I grew up in a heavily Italian neighborhood in Rhode Island where several truths were self evident: 1. All my friends had a Nana in residence. 2. Nana was responsible for all the really amazing food that I was lucky enough to sample while mouching suppers, muddling through graduation parties or lazy summer birthdays in the backyard. 3. In the hot months Nana cooked in her 'summer' kitchen, usually in the basement or sometimes in a little workshop off the garage. What I wouldn't have given for one of those cool, summer kitchens last week! I am so very tired of cucumber salad... 4. The only Italian food secrets that my family picked up centered around "parmesan", as in eggplant parmesan. It scarred me for years. But as an adult I have freed myself from those parmesan chains (made with Kraft 'canned' parmesan) and now use many of the staples of the old time Italian kitchen with ease. My favorite is pesto. And the time is now.
Basil is growing tall and fragrant this time of year so make up a giant batch and freeze it for the lean winter months ahead. If you have never made pesto, it is terrifically forgiving and almost impossible to botch. If you have a farmer's market near you that is selling the entire plant, with roots dripping muddy water as you head down the sidewalk, this is a perfect amount to start your giant batch. If you are buying it in smaller portions at the supermarket, buy two of the smaller bunches. You'll need at least one bunch of flat leaf parsley, two if they look puny. Wash and dry the bunches, separating the leaves from the reedy stems. If you have a food processor the next step will be a quick and modern one. If you don't, originally pesto was made using a mortar and pestle. Authorities swear there is a marked taste difference, so go with what you know.
In batches, drop the basil, parsley and a couple of cloves of garlic in the food processor while running
a thin stream of high quality extra
virgin olive oil to maintain a
smooth paste. Add freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano and/or Pecorinoly. I love
lots of Parmesan, but depending on the cheese the pesto can become salty
quickly, so taste frequently as you are mixing. Salt and pepper to
taste. I add the pignoli (pine) nuts at the end. Unsalted walnuts,
pecans and sunflower seeds are also great.
If you want to make pesto to freeze up for the winter I alter the recipe so that I add the salt, cheese and pignoli nuts when serving, instead of dulling them out in the freezer. I also make the pesto a bit more free flowing with the oil, as it freezes better. The secret (via Mothra) is to portion the pesto out into an ice cube tray, pop them out once frozen, into freezer bags and use them a few at a time as needed. If you want to use the pesto within the next month add all the goodies now and store it in a jar in the fridge, topped with a thin layer of oil. Besides making pasta, pesto is useful as a dollop on top of soup, pizza with fresh sliced tomato, and smeared on fresh mozzarella (with roasted peppers, see below).
GRILL KINGS (or Basil Rathbone wanna bees): another Italian secret weapon is roasted peppers. I keep peppers on hand, so whenever we have the grill fired up I throw a couple on and let them char while the rest of the food is cooking. Once cooked, cover them with an upside down bowl on a cutting board for 10 minutes or so to let the steam loosen the charred skins. Peel them, strip the seeds and pit out, slice and store in a glass refrigerator container covered with olive oil. Toss them in salads, eggs, or grilled pizza. I chop them with french lentils (cooked with a few bay leaves for 20 minutes), goat cheese, olive oil, lemon and a few sauteed mushrooms for a great cool salad.
Great cookbook: Cucina Simpatica by Johanne Killeen & George Germon. Their restaurant Al Forno was THE destination in Providence when I was a young impressionable type. The original spot was painted all Isle of Capri blue and inky black. A wonderful all around sensation from the blue Curacao sparkly drinks to the desserts that you had to order before your meal so they would be baked in time. This cookbook lays out a lot of the trattoria strategies, which explains why Italians are such great soccer players, errr, I mean cooks, and presents easy recipes for you to follow.