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Mudbug Madness : Crawfish

South Louisiana Crawfish Boil (in progress)

Though small in size and usually misunderstood, the delectable crawfish is a Louisiana obsession

by Pableaux Johnson

When springtime comes to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, residents prepare for its annual crustacean invasion. As water temperatures warm, millions of lobsterlike creatures awake from long winter naps and start prowling the muddy swamps and marshes of the Bayou State.

Well-armed and disarmingly buglike, these scaly monsters could have crawled straight out of a B-movie director’s dream. Equipped with powerful claws, beady eyes, and flexible antennae, the dreaded “Crawthra” wear a thick skeletal armor and seem tailor-made for large-scale mayhem. In any low-grade horror movie, these lumbering beasts would crush whole city blocks with mere swipes of their powerful tails.

But luckily for the denizens of Cajun country, these “monsters” weigh in at about four ounces apiece – not exactly panic-inspiring. Louisiana cooks see the little creatures and start to salivate, imagining the critters boiled to spicy perfection, fried in an overstuffed po’boy  sandwich, or smothered in buttery gravy. When crawfish emerge in local waterways, it’s time for a feeding frenzy that is a true rite of spring.

read more Louisiana Crawfish: A bit of Mudbug Madness »

NEW VENTURE: PostPrintProject.com

The New PxJoint

Hey All,

Just a quick note to announce the launch of a new venture/project for the new year: The Post Print Project.

Cut to the Chase
http://www.postprintproject.com/

Get the Backstory
Odds are, if we’ve talked in the past year or so, I’ve asked you questions about one of the following issues:

  • How you read
  • the state of publishing (newspaper, book, magazine)
  • computer usage, smartphone choice or apps that help you out
  • “You like that Kindle, do you? Tell me about it…”

I’d been eyeing the now-nonfictional iPad since last spring, keeping an eye on both the rumors and the implications that this technology could have on publishing as a whole. I see it as a new kind of electronic distribution that’s different from the WWWeb and a logical successor to a huge chunk of what’s now committed to print.

The move probably won’t be due to the tablet’s ample complement of bells and whistles — and there are PLENTY — but rather a change in the way we approach computing. Overall, the ipad/tablet form give a different, much more intuitive way of dealing with digital media in a way that builds on the strength of print media (solid typography, beautiful photography, full-color maps and infographics and a little bit of video where it counts).

After working in just about every area of publishing (author, journalist, designer, production artist, web developer, type monkey and photographer), i’m seeing this as a great excuse to bring it all together in a new practice — iPad app development and strategy focused on publishing.

The PPP
The PostPrintPRoject is a conceptual sandbox and sounding board for issues regarding the iPad in the publishing world.

I’ll still be doing the food/travel journalism, but this stuff is just too exciting NOT to get into the game.

Over time i’ll be covering issues both general and geeky, from broad contextual overviews to tight, topical considerations of interesting developments torn from what would be headlines if the WWWeb actually had a papery front page.

So whether you work the editorial desk of a newsroom or User Experience section of a boutique design firm, there’s room to play.

If you’ve got any questions or comments, hit me back at any of the links or the methods in the footer o’ this mail.

best and onward,
Pableaux

Before Carnival, Lombardi Gras.

Mr. Brees, Man o' the Hour

QUICK LINK to the BLACK & GOLD VICTORY PARADE GALLERY

A week before our USUAL bacchanal, New Orleans Beloved Local Sports Franchise provided us with ANOTHER reason to celebrate. The Welcome Home parade was, as expected, absolute lovefest chaos, and the players on the various floats looked like they were the happiest kids in the world.

I got plenty of good shots of the team as they rounded the SuperDome curve, at just the right time to get some nice “golden hour” shots.

I’ve heard crowd estimates ranging from 350,000 to 800K, but either way, it didn’t really matter. As a one of the logistics guys from Blaine Kern Productions told me “Yeah, it’s just one more parade for us. But DAMN, what a parade!”

Saints on the Gator.

