Fresh basil, garlic and Parmesan pack plenty of flavor in this quick dish, perfect for weeknight suppers. Besides boiling water for pasta, the only cooking involved is pan toasting the pecans.
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For the second year in a row, we didn’t have a garden. That meant no fresh tomatoes, still warm from the sun. No fragrant fresh rosemary. And perhaps worst of all, no armloads of fresh basil to turn into delicious batches of pesto—some to be consumed immediately, some to be frozen in small zippered bags for a taste of summer in midwinter.
So when Marion picked up a single, smallish basil plant in a market a couple of weeks ago, we both knew its ultimate fate. It was far too late in the season to plant in the yard or even bother with repotting. Instead, it sat on the kitchen counter, basking in the sunlight through the south-facing window, innocent of its rapidly approaching end.
We sometimes brushed against it, accidentally or on purpose, releasing that wonderful scent I can only describe as summer. And we occasionally harvested a few leaves—to mix into a tuna salad or chop and sprinkle over tomato slices.
Finally, the other night, I made pesto. I started by quickly pan toasting the pecans, so they’d have a chance to cool. Then I put on a big pot of water for pasta. By the time it had come to a rolling boil, I had all the pesto ingredients in the food processor, waiting to be ground into a heady, heavenly sauce for the pasta.
Fettuccine with Pecan Pesto
2 to 4 servings, depending on amount of pasta cooked
1/2 cup pecans [or other nuts—see Kitchen Notes]
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves, washed and spun dry
1/2 cup good quality olive oil [see Kitchen Notes]
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan [see Kitchen Notes]
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fettuccine, 12 to 16 ounces uncooked [see Kitchen Notes]
Toast pecans in a nonstick skillet over a medium-low flame, stirring occasionally, until golden and fragrant—about 5 minutes. Transfer to a shallow bowl or plate in a single layer to cool completely.
Mince garlic and mix with 1/2-teaspoon salt in a small bowl, mashing with a fork to form a paste of sorts. Combine basil, pecans, garlic and Parmesan in bowl of food processor. Pulse several times to coarsely chop and combine everything. Add olive oil and 2 tablespoons hot water [you can steal some from the boiling pasta water] and blend to proper consistency. Don’t overprocess—you want a little texture to the pesto. You may need to scrape down the sides with a spatula and pulse mixture to get an even consistency.
Meanwhile, cook fettuccine according to package instructions to al dente. Drain pasta. Transfer about 2/3 of cooked pasta to a large bowl and add pesto. Toss gently to coat pasta evenly with sauce, adding extra pasta as you go. If the pesto coating starts looking less than generous, toss out the rest of the pasta. Pasta is cheap. You don’t want to overwhelm the pesto. Adjust seasonings, divide among plates and serve.
Mixed nuts? Traditionally, pine nuts or walnuts are used in pesto. Both are great, but we really like the slightly more refined taste of pecans. So when I came across a pesto recipe some time ago that suggested using pecans, I was there. That said, pine nuts or walnuts will be delicious too.
Everyone goes crazy for extra virgin olive oil. Me, not so much. You’ll always see it specified in recipes, even when people are searing something with high heat. It may be great for salad dressings and for dipping bread in, but it’s not so great for cooking. First, it has a lower smoke point than regular olive oil—which is already plenty low for anything other than a low to medium flame. And second, it has a more assertive taste. So for cooking, I go for a decent quality olive oil that’s a little less virginal. For the pesto, I used a nice extra virgin olive oil, but with all the other flavors going on, good quality and freshness are more important than its, well, past.
Don’t skimp on the Parmesan. If you want to splurge a little, here’s where to do it. Buy a decent Parmesan, preferably Italian and definitely not pre-grated. Trust me, you’ll taste the difference.
Flat pasta, hold the rinsing. Flat pastas like fettuccine and linguine are traditionally used for pesto. Their broad, flat surfaces are perfect for collecting up the little bits of pesto. And cooked al dente, flat pastas are sturdier for tossing. And don’t rinse your pasta! I mean it. The starch remaining on the pasta helps the sauce cling to it better, rather than sliding off back into the bowl.
A final vegetarian note. If you’re even a casual Blue Kitchen reader, you know I’m not a vegetarian [I’ll wait while you finish laughing at this gross understatement]. This dish, however, is. And with its rich mix of cheese, nuts and oil, it is thoroughly satisfying as a meatless meal. Why this matters is I just heard something on NPR a day or so ago that said one way to reduce greenhouse gases and our carbon footprint was to eat maybe one or two fewer meals with meat a week. Now, I’m not going to give up eating meat for more reasons than I care going into right here, but I could cut out a meat meal or two a week. And who knows? A few future efforts may turn up here at some point.