Hi, foodies… Vince here again. Lana is still in Europe and her internet connection is just a bit slow. How slow? Ever pour a quart of black strap molasses through a mile of cat 5 ethernet wire? So, you poor souls will have to settle for me this time out. Now, I know what you want. I know you want some sort of emotional story with a food theme. You want some tearful tale of childhood and nostalgia that tugs at your heart and fairly brings the smells and tastes of your own past streaming with a melancholy beauty to your senses like some sort of crybaby time machine. Well tough. You got me instead.
I’m from the south. Let’s not sugar coat it; I was born a hick. A rube. A redneck if you will. I grew up on okra and pork chops and grits and such. And while we moved around like a band of gypsies, and I had a chance to stretch my taste buds more than most of the other southern gentlemen (hicks) who are at this very moment likely to be snacking on moon pies and wishing we were somehow in the third term of the George W. Bush administration, still, for all my comparative sophistication, I was woefully ignorant of a great many things in the culinary spectrum. That changed drastically when I met Lana. In fact, most of my favorite foods… most of the dishes that I would describe as “comfort food” are things to which she introduced me. I had never had stuffed cabbage, let alone the wonderful Serbian version called sarma. I had never had eggs lightly poached in homemade tomato soup. I had never had a 15 layer Napoleon torte.
There is a problem inherent to being married to a woman who loves to cook, let alone a food blogger. There’s always delicious food in the house and even Stephen Hawking would need to do additional research to comprehend the gravitational relationship between my wife’s cooking and the pie hole in the middle of my face. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve got amazing washboard abs. The problem is that after a fall, winter, and spring of eating like an Iron Chef judge, the six pack is well concealed by a keg. I was always a bean pole growing up so when I put on pounds, it’s all gut and butt.
So, in the summer, Lana heads to her homeland in Serbia and I am left to write, edit, and diet. The diet is pretty easy because there’s no one around cooking amazing food. And so I easily drop 20 to 25 pounds in six weeks or so. The diet that I have created for myself allows… no, allows isn’t the right word… the diet demands that I binge eat after five diet days. So, after the strict regimen of the week, I can eat whatever I want on the weekend. And let me tell you, by the time Saturday arrives, I usually have a hell of a craving for something. The first weekend, I wanted pizza. Then wings. You get the idea.
As this past week went by, there was a clear craving developing. It was green and glorious.
Gloriously green pesto with a nice chardonnay! Oh yeah!
Now, I never had pesto until 1998 when Lana made it for me for the first time. I fell in love with it. I’ve had many variations of it since, but I love good basic pesto, the stronger the better. So Saturday found me at the grocery store buying fresh basil, cilantro, and angel hair. I waited until my stomach was growling and I was hungry enough to wrestle a hyena pack over a wildebeest carcass. Then I rounded up the usual suspects: garlic, green onions, lime, etc., and made enough to feed the whole family were they here. And ate it all. In one sitting. Alone.
Now, normally the story would end and you’d get a recipe. But that’s not how I roll. I’m going to walk you through this so you don’t screw it up. First, go shopping for fresh ingredients. I’ll be here when you get back. Here’s a list of what you’ll need if you want to make the best Shrimp Pesto you ever crammed in your chirper:
- A bottle of decent white wine. I prefer a chardonnay with pesto. There are too many awesome chards to be had for under 12 bucks to spend much more than that.
- A lot of basil. I don’t know how many cups. Just find a nice lush basil plant and pick it bald.
- A bunch of cilantro. Just use the leafy parts and avoid the stems. They suck. Use a lot, but not more than a quarter the amount of the basil. Cilantro is delicious, but more than that will overpower the pesto-ness of the dish.
- A bunch of green onions. I know most recipes call for one or two green onions. That’s for wimps. Use a whole bunch… like 6 to 8 green onions. ‘Cause I said so.
- A handful of pine nuts.
- Garlic. At least 5 cloves. No, I’ve never ever tasted a dish with too much garlic in it. Garlic makes basil yummier.