There will be plenty more pictures as time permits, but enjoy these portraits for the time being … gotta love the excitement and pure D happiness…

Paying Buddy D's Bet (the Drag Gallery)

Not attractive, but beautiful. At the buddy D parade

QUICK LINK to the first BuddyD gallery. Explanation below and more to come.

Last weekend, during the run-up to the Saints’ first appearance in the Superbowl, a long-standing wager was settled in a uniquely New Orleans way.

The wager involved a couple thousand die-hard male Saints fans dressing up in outrageous drag, gathering at the Superdome, and dancing down the street to celebrate their team and a beloved sportscaster.

Buddy Diliberto (known locally as “Buddy D”) was a local newsman and Saints fan who suffered the indignities of losing season after losing season — and vowed to do two things if the team ever made it to the Superbowl — put on a dress and dance through the streets.

Word spread around town that on the Sunday before the Superbowl, a buncha guys would meet at the SuperDome and make good on the promise (though Buddy died in 2005).

Now, as far as humor goes, drag has never really appealed to me. Think of every “guys in dresses” flick that’s ever been made — and the jokes always go back to a pretty lame premise: “They’re Guys! IN DRESSES!” Put a guy in female garb, and the rest writes itself — largely because there’s not that much to write.

I’ve been photographing a lot of second line parades as of late and decided to zip down to the Dome on that fateful Sunday. I’d see a couple hundred “queens for a day” flouncing about, get a few portraits, and be home within the hour. Initially, I thought about resisting (“They’re GUYS! In DRESSES! Get it?”) but decided to head over and treat it as documentary work — this is something that’s never happened before. Might as well go have a look-see.

When I arrived at the Dome, I was flat out amazed.

THOUSANDS of newly-minted NFL Trannies were milling around the base of the stadium. There was a wee bit of drinking (sure) but mostly the attendant shemales were high on their team, their city and their own personal sports history. THOUSANDS.

Of course, there were plenty of guys who looked like they’ve been waiting their whole life to put on a dress and prance down Poydras Street in broad daylight. There were also plenty who adapted their usual ensemble to the sanctioned “black and gold” color scheme. After all — get the little black dress, accessorize a bit on the gaudy side, and BOOM– Bob’s your uncle and/or aunt.

I spent the better part of the day down there, snapping shots of the season’s end insanity thinking how joyous the whole thing was. Also, I thought of the children — kids of fans who braved the chaos to watch daddy put on his stockings — and how they might consider this “normal” as thy grow. (ADVICE: Judging from the expressions on the wee ones’ faces, you fellas might want to sock a few bucks away for pediatric therapy down the line. You know, just to be safe…)

I’m posting the first gallery today (a few hours before the SuperBowl) and will keep them coming in the aftermath of the game and New Orleans’ inevitable celebration.

To all my friends who watch the OTHER football — i never understood your collective World Cup excitement until now. And it only took a couple thousand ugly/beautiful drag queens to show me the light.

WHO DAT, GODDAMMIT!!!

Cajun Cleanup: Cooking Up a Turkey Bone Gumbo

The aftermath of any authentic Thanksgiving feast involves a plenty of leftovers. It’s just part of the package.

How else would we sustain ourselves through the rest of the long weekend? The accepted Thanksgiving follow-up activities — long naps, football-filled afternoons and mile-high evening sandwiches — are time-honored traditions that make this holiday an American favorite.

For most people, the leftover tradition begins and ends with building the Ultimate Turkey Sandwich — a gargantuan structure slathered with layers of mayo, candied yams, cranberry salsa, and just about anything else that graced the banquet table hours earlier.

But if you limit your post-feast snacking to sandwiches, you’ll be missing one of the great American holiday dishes — the infamous Turkey Bone Gumbo.

Early Winter Warmup

After a full day of cooking the feast, Cajun cooks all over south Louisiana  celebrate the day after Thanksgiving with a bubbling pot of dark gumbo, thick with chunks of leftover bird and spiked with spicy chunks of smoked sausage.

The cooking process bears a distinct resemblance to another post-Thanksgiving classic – turkey soup – in that it turns an after-dinner byproduct (the leftover poultry carcass) into a magical special occasion dish.

