Last week my friends Patrick and Willy paid me a visit. Patrick supplied the tonic, and Willy contributed the gin (and ice cream sandwiches). That meant that the task of feeding us dinner fell to me. I considered a number of factors while deciding what to cook. The first was Patrick's vegetarianism. Easy enough. Secondly, I would be getting home from work at around 7 p.m. and therefore wanted to make something that would both cook quickly and also require little effort on my part. Lastly, I was low on cash but still wanted to fill my friends' bellies. You might already know which food fit the bill on all three accounts: say it with me now, pasta. Predictable enough, right? But to stretch that pasta even further (and because I had some lying around that I needed to use up), I decided to mix in another cheap and filling staple: potatoes. Pasta and potatoes?!, you might be thinking, that's a lot of starch! Indeed it is, my friends, and the combination happens to be delicious. Especially when you stir in some sweet, snappy green beans for color and crunch. Particularly when you liberally coat the whole mélange with a thick slick of nutty, herbaceous, unctuous pesto.
Like sundried tomatoes, chipotle peppers and, most recently, bacon, pesto has suffered from overexposure. Emblematic of the "California cuisine" craze that swept the nation beginning in the 1980s--thanks in large part to a man named Wolfgang Puck--the classic Italian formula soon seemed to show up in everything from scrambled eggs from the diner to Domino's pizza. Having reached its zenith in the 90s, this trend has subsided a bit, whether breathmint manufacturers like it or not. And though our palates may have experienced pesto fatigue for a while there, it's easy to understand why pesto achieved such notoriety. It's in the taste: that bright combination of spicy garlic, lemony fresh basil, earthy pine nuts and fruity olive oil is hard to argue with. Another thing that pesto has going for it is its ease of preparation. If you have a food processor or blender, you're there in about 60 seconds; armed with a mortar and pestle, it's a matter of mere minutes. Lastly, pesto's versatility is nearly unparalleled in the world of condiments: it's as at home slathered on a sandwich as it is dolloped on a piece of simply broiled fish. It's for these reasons that I'm still a fan of pesto in spite of its ubiquity.
An easy way to keep your pestomaking exciting and new is to swap out two of its essential components--the basil and the pine nuts--for different, but no less delicious, ingredients. In basil's stead, you might try using a fresh herb such as parsley or cilantro or even a peppery green like arugula, and in place of the pine nuts, try grinding in some walnuts or almonds. That's what I did when I prepared my starch-on-starch pasta dinner for my friends. I had plenty of basil on hand, but no pine nuts, and so to save myself a trip the store (and a bit of cash--pine nuts are expensive) I used walnuts instead. The resulting pesto was a little earthier-tasting and somewhat more bitter than traditional pesto, and provided a nice foil to the bland comfort of pasta and potatoes:
Makes about 1 cup
1. Thoroughly rinse and dry one large bunch of basil.
2. Pluck basil leaves, discarding stems, and add to the bowl of a food processor. Add 2 -3 garlic cloves, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (not toasted), and salt and pepper to taste. Pulse mixture until nuts are finely chopped and a paste begins to form. Scrape down bowl and add 1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil and puree until oil is incorporated.
3. Scrape mixture into a bowl and add 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan (or similar cheese). Stir to combine. Taste pesto and adjust salt and pepper as necessary.
Spaghetti with Green Beans, Potatoes and Pesto
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add 1 lb. (about 4 - 5) small new potatoes and cook until tender, about 8 - 10 minutes. Remove to cool.
2. Add 3/4 lb. trimmed and halved green beans to the water and cook until cooked through but still crisp and bright green, about 3 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove the beans to a large bowl of icewater to stop their cooking. Drain beans and set aside.
3. Cook 3/4 lb. spaghetti in the water until al dente, about 10 - 12 minutes. Towards the end of the cooking process, reserve about 1 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and return it to the pot.
4. Cut potatoes into bite-size pieces and add them to the pasta along with the green beans. Add about 1/2 to 3/4 cup basil pesto to the pot, along with a small amount of the pasta cooking water, and toss gently until the pasta, potatoes and beans are evenly coated with pesto. If pesto remains too thick, add more pasta water, a few tablespoons at a time, until it has thinned. Taste pasta and add more salt and pepper as needed.
5. Divide pasta between bowls, garnishing with extra grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper, if desired.