing. Linguine would work quite well.)
Set a large pot of water to boil and add asparagus. Cook for two minutes and lift asparagus out of the pot using tongs. Run under cold water to stop cooking, and chop into small pieces. Keep the water boiling for your pasta.
Using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic with a sprinkle of salt until it forms a paste. Add the walnuts and dried chili peppers and continue mashing. Next add the asparagus, and mash until they fall apart. Add the cheese and stop mashing. Add a thin stream of olive oil and stir until it forms a thick paste (about 1/3 – 1/2 of a cup). Taste for salt. Add freshly ground black pepper if needed.
Cook pasta in boiling water. When done, drain, reserving a 1/2 cup of cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot, and keep on a burner set to the lowest heat. Add half of the reserved water.
Crack the egg into a small bowl. Gently beat. Add 1 teaspoon of the hot cooking liquid and stir. Add the egg to the pasta, and stir quickly so the egg doesn’t set. Don’t let it scramble!
Add the spinach and stir until wilted. Finally, add the pesto and mix until fully combined. If pesto is too thick, add remaining pasta water.
Serve with grated cheese and top with a drizzle of olive oil.
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Where I Shopped:
Asparagus, walnuts, spinach, eggs: Full Belly Farms, Berkeley Farmers’ Market
Oro Secco cheese: Vella Cheese Company
Dried chili peppers: Rancho Gordo, San Francisco Ferry Building Farmers’ Market
Garlic: Pinnacle Farms, Berkeley Farmers’ Market