Since the recipe starts with the stripped turkey carcass , this edible ritual makes the most of the holiday bird. A long, slow simmer efficiently removes any bits of meat still clinging to the bones and results in a thick, rich base for the gumbo. It’s a simple (though somewhat time consuming) two-step process, but well worth the effort.

Big Boned Broth
Turkey bone gumbo starts off with the entire carcass of the roasted turkey — which usually includes a good deal of hard-to-reach meat that clings to the bird’s nooks and crannies.

Truth be told, most Rockwell-inspired family carvers stop cutting when the going gets interesting. After slicing off the easy meat from the broad-breasted bird and disassembling the drumstick apparatus, they discard the rib cage, along with pounds of tasty meat that somehow escape the holiday knife.  But this works to the distinct advantage of gumbo makers, because where there’s meat, there’s a rich stock in the making. If you can get a hold of this still-pretty-meaty carcass, you’ll have a double treat in store for your post-holiday gumbo.

Extra meat is nice, but the real trick is in the bones. As any working chef will tell you, good stock (and by extension, good soups and gumbos) start off with good bones.

And when it comes to poultry, turkey is about as good as you can get. The big bones of America’s favorite gobbler are chock full of rich marrow, and since they’ve already been roasted to celebrate the annual pilgrim feast, they’ve also  been browned for added flavor. The only thing that’s needed to bring out that flavor is a long, slow cooking in your favorite soup pot.

So the carcass goes into the pot with a little onion, some celery, and a few spices for good measure. A few hours over a low flame, and you’ve got an insanely rich broth thickened with the previously hidden meaty morsels that just fell off the bone. A quick strain and one dark roux later, you’ve gone from making a simple soup to creating a special version of the classic Cajun chicken and sausage gumbo.

If you don’t have the time to cook up a batch on the day after Turkey Day, wrap up the carcass for freezer storage until you have a free day around the house. It’s the perfect low maintenance activity for a lazy early winter’s afternoon.

Roasted Turkey Broth

  • 1 turkey carcass (bones, giblets and leftover skin from roasted Thanksgiving turkey)
  • 3 ribs celery, cut into 4-inch pieces
  • 2 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 4 quarts water, or enough to cover carcass
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 4 bay leaves

Place the carcass in a large stockpot. Add the celery, onions, water, salt, peppercorns, and bay leaves.

Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, for 2-4 hours (the longer the better), then remove from the heat. Skim any fat that has risen to the surface.

Strain through a large colander. Reserve any meat that has fallen off the bones and pick off any meat that may still remain on the carcass. Use immediately or freeze in quart-sized containers.

Makes about 2-3 quarts (or enough for 1 gumbo)

Turkey Bone Gumbo

  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped bell peppers
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/2 pound smoked sausage, such as andouille or kielbasa, chopped
  • 3 quarts turkey broth
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion

Combine the oil and flour in a heavy-bottomed cast iron pot or enameled cast iron Dutch oven, over medium-low heat. Stirring slowly and consistently for 20 to 25 minutes, make a dark brown roux, the color of chocolate.

Season the onions, bell peppers, and celery with the salt and cayenne. Add this to the roux and stir until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage and cook, stirring often for 5-7 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered for 45 minutes. Add the reserved turkey meat and cook for 30 minutes. Add the parsley and green onions.

Serve in soup bowls over steamed white rice.

Serves 8

Southern Foodways Alliance

Otis Clay and his band rocked the house after LITERALLY driving all night. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is professionalism.

Otis Clay and his band rocked the house after LITERALLY driving all night. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is professionalism.

Just back from the Southern Foodways Alliance‘s annual symposium, and it was, as always a rip-snortin’ good time and one of the better annual reunions on record. There was plenty of conversing and carousing during the weekend in Oxford, with plenty of memorable performances ranging from Otis Clay on Saturday morning to an amazing pork-inspired dance piece executed by Ballet Memphis.  The membership, of course, is the biggest draw — a chance to see friends and chosen family during three days of yakking, drinking and feasting.

