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The Greening of Pasta

August 20, 1992|MATT KRAMER

One of the turning points in American eating was the revelation that spaghetti sauce does not have to be red. The idea that you could put something on spaghetti--the term pasta had not yet emerged--other than tomato sauce came as a delicious surprise. The change came with the discovery of pesto. The term pasta followed soon thereafter.

Pesto is an Italian compound of basil, olive oil, garlic, grated cheese and finely ground pine nuts. The result is a dark-green color of the sort found on British racing cars. The taste is equally green, like swallowing a rain forest. Consumers of pesto fall into three camps: users, abusers and worshipers. Unlike zucchini, it has no known enemies.

This is the moment in the season when basil is at its most abundant. Where earlier in the season basil is used sparingly, now it is massed like an army and marched into every conceivable dish. Basil is billeted in everything from meat loaf to mayonnaise. (Both are excellent uses, by the way.)

But pesto remains the solution of first resort. The reason for this is simple: In the same way that ratatouille can absorb unlimited quantities of zucchini, so too can pesto suck up as much basil as you throw at it. You keep adding more oil, more cheese, more ground pine nuts or walnuts or hazelnuts (or no nuts at all), and the pesto intensifies like a black hole in space. Once established, nothing separates from an expanding pesto.

The true basil connoisseur recognizes numerous strains or varieties of the green-leafed plant. The variety most often found in stores is a large-leafed version, which offers bulk and restrained--but still identifiable--taste. It makes a good pesto, among other uses.

But other basils exist, usually characterized by the smallness of the leaves or a particular scent. You can find basil that smells of cinnamon or licorice. The leaves of these strains are dull, rather than shiny, because of so-called glandular hairs that contain the essential oils. And there's lemon basil, a strain ushered in from Thailand. It looks different from the usual basil plants, which are called bush basil. Lemon basil has longer stems and pointy leaves.

The bush basils, in comparison, have an eye-opening (and nostril-widening) range. Not surprisingly, Italy is the leading source of bush basil varieties. One seed company specializing in European seeds, Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Felton, Calif., offers three Italian basils: basil Napoletano, basil Genova profumatissima, and basil fino verde compatto. The Napoletano version has large leaves and gentle flavor; the Genova strain is intense and perfumed; and the fino version is a miniature basil, with tiny leaves that pack a punch.

All cooks should have in their arsenal a proper Italian pesto recipe . It has countless uses: Thin it with a few tablespoons of hot pasta water to make a great summertime pasta sauce, spread it on bread to make a tomato-mozzarella-pesto sandwich, add a dollop to scrambled eggs, or toss with steaming hot red potatoes. This recipe comes from Anna Del Conte's book, "The Italian Pantry" (HarperCollins: 1990). Yogurt is hardly a traditional pesto ingredient, but Del Conte, an ingredient purist, says it moderates the strong flavor of basil grown in areas other than the Mediterranean. For best flavor, she advises using young basil leaves and a good, but not too assertive, olive oil.

YOGURT PESTO

1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves

2 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons pine nuts

Dash coarse salt

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

Place basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt in processor bowl or blender jar. Process at high speed while pouring in olive oil in thin, steady stream. When evenly blended, transfer to small bowl. Mix in Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheeses. Stir in yogurt. Makes 4 servings.

When pesto crosses the Italian border into France, it suddenly becomes pistou. This classic dish is not so much a specialty of Provence as it is of the Mediterranean coastline from Genoa (the spiritual home of pesto) to Marseille. The only difference seems to be that the Italian pesto typically employs finely ground pine nuts, whereas the French pistou does not use any nuts at all.

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SOUPE AU PISTOU

1 or more varieties of fresh garden beans, such as green beans, lima beans or wax beans

Fresh carrots, trimmed, peeled and sliced into thick discs or 1-inch-long lengths

Small, waxy-type potatoes, peeled (if large, quarter them)

Fresh tomatoes, seeded and quartered

Small zucchini, trimmed and sliced into thick discs

Salt, freshly ground pepper

Several handfuls of dried pasta (vermicelli is the classic shape, but use what you have)

Pistou

Combine beans, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes and zucchini in large pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to boil and immediately reduce heat to barest simmer. Simmer 15 minutes.

Increase heat and add dried pasta. Let cook at barest boil until pasta is cooked, an additional 10 to 15 minutes.

To serve, ladle soup into separate bowls. Pass bowl of Pistou, allowing diners to add as much to their bowls as desired. Serve with extra grated cheese. Makes 6 servings.

Pistou

3 cloves garlic

Dash salt

1 cup fresh basil leaves

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 pound grated Parmesan cheese or shredded Gruyere

Place garlic and salt in food processor or blender and process until very finely chopped. Add basil leaves and process again until reduced to near paste. With processor running, slowly pour in olive oil, alternating with cheese. Pistou should have creamy consistency and should just barely be able to be poured.

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