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Monday, November 1, 2010

The Last Of The Summer Basil

I knew the time would come.  The last of the summer basil.  It grew out back all summer long just steps from the kitchen and at arms reach.  I used it for everything and anything.  I sometimes abused it, neglected it, and tortured it. Whatever I did with it or to it, it was always lovely.  Always there.  It was a fun ride while it lasted. I knew the end was nearing.  The recent cold snap and freeze warnings prompted me to snip it off and bring it in.

All summer I wanted to try a fascinating pesto technique from the Ligurian region of Italy.  Basically, pasta and pesto with a few twists and tricks thrown in.

Liquira is the birthplace of genovese pesto, the standard pesto we are all familiar with;  fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmigiano reggiano cheese, and olive oil. Trenette con  Pesto alla Genovese, the signature dish of Liguria, is thick hand rolled pasta strands tossed with green beans, sliced potatoes, parmigiano, and pesto.  Based somewhat on that dish is Ligurian Pesto Lasagna, a free-formed lasagna layered and stacked with the same ingredients.  Most of the prep can be done in advance before the actual layering of the lasagna, which must be done at the last minute with hot steaming lasagna noodles.

With the plucked basil wrapped gently in damp paper towels, I began my journey to the Ligurian countryside and my quest for that pesto lasagna.

I made my own lasagna noodles because I love making pasta. Mixed, kneaded, rested, rolled, cut, and set aside to dry.  Check.

I made the classic pesto by blending 2 cups of fresh basil, 2 crushed garlic cloves, and 1/2 cup of toasted pine nuts in my fabulous new blender.  With the motor running, I streamed 3/4 cups of good extra virgin olive oil into the blender until the pesto emulsified.

Because pesto purists believe the heat from blending or processing pesto actually melts the cheese and changes its texture, I chose to blend in a combination of 1/2 cup sharp pecorino and 1/2 parmigiano by hand.

Then, it got interesting.  To finish the pesto for the lasagna, I stirred in 1/2 cup yogurt with 1/2 cup ricotta cheese to form a creamy rich pesto sauce.  I poured it into a small bowl, covered it with olive oil to prevent discoloring, and set it aside.

Although green beans and potatoes sounded odd as a lasagna filling, I went for it. Tradition. I blanched green beans and potatoes for 10 minutes before plunging them into ice water to stop the cooking.  After they had  drained, I sauteed them in unsalted butter to crisp up and caramelize.

 Mise en place. Check.

Knowing the lasagna was going to be very rich, I wanted something to balance the richness. I rummaged through the vegetable bin and meat drawer of our refrigerator, finding roma tomatoes and gorgeous paper thin sliced prosciutto. As an experiment, I rolled the prosciutto slices around quartered tomatoes, drizzled them with olive oil, and baked them for 20 minutes. Wow.

After a few glasses of wine, it was time to eat.

It went really fast at that point.  Working quickly to ensure the pasta sheets remained hot, I boiled the pasta noodles for 3 minutes until al dente and drained them in a collander.

I smeared a bed of pesto sauce onto our plates, followed by a lasagna sheet,  more pesto, grated pecorino, grated parmigiano reggiano, green beans, and potatoes.  I repeated the layers three more times before finishing the lasagna with pesto, cheese, green beans, and fresh basil.

The toasted crisp prosciutto wrapped tomatoes fell to the side as finger food garnish.

It was rustic and beautiful.  The crunchy sweet beans snapped through the velvety soft layered pasta while creamy herbal pesto oozed out from the sides. After melting under the steaming pasta, the sharp pecorino contrasted nicely with the nutty parmigiano creating a sauce within a sauce. It was complex, full-bodied, and light.  Multi layered tons of flavor.

The crisp salty prosciutto rolls gave way to squirting sweet tomato juice providing much needed acidity to contrast the soft lusciousness of the lasagna. Ridiculously crazy good. Seriously. 

I loved the abandonment of the free-formed lasgana. No rules. No perfect squares. No sagging centers. No sticky pans.

I did miss the burned and caramelized cheesy corners of traditional baked lasagna. Everything has its place.

It was a fitting tribute to the very last of the summer basil.

We'll meet again next spring, my garden work horse.  You served me well.


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