Click to see a few galleries from the Symposium, of if you’re getting here from the Conde Nast traveler site, welcome to it…

Members of the Ballet Memphis troupe go hog wild.

Members of the Ballet Memphis troupe go hog wild.

Cornbread: Simple, Savory and Southern

Done right, there’s absolutely nothing complicated about a skillet full of fresh-baked cornbread.

Each batch is cooked and presented in an everyday cast iron frying pan, cut with a standard-issue butter knife, and as often as not eaten with the fingers. It’s the perfect complement to anything from soup beans to collard greens, game day chili or the last stews of before summer.

For many Southerners, cornbread’s flavors and textures conjure up memories of Sunday suppers and childhood meals. The toothy crunch of a deep-brown crust triggers memories of long-stewed pot liquor from a the bottom of the greens pot. The grainy, pale yellow crumb evokes stories from countless New Years’ Day parties, when a split wedge of butter-soaked goodness acted as foundation for pork-fortified black eyed peas.

Traditional skillet cornbread has become less and less of an everyday dish, despite the fact that it’s an insanely simple to execute, even for the busiest of home cooks. They don’t call it a quickbread for nothing.

Invest a few minutes of basic work —  measuring, mixing, swirling and baking  — and what you get in return is a flavorful Southern classic served hot from the oven.

Bake it a few times in a row, and you’ll find yourself leaving the written recipe behind and baking it all by heart.

Hand-Me-Down flavors

Thought the basic recipe for cornbread is pretty simple — cornmeal mixed with milk or water, leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda —  there seem to be countless variations on the theme, most of them jealously guarded as “the one true bread” by their adherents.

My family’s cornbread is a standard buttermilk variation — stone-ground cornmeal mixed with a little bit of flour for tenderness, a bit of sugar for flavor. Before baking in the oven, e heat a splash of vegetable oil to its smoking point, the better to preheat the pan for an all-important substantial crust. The final product has a great balance of gritty corn texture with just a hint of lightness.

Hard-core proponents of cornbread insist that any “real” recipe contains only cornmeal, as they learned at their mother’s kneed. After all, there’s a special name for a baked product that uses flour and sugar. And that name is cake.

When I mentioned cornbread to one of my co-workers — a cowgirl/copy editor raised on the wild prairies of Oklahoma —  she asked me one of the standard zealot’s questions: “Do you put sugar in your batter?”

When I answered yes, she shook her head a bit, sighed hard, and rendered a reluctant verdict.

“I guess we can still be friends.”

Simple, Savory, Essential

When I started digging around in Kentucky cookbooks for cornbread recipes, I came across an endless parade of maize-based batter breads. (Kentucky Keepsakes, a compilation cookbook put out by Kuttawa’s MacLanahan Publishing house, lists 57 different  variations.)

I found variations that ranged from skillet bread to batter cakes, yeast-leavened Sally Lunn to pan-baked versions studded with crispy pork cracklins. There were traditional johnnycakes, hoecakes, shallow-fried corn dodgers and deep-fried hushpuppies. Muffins, sticks, spoonbreads and pones.

That ought to keep me busy for awhile.

Today, we’ll present three different recipes that show the texture of standard cornbread — from the crumbly buttermilk recipe to the rich velvety spoonbread. We’ve resisted the temptation to delve into the world of the modern “chunk style” cornbreads made by adding cheeses, spices, chiles and meats to the mix. No doubt that they’d be tasty, but at a certain point, we’re dealing less with cornbread than a casserole.

If you’ve got a great recipe for one of these, send it on. And don’t worry. I guess we can still be friends…

Skillet Corn Bread (Hebert style)

The key to a well-developed cornbread crust is preheating the oil in a cast-iron skillet. This version of the buttermilk classic contains just a hint of flour for a refinec texture and sugar for sweetness. For a smaller batch suitable for a 5-inch skillet, half the ingredients. All other steps remain the same.