- The zest and juice of one medium lime.
- Salt and pepper.
- Extra-virgin olive oil.
- Angel hair pasta. No, not spaghetti or macaroni or fettucini or shells. This is not alfredo or carbonara. Have some respect for the sauce and choose a fine pasta. Angel hair is perfect for pesto.
- Shrimp, peeled and deveined and raw! However much each person wants.
Look at all that green!
First things first. Chill your bottle of vino. For this meal, I chose a 2009 California chardonnay (Sonoma) called Las Olas. They are a cool company that helps benefit charities that support the coastal marine environment. While that fact may not complement your pesto, it should leave a good taste in your mouth. The wine boasts notes of apple, pear, and citrus. It has an amazingly clean finish that makes it a wonderful accompaniment to a strong pesto. And while a table wine need not be quite so complex, we’ll be enjoying a glass as we prepare the meal, so why not have something decent? Pesto goes fast, so if you don’t have a nice bottle of white in the fridge already, put one in the freezer for ten or fifteen minutes and go pick out some tunes. Don’t forget it. It’ll burst if you do.
Pick out some nice upbeat tunes to listen to while you’re cooking. No rap. No Death Metal. No Blood Metal. No Bile Metal. No Hell Metal. No Dig My Soul Out With a Back Hoe Metal. No Rap Metal. No Metallic Rap. No “I wish I was dead” noise passing itself off as music. You may not listen to rap or metal while you prepare my pesto recipe. No. And nothing depressing while you cook. No Harry Chapin (much as I love him). No Jim Croce. No Stevie Nicks. No U2. No Frederic Freakin’ Chopin. If you are confused, you may choose from the following artists:
Dean Martin, Willie Nelson, The Cars, BTO, Gnarls Barkley, Peter Gabriel, even Lady Gaga. It has to be upbeat. It has to make you smile and be happy to be alive and in the kitchen and about to enjoy some awesome pesto! If you are in any way confused by this, just get the soundtrack to the movie Ray and get busy. In fact, let’s keep this simple. Just forget I suggested anything other than Ray. Play the Ray Charles. You’ll smile. Because smiling is mandatory. Remember this:
â€˜Tis healthier to eat franks and beer
With thanks and cheer
Than bread and sprouts
With dread and doubts.
Pour a glass of chilled wine. Sip. Ahh…
Now, there should be music in the air and wine in your glass. See how happy you are? Time to make magic.
OK, the first thing to remember about pesto is that you don’t actually ever cook it. So fill a large pot with water and put it on the burner so that it can boil for the pasta. The bigger the pot, the better. A gallon of water is good for anything under a pound of pasta. Three quarts will do if that’s all the room you have, but more water is better. Cover it to trap the heat and trim a few minutes off the boiling time. While that’s reaching a boil, you’ve got time to toast the pine nuts and peel and devein the shrimp if you don’t dawdle. Do not buy cooked shrimp. Shrimp are delicate and wonderful and cannot be mishandled or overcooked. They are too expensive to screw up. If you buy precooked shrimp you will end up having rubbery overcooked nuggets for dinner instead of one of the world’s finest delicacies. Buy raw shrimp. Trust me.
OK. Now toast a handful of pine nuts. Just swirl them in a small skillet or saute pan. No oil. Knock them around with a wooden spoon just enough to keep them from burning. It takes just a moment if you keep them to one layer. Just get a golden color and get them out of there. Wipe out the saute pan with a paper towel and you’re done with it. I’m not one to leave a dirty kitchen. Clean as you go. It’s easier.
Wash and drain all your produce. Chop the onions. They have to fit into the chopper.
