When I was making pesto last night and putting the basil leaves into my food processor, I started to think about the fact that I was excited about leaves, an ingredient if you didn’t know about and asked what was for dinner, and were told it would be “something with a bunch of mashed leaves in it!”, it wouldn’t make you run to the table with a knife and fork in each hand in anticipation.
In fact, if you have never eaten pesto, or seen pesto (don’t laugh – I never ate or knew what “pesto” was growing up in Ireland) it might even look a little hmmm…how shall I put this delicately, a little like pukey green sludge! I know that I am not exaggerating when I say that not everyone has heard of pesto because when I was in the supermarket (in the United States) yesterday combing the vegetable section for pine nuts before finally asking the guy piling the oranges in a giant pyramid where it could be located, he said, ‘What are pine nuts?”
When I finally discovered pesto, I couldn’t get enough of the stuff and the color that looked like greeny mush to me one day transformed to the color of liquid glistening emeralds the next! It is Italian (of course) and the word comes from the Italian to pound (broadly speaking) which makes perfect sense, as the leaves are indeed pounded to crush them which releases their gorgeous taste. It is hard to believe that a small little basil leaf can pack such a flavorful punch.
Anyway – back to the pine nuts which are traditionally used in the pesto. They were eventually located by a manager and as I thanked her and threw them into my basket I noticed that this tiny plastic container of pine cost $9 – that was more than the chicken! Wait a minute! I just couldn’t fork over the money for them. All I could think of was how I could possibly feed 6 people a dinner for the same price. It was extravagant enough for me to be buying basil that is out of season here (I grow as much of it as I can in the summer) and so I put the pine nuts back ( a little embarrassing after all the hoopla about finding them, but how and ever) and opted to use the walnuts that I knew were sitting in my fridge (and cost half the price for twice as much).
The walnuts worked absolutely great and I would bet even the pesto purists of the world would not know the difference. The pine nuts are oily, so are the walnuts, so they did the same job.
Pesto is great on almost anything, from this pasta dish, to sandwiches, to plain old pesto on toast. Try it on most any food within reason and it is delicious. I made my daughter a pesto frittata for breakfast this morning and it was heaven.
*This is a Blood Type A Friendly Recipe. If you are very strict do not use black pepper. The cheese is not so bad but do not use if you want to be ultra-pure*
For the chicken:
2 tbs olive oil
4 good-sized chicken breasts
sea-salt & freshly ground black pepper
2 or 3 springs fresh thyme (optional)
For the Pesto:
5 cups packed basil leaves
3/4 cup broken walnuts (or 1/2 cup pine nuts)
3 cloves garlic (2 if they are big)
1/3 extra-virgin olive oil, (more if needed)
sea-salt to taste
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (optional)
*I use Parmigiano cheese if I have it but if I don’t, this pesto is super fine without. Also one of my kids is not fond of the taste so I leave it out and just have cheese on the table to add later*
And to complete this dish:
1 lb spaghetti (I use Barilla brand)
1 – Season chicken with salt and pepper. Put saute pan on high heat and when it is hot add the oil. Wait until it is hot and then place the chicken breast in a single layer in the pan. Sear on that side until brown.
2 – Turn chicken over and continue to sear on high heat for about 1 minutes. Turn heat down to low and add the thyme (if using), and cover with a lid. Cook gently for between 12-15 minutes. Check to make sure they are cooked, then turn heat off and leave to rest for about 10 minutes with lid on. Remove chicken and slice and return to pan.
Place he basil in a food processor and add the rest of the ingredients on top (except the salt). Blend until smooth. Taste for addition of salt and add a little at a time until you are satisfied. Scrape into a bowl and set aside.
*At this point the pesto can be used for any dish (not just for this one!)*
Continue with the dish:
Put water on for spaghetti and cook according to instructions.
While spaghetti is cooking, take the chicken from the pan (keep the pan and broth) and slice. cover with foil to keep warm.
When spaghetti is cooked, scoop out about 1/3 cup of pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta. Do not rinse pasta but transfer directly into the pan with the chicken broth. Mix up a little and then add 1/2 of the pesto to the pan and mix gently until incorporated. If the pasta seems thick, loosen up with a little pasta water until you are happy with the consistency. Taste and add salt to your liking (or not).
Divide pasta between warm plates and add some slices of chicken and another dollop of pesto and serve.