2 cups corn meal

4 tablespoons unbleached flour

2 tablespoon sugar

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 egg

1 1/2  cups buttermilk

3-4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a heat proof mixing bowl, thoroughly blend dry ingredients with wire whisk or wooden spoon. Add egg and buttermilk, then stir until the mixture forms a medium-thick batter.

In a 9-inch cast iron skillet, heat vegetable oil until lightly smoking. Swirl the oil around to coat the inside of the skillet. Then pour the hot oil into the batter and MIX VIGOROUSLY until the oil thoroughly blended in.

Bake at 425° for about 25 minutes or until slightly brown on top.

Serves 8

Speak of the Devilled

This warm weather picnic favorite shines as a post-Easter leftover favorite

In the aftermath of the Easter morning chaos, parents usually ponder the  eternal questions of the season.

How much chocolate is too much? What’s the best way get syrupy fudge stains out of a frilly church dress? If your third-grader just ate six pounds of jellybeans in under 90 seconds, should he consider a career on the competitive eating circuit?

And perhaps most importantly: when the dying is done and the thrill of the Easter hunt is replaced by screaming sugar highs, what can you do with two dozen hard-boiled eggs?

The answer lies inside the pastel-colored shell of the egg itself, for many represents a return to childhood memories.

Because at the time-honored start of springtime, nothing soothes the soul or tickles the taste buds like a good deviled egg.

Picnic table classic

Cool and creamy, tangy and rich, the deviled egg is a perfect Southern finger foods. On any summertime picnic buffet, the deviled egg platter is the first plate to be picked clean. Easy to make and just intricate enough to feel fancy, deviled eggs have been a popular staple at church socials and family reunions since well before Old Aunt Gladys wore her hair in pigtails.

And making them couldn’t be easier — pop the boiled yolks into a bowl, mash together with a few simple ingredients, and spoon back into the round cavity of the jiggling egg white. A simple garnish of paprika or chive completes the simple but classy presentation

The dish plays to the culinary strengths of the egg itself. The distinctive flavor and richness of the yolk makes a good backdrop for the other simple ingredients — a little mayonnaise for smooth texture, a splash of vinegar or pickle juice for bright flavor, a squirt of mustard for tang and depth.

Flavor options

Chef John Castro of Winston’s Restaurant and Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies is a fan of the classic.

“People love them, but deviled eggs don’t really need a lot of energy put into them. You want to start with really fresh, really beautiful egg and do just enough to  enhance the flavor without masking it.”

The egg’s natural versatility make it a perfect backdrop for simple flavor enhancements. A subtle dose of chopped herbs or a familiar herb  often provides flavorful counterpoint without overwhelming the other ingredients.

Some traditional cooks swear by a bit of chopped red onion or a spoonful of sweet pickle relish to provide a bit of texture and crunch. Curry powder or a splash of Worcestershire adds its spicy zing to some family recipes.  Pepper fans might add a spoonful of Vietnamese garlic/chili paste or a few squirts of hot sauce to wake up their palates.

Edible memories

More adventurous recipes often substitute key ingredients in a quest for new flavors. (Thoroughly mashed avocado, for example, stands in nicely for mayonnaise as the fatty thickener for the egg filling; lemon juice can be a fragrant substitution for vinegar.)

But be forewarned: for some diners there’s a limit to culinarly experimentation.

“They’re such a tradition-laden food ,” said Castro. “It’s like a deviled egg can be ingrained in your psyche. People compare to their own expectations,  to what they remember.”

Stray too far from the memory of Aunt Gladys’s eggs, and some guests might stop after eating just one.

Most folks, though, will just hover around the buffet platter, enjoying the Easter bunny’s bounty and making sure nothing goes to waste.


Deviled Eggs (Master Recipe)

Adapted from ESPN Gameday Gourmet (ESPN Books, 2007)

This basic recipe shows the range and simplicity of the deviled egg. Mayonnaise and a bit of butter give a creamy texture to the filling, while jarred mustard and vinegar provide a hint of acidic brightness.

Before using this year’s leftover Easter eggs, make sure you read the Food Safety sidebar and take the appropriate precautions. For additional flair in the presentation department, squeeze the finished mixture into the egg whites using the easy zip-top bag trick described in the “Zip Top Fillup” sidebar.