Put all the basil leaves, green onions, cilantro, half of the toasted pine nuts, garlic, and lime zest/juice in a chopper or blender or food processor. Pour in some olive oil. No, I don’t know how much… you have to get a feel. Don’t talk to me about measuring cups. We don’t need no stinking measuring cups. Just a little at first, then pulse it and look at the consistency. You want it thick enough to adhere to the pasta but thin enough to get good coverage. You know what pesto looks like. Add olive oil between pulses until it is pesto in all its green glory. Taste it. Add salt and pepper until it suits you. Take another sip of that wine. Taste the pesto again just to make sure it’s perfect. When it is, set it aside. Have another sip of wine to set your palate. Ray’s probably singing Night Time is the Right Time by now and if nobody’s watching, you’re probably kinda dancing around the kitchen like a loon. That’s OK. If you don’t like Ray Charles, stop everything, put all the ingredients into the garbage disposal, grind them up, get your keys, and go get a burger at a drive-thru. You suck and I don’t want you eating my pesto.
More Ray. More vino. Good. Smile, because I’m about to irk some traditionalists. It’s time to talk about salt and oil in our pasta water.
OK, if this were a meatier pasta like farfalle, or if it were for something without a sauce, I’d add a good bit of kosher salt to the boiling water, say a large pinch per quart of water. This is the only chance you’ll have to get salt into the pasta. Once the water saturates the noodles, it can’t absorb anything else. However, because we’ve salted the sauce to taste and the sauce is going on the pasta, and this is angel hair we’re talking about, it’s pretty easy to over salt if we try to predict what we need to properly season the pasta. Since saltiness is very subjective and I don’t know two people who always salt the same, it’s best to come up light and let individuals add salt at the table to their own taste. So, just a pinch at this point just to get a little into the noodles.
Then a splash of olive oil and add the pasta. OK… I know… some of you have heard that you shouldn’t add oil. Some say it coats the pasta making it resist the sauce later. The obvious flaw in that argument is the fact that oil and water don’t mix and the oil floats to the top while the pasta settles at the bottom quite uncoated by the oil. However, if you stir a small splash of oil into the boiling water, it will keep the released starch from the pasta from foaming the water. This is especially useful if you are using a smaller pot than is optimal. And while there is minimal effect in keeping the noodles from sticking to each other, it will help to keep the pasta from sticking to the pot itself. Just remember to give it a stir a few times as it cooks. Cook until it’s perfect. I know it’s a matter of taste, but for me, pasta is perfect when it has just a little bit of tooth to it. It’s pasta, not a long, skinny dumpling. Pasta should not be crunchy, but neither should it be mushy.
When the pasta is perfect, dump it into a strainer in the sink. Because of the oil, you will not have to deal with a lot of noodles stuck to your pot enabling you to put the empty pot back on the stove and throw in the raw shrimp. Pour in enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot. Don’t worry about the pasta. If you cook the shrimp long enough for the pasta to cool, you’re already lost. Yes, we are cooking the shrimp in the pasta pot. What? Are you looking to wash more pots and pans? Not me. Use a wooden spoon to move the shrimp around in the puddle of white wine just until that beautiful pink tinge emerges. Make sure all the shrimp are laced in that “done shrimp” shade of pink. Do not overcook! Dump shrimp into a bowl. Wash the pot quickly and you’re done with it unless you want to serve from it.
Note: almost any recipe calling for shrimp should be approached in this manner. Adding shrimp to a pan full of other stuff almost guarantees overcooked shrimp. Cook everything else. Then add perfectly cooked shrimp at the end.
Pour the pasta into a serving bowl (or back into the pot). Dump the pesto into the pasta. Stir until that yummy veridity coats every luscious strand. Do not add the shrimp. First, people may not get enough if they are hidden. Second, you don’t want the shrimp to continue cooking in the heat of the pasta.
Serve. Add shrimp to the top. Sprinkle on a pinch of the reserved pine nuts.
Enjoy. Take special note of just how tender and delicate the shrimp are when they are cooked properly and how well they take a strong, flavorful pesto. If anyone does not like the dish, they probably didn’t like Ray Charles either. Ask them to leave and do not allow them back into your home as they clearly cannot be trusted.