archives : windosill pesto july '08

The end of the archives.............
I went to visit with a woman I recently met in Paris. We sat and chatted mainly about food: the state of it growing on windowsills, in small gardens, on family farms, in large agro-industry fields. I told her about an article Whose Harvest? The Politices of Organic Seed Certification I had recently read concerning the future of organic produce (a good read ), the up- and downsides of it being "appropriated" by the agro-industry, now that it has become a profitable business. This surely offers people a greater awareness of what they eat, where their food comes from, how it is produced, and the possibility of now finding it in vegetable and fruit aisles at grocery stores everywhere. But the downside, less known, is also how the agro-industry is and has been pushing for a weakening in the labeling of what can be sold as organic. Nothing is perfect...

Another friend joined us and we carried on talking about Italian cuisine and the marvelously creative and central role - born out of necessity long ago - the noble array of roots, bulbs, leaves, fruits and flowers, which comprise the vegetable kingdom, play in the rich heritage of its manifold regional dishes ... And soon it was quite late.

We hadn’t originally planned on having dinner together, but hunger was calling. We went out into her kitchen to see what we could muster up. Seeing there wasn’t much in the refrigerator we came up with the idea of making a pesto pasta. Only the basil plant, sitting on the windowsill in the kitchen, had recently flowered and its leaves were few and far between. So I suggested we make a pesto with a mixture of the other herbs she had growing: mint, sage, thyme, and the few tiny basil leaves we managed to harvest. The other friend went to see what she had in her refrigerator and came back with a bag full of sweet cherry tomatoes. We swirled around in the kitchen and soon were sitting down to a big bowl of fettucini with herb pesto and tomatoes that was quite scrumptious.

Wine note: Wonderful with the 100% Carignan 2004 "Lo Vielh" from Clos du Gravillas.

I thought I’d pass on a variation of the recipe (below). I decided to call it Windowsill Pesto Fettucini:


1 lb linguini or fettucini
2 handfuls fresh mint
8-10 large sage leaves
1 small handful fresh thyme
1 small handful fresh basil
Pinch of rosemary leaves
1 handful pine nuts
5 tBsp grated pecorino
1 clove garlic
1/2 lb mixed cherry tomatoes
25-30 pitted green olives
Zest of 1 small lemon
6 tBsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Using a sharp potato peeler, remove the zest from the lemon in long strips. Scrape off any pith. Slice the strips lengthwise into extremely thin slices. If you do this the night before, just place them in a bowl and leave it uncovered on the counter overnight. If you do it the same day, place them in the oven at the lowest temperature until they begin to curl (about 30 to 45 minutes). Be careful they don’t turn brown.

Put a big pot of salted water on to boil
In a mortar or blender mix together the herbs, garlic, pecorino and 3-4 tBsp olive oil. Add more olive oil if needed to create a nice paste. Season to taste with salt.
Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves or fourths. Do the same with the olives.Set aside.
Cook the linguini or fettucini, following the instructions on the bag. They should be al dente. Strain, reserving 2-4 tBsp of cooking water. Return pasta to the pot, add the pesto, tomatoes, olives and lemon. Mix well. If a bit dry add a tBsp or two of reserved cooking water and/or olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve in hot pasta bowls. Place a parmesan grater and a nice chunk of pecorino on the table.

Note: You can use any mixture and portion of herbs . For example, add or substitute a couple young celery leaves, a pinch of marjoram, some cilantro, arugula, even garden tea leaves...
You can substitute walnuts, cashews, blanched almonds or hazelnuts for the pine nuts, and parmesan for the pecorino.
Be creative... And bon appetit!

July 27, 2008

Blancmange is one of my favorite desserts, wonderfully light and refreshing on hot summer days. It's somewhat
like Italy's panna cotta (cooked milk), except that it is made with almond milk - and I thicken it with agar-agar. I'm always excited when I find scrumptious desserts that haven't the ubiquitous egg-milk combination. It makes for a nice change.

As for toppings, given its mild nutty flavor, just about anything that stirs the imagination goes wonderfully with it. I sometimes top it with a dark chocolate syrup, a blackberry or strawberry coulis, even a basil coulis. Along with spice cake, Blancmange (white food in English) is considered to be one of the oldest desserts in France. Grimod de La Reynière (a literary epicure from the 18th century) said that it originated in Langeudoc in the early Middle Ages, though its true origin remains unclear. It is thought that the introduction of almonds in Europe by the Arabs is at its origin.

In the beginning it was a white meat jelly made from pounded chicken or veal, almond milk, rice, sugar, rosewater, and a thickener. Sometime in the 17th century, blancmange became the white pudding that we know it as today. It arrived in Italy during the 12th century and curiously became a typical dessert in two of its most distant regions: Sicily and Val d'Aosta. In Sicily, it is traditionally cooked with lemon zest and cinnamon and each mold is served on a lemon-tree leaf.

Recently, a few friends have sent me articles on buying and eating local fruits and vegetables. It's amazing how this movement has sprung up and taken root, from CSA (community sustained agriculture) in the States (it's equal in France is AMAP - association
pour le maintien d'agriculture paysanne) to actually having someone plant and tend a vegetable garden right in your own backyard.
I thought I'd pass on these articles: Cutting Out the Middlemen, Shoppers Buy Slices of Farms and A Locally Grown Diet With Fuss but No Muss. Earlier this year, I also read a wonderful article on Amy Franceschini and her Victory Gardens project in edible San Francisco. It was very inspiring. Wow, that's a lot of links! Well, enjoy any or all!

Wine note: You might try a Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, from Sicily, or a Moscato d'Asti with this blancmange.


450 gr (1 lb) sweet almonds, or 1 litre (4 1/4 cups) unsweetened almond milk
20 bitter almonds or 8 drops of almond extract or essence
4 tsp agar-agar flakes
125 gr (1/2 cup) cane sugar

To make almond milk:
Blanche sweet almonds and bitter almonds in boiling water for 1 minute. (If using almond extract, simply add it to the almond milk). Drain and let cool just long enough to be able to handle. Remove skins by squeezing one end of almond between fingers.
Let them soak in a bowl of cold water for 15 minutes to render them whiter. Liquidize the blanched almonds with 1 liter (4 1/4 cups) hot water. When the liquid is milky and the almonds very fine, strain mixture through muslin or a fine strainer, squeezing or pressing down to retrieve all the liquid. The almond milk can be made the day before.

To make blancmange:
Add the agar-agar to the almond milk (let the almond milk if you have just made it) and let stand for 10 minutes. Bring to boil over medium heat with cane sugar, stirring frequently. When sugar and agar-agar are dissolved (5-10 minutes) remove from heat. (If the agar-agar doesn’t dissolve completely, strain mixture). Pour the almond blancmange into a large mould or small individual ramekins (they will set faster). Leave aside to cool then refrigerate until firmly set.
Note: You can also blend a mixture of blanched nuts to make the nut milk, for example: 225 gr (1/2 lb) each of almonds and hazel nuts, or 400 gr (14 oz) almonds and 60 gr (1/2 cup) raw pistachios

Peach topping:
8 medium-sized ripe peaches
1 cup cane sugar
2 tsp (or 2 large pinches) fresh thyme leaves
1 handful blanched almonds, roasted, cooled, and cut into slivers

Mix sugar and peaches together and set aside to marinate for 2 hours. Bring to a boil then cook over medium heat for 12 minutes. Ladle off the foam that has collected on the top. Remove from heat and stir in thyme. Let cool before garnishing the blancmange. Sprinkle blancmange with roasted almond slivers Note: The peach topping can be made 2-3 days in advance.

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