  • 8 medium to large eggs, hard boiled
  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 1 ½ Tablespoons prepared mustard (your choice of yellow, Dijon, or whole grain)
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar (or substitute sweet pickle brine)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperture
  • paprika or finely chopped green onions for garnish
  • any ONE of the following flavorings (alter amounts to your personal taste):
  • 1 teaspoon Vietnamese garlic/chili paste
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • ½ teaspoon curry powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon celery salt
  • 3 tablespoons red onion, finely minced
  • 3 tablespoons sweet pickle, finely minced

Carefully peel the eggs. Cut each egg in half lengthwise and pop out the yolks, being careful to not to damage the egg whites.. Transfer the yolks in a small bowl and mash well with a fork. Stir in the mayonnaise, butter, mustard, vinegar, flavoring of choice,  salt, and pepper and using a wire whisk, blend until smooth and light.

Arrange the whites cut side up on a large serving plate. Spoon the filling into the cavities. Sprinkle the stuffed eggs paprika and garnish with chopped green onions. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Deviled Eggs: Green Eggs and Ham Remix

This filling — essentially the love child of egg salad and guacamole —  plays a bit fast and loose with tradition, but incorporates the crispy fried country ham as a garnish. The pork’s salty crunch adds a welcome and flavorful texture to the creamy filling.

  • 8 medium to large eggs, hard boiled
  • 3 ounces country ham, thinly sliced (or substitute thick-sliced bacon)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (for browning the ham)
  • 1 medium avocado, fully ripe
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice (fresh squeezed)
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro, finely minced

Heat small skillet over medium high heat and fry ham until crisp. Drain on paper towels, then cut into thin strips for garnish.

Carefully peel the eggs. Cut each egg in half lengthwise and pop out the yolks, being careful to not to damage the egg whites. Scoop out avocado flesh into a small bowl and mash well with fork until smooth.

Transfer the yolks to bowl and mash well to combine. Stir in the cilantro, cumin, lime juice,  salt, and pepper and using a wire whisk, blend until the consistency of pastry cream.

Arrange the whites cut side up on a large serving plate. Spoon the filling into the cavities. Top with a bit of of ham for garnish. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

(Im)Perfect Pesto

Frozen cubes o' pesto. (NOT made of people)

Frozen cubes o' pesto. (NOT made of people)

“I tend to rant on the subject of young basil and proper pesto. I have traced pesto to its region of origin, Liguria; to its city of origin, Genoa; and finally to its supposed neighborhood of supreme excellence, Pra’.

And that is where I learned that there is a fleeting moment for basil – about three weeks before it begins to flower. The sweetest, most perfect pesto is made with young basil, ideally when the plant is 6 to 9 inches tall. It should not have even thought of budding. Once flowering begins, that basic becomes bitter and tastes of anise.”

When cookbook author and radio personality Lynn Rossetto Kaspar writes this little prose poem in her new book How to Cook Supper, a two-paragraph description of pesto morphs into culinary romance bordering on infaturation. A perfect time, an exotic pilgrimage to the source, the rush of a purist’s devotion and affection. It’s about as close as you can get to Nabakov’s Lolita while browsing the cookbook aisle.

And while it’s beautiful to read and easy to revel in, her purist’s perspective might do a bit of injustice to one of today’s new classics.

Even though you might not capture fresh basil at its tender peak, you can get in the habit of making this sinfully easy kitchen staple with herbs available year round in the farmer’s market or grocery’s produce aisle.

It’s especially handy during the hot days of summer, when “quick cooking” meals  encourage less time in the hot kitchen and lighter menu (even vegetarian) options. Or those times when five bucks seems a bit much to spend on an eight-ounce tub of this versatile (but simple to prepare) specialty.

Mix and Match

The classic pesto — an aromatic past of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and ground parmesean cheese — hails from the coastal Italian region of Liguria, a stone throw from the French border and home to some of Italy’s most beautiful coastlines. Traditionally, cooks prepare the simple “pounded” sauce by smashing the ingredients to a smooth pulp using a marble “mortar and pestle” setup.

