Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Passion For Pesto

I was pregnant with our first daughter and nearing the end of my allowed time for plane travel so my husband, Mark, and I flew to southern California for a brief visit with his lifelong friend, Carrie, and her (then) husband. 

As dinnertime approached, they picked huge handfuls of basil from their tiny garden, gathered pine nuts, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and grated Parmesan, and measured everything into a food processor. They cooked spaghetti and added a large dollop of pesto to each plateful. The brilliant green color of this unusual sauce seemed quite odd for food, but the intense, multi-layered flavor immediately stole our hearts and tastebuds.

That was almost 26 years ago. Early in our marriage, Mark and I never served spaghetti without pesto - even after our young daughters began to eat 'regular food.' In fact, I never made a red sauce for our spaghetti until one of the girls came home from eating dinner at a friend's house and mildly complained about how odd it was to have red sauce, rather than pesto, with pasta.

Our love of pesto has continued through the decades. Each summer, I fill our freezer with as much of this lovely stuff as possible with basil from our small garden. And each winter, usually sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I mournfully serve our last bit of frozen, garden-fresh pesto before I begin to purchase packaged basil to carry us through until the next growing season. (The winter light in our house doesn't seem quite strong enough to sustain healthy basil plants.)

Today, I satisfied my pesto craving again and made a small batch for dinner. Paired with whole grain pasta, some cooked chicken, and a green salad, we can dream of summer as we make our way through winter.

Simple Pesto Sauce

2 cups fresh basil leaves with stems removed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated/shredded Parmesan cheese
3 cloves of garlic
3 tablespoons of pine nuts or walnuts
       (VOE - we generally use walnuts because we 
                                 always have them on hand)
freshly ground pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in food processor and puree. Serve 1-2 tablespoons per plate of pasta. Cooked chicken, shrimp, or tuna can add flavor and 'bulk' to your meal.

VOE - Pesto freezes, thaws, and re-freezes exceptionally well. Fill an ice cube tray with the sauce and you'll have an instant flavor boost available for all of your favorite dishes.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Chocolate: The Exhibition in Kansas City

If chocolate is food for your soul then Chocolate: The Exhibition is a perfect way to educate yourself about this amazing food. I visited the exhibition at Kansas City, Missouri's Union Station, learned some things that I didn't already know, and heard several familiar stories.

The Field Museum of Chicago opened this exhibition at home, in 2002. It also has appeared (or will) in Indianapolis, Kansas City, Memphis,St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York City, Honolulu, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Cleveland, Ohio; Omaha, NE; Dearborn, MI; Gainesville, FL; Albany, NY; Raleigh, NC; Norman, OK; Anniston, AL; and Anaheim and Redding, CA.

As I handed my ticket to a fellow at the front desk, he offered me a cocoa-dusted almond from a large candy box. An image at the entrance resembled an old-fashioned chocolate candy store. Inside, rainforest sounds and Latin guitar surrounded me throughout the darkened room. I learned that tiny flies or midges pollinate cacao flowers, which grow on lower branches of the trees and that fungi on the forest floor help cacao trees absorb vital nutrients. I also learned that cacao seed pods mature at 3-5 years of tree age.

I was vaguely aware of cacao's importantance in ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. But here I found out that the Mayan people combined fermented, dried, and roasted cacao paste with cornmeal, honey, and chile peppers to make their renowned cacao drinks, which they frequently used for religious ceremonies. I also found out that the Aztecs considered cacao a luxury drink, to be ingested only by their elite; and it was also used as money and payment to gods or rulers.

I was reminded that, although Spanish explorers did not find gold in the New World, they did find cacao (as well as corn, vanilla, chiles, tomatoes and potatoes). And I learned that the Spaniards were the only Europeans to have a cacao/chocolate beverage for 100 years, after they added sugar to it for the first time.

I learned about cacao harvest and processing and when milk was first added to chocolate. I saw elaborately decorated Mayan vessels used only for serving their beloved cacao beverage, intricately carved wooden chocolate stirrers and porcelain and silver 'chocolate cups' favored by London's aristocracy, by the early 1700s.

Half an hour later, I craved a big chunk of rich, dark chocolate. You know its a great exhibit when it stimulates your tastebuds so profoundly.