Around the world with 80 (or so) cookbooks, continued.
This week we are headed off to Italy. When I reconnected with my cookbook collection, I found an old favorite, Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes. If you only saw the movie, go get the book. One is not like the other if you know what I mean.
It’s a memoir about her highly enviable experience bringing a villa in Italy back to life. I keep it with my cookbooks because Frances weaves the story with recipes she makes using the fruits and vegetables grown on her property and foraged from the surrounding countryside. The recipes are shared conversationally with few measurements. It’s a cooking style inspired by Simone Beck, a contemporary of Julia Child. Frances recounts, “One spring when I studied cooking with Simone Beck at her house in Provence, she said some things I never forgot. Another student kept asking Simca for her technique for everything…When she asked one time too many, Simca said crisply, ‘There is no technique, there is just the way to do it. Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook?’ I’ve learned…that simplicity is liberating.”
Her “Summer Kitchen Notes” are brimming with recipes that make my mouth water like Cherries Steeped in Red Wine, Pea and Shallot Bruschetta, Basil and Mint Sorbet, Cold Garlic Soup, Pizza with Onion Confit and Sausage, etc. etc… I’m seriously drawn to everything, but it’s the Sage Pesto on page 135 that sticks. Sage makes me think of Thanksgiving and not summer, so I’m very curious to try cooking with it in a new way.
My neighbor has plenty of the herb growing in her backyard, so I barter a deal. I’ll make enough pesto for two households if she’ll let me loose in her garden. And she does.
I wanted to make this recipe with authentic Tuscan ingredients, so this cooking adventure includes a visit to a local importer. Bay Cities Italian Bakery and Deli has been selling specialty groceries since 1925. The top, right and lower, left photos show a few of my many purchases—it was hard to narrow down the options! Did you see the olive oil and vinegar selection?
The recipe calls for pine nuts, garlic, Parmesan, olive oil, salt and pepper in addition to “a big bunch of sage.”
The only time-consuming task was preparing the ingredients. In this case, washing away garden bugs and breaking off leaves.
Frances recommends grinding everything together with a mortar and pestle — very old world — but in the interest of time management, I went the new world route.
I whirled the sage leaves, pine nuts, and garlic together adding in the olive oil slowly to thin the paste.
When it came time to add in the Parmesan cheese, or parmigiano in Tuscan speak, I just added some large hunks to the food processor instead of grating “the handful” called for ahead of time.
And presto, you have pesto. As Frances writes, the taste and texture are very unique — earthy and not as smooth as the basil variety. My pesto was also somewhat bitter and I wasn’t sure if I had used too much sage in the mixture. I added more garlic, doubled the amount of pine nuts and threw in a tablespoon or so of sugar to balance out the flavor. The paste was also very thick, so I was generous with the olive oil.
Frances recommends Sage Pesto to be served over white beans or with grilled meats, so I did both. We’ve been eating it on everything this week from pasta to grilled bread to raw vegetables and I’m happy to report the flavor just gets better and better as the days go by. After a curious start, this recipe turned out to be a real winner.