And here’s where many home cooks get hung up — with the ingredient list. Unless you’ve got a hedge-sized basil plant in your herb garden or a brother-in-law in the Mediterranean import/export business, some of the classic ingredients can get pretty pricy pretty quick.

But it doesn’t take much time to realize that pesto lends itself to substitution remarkeably well. Basil’s clean, herbal flavors dance on the tongue, but so can those of Italian flat leaf parsley or cilantro. Pine nuts might lend a smooth, earthy body to the sauce, but so can those shelled pecans you’ve saved since last year’s harvest at Uncle Dave’s farm. Gardeners will have a field day with this one — sage, mint, or any of the mild-flavored herbs can be used alone or in combination.

In fact, once you make a few batches, the mix-and-match nature of this versatile classic can become like a game. You don’t have to look very far to see recipes that take obvious glee in substituting components as they push the limits of the word “pesto.” Even the venerated lifestyle magazine Gourmet printed a recipe for a quick pesto that substituted frozen peas for basil, while leaving the other tradtional components intact. (Clarence Birdseye would be SO proud.)

Of course, even the starry eyed Kaspar realizes that her visions of the Platonic pesto is subject to the limits of a practical kitchen. After waxing erotic about the window of basil’s perfection, she returns, tongue in cheek, to a more earthbound perspective:

“In the real world, the pesto… could come from a jar, or, heaven forbid, from over-the-hill basil.”

Tools and Tips

All about process: Few home cooks keep a marble hand-grinder on their countertops, so the modern-day preference seem to be the omnipresent food processor. A few quick pulses can turn herbs, garlic and oil to a fine paste. You can add chopped nuts to the machine or wait until after the herbs and oil are thoroughly combined. Too much time in the processor will turn the nuts to a buttery consistency and eliminate the toothy crunch that nuts provide.

Quick Dunk: If the bite of raw garlic is too much for your tastebuds, pierce a few cloves kebab-style on a bamboo skewer and dunk them in the boiling pasta water for a minute or so. The quick blanching will take some of the edge off the garlic and make for a more balanced, aromatic final product.

Mash note: Though the food processor is an amazingly efficient tool for the pestofication process, it does lack one advantage of the mortar and pestle — the release of flavorful oils that can only come from using blunt force. One way around this is to put your herbs in a zip-top bag and bruise the leaves with any heavy instrument (a hammer-style meat tenderizer or a dowel-style rolling pin works nicely). When the color of the leaves darkens a bit, transfer the leaves to the bowl of your processor and proceed.

Bulk up and freeze: Once I get started in the pesto process, it makes sense to make WAY too much for one sitting and freeze the rest in ice-cube trays for last-minute suppers. Once frozen, each standard-size cube will sauce a pound of pasta just about perfectly.

Basic “Mix and Match” Pesto

  • 1/3 cup toasted but unsalted nuts (choose one or mix: pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, almonds), chopped coarse
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped coarse
  • 2 cups fresh herbs (choose one or mix: basil, flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, or other mild savory herb of your choice), destemmed and tightly packed
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • ¼ cup finely grated hard cheese (choose one or mix: Parmesean Reggiano, pecorino Romano)

Place all ingredients except the cheese in bowl of food processor with steel blade attachment. Pulse the  processor until the mixture becomes a smooth paste, adding a little extra oil if needed. Stop occasionally and scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally using spoon or plastic spatula. Empty mixture into small mixing bowl, fold in grated cheese until well integrated. (Can be refrigerated for 3-4 days if surface is covered with plastic wrap.)

Makes enough to thoroughly sauce 2 pounds of freshly-cooked pasta.

Pasta with Chopping-Board Pistachio PestoAdapted from The Splendid Table’s How To Eat Supper (

This variation of a simple pesto substitutes pistachios for pine nuts and a kitchen cutting board for traditional mortar and pestle. One knife, one pot — and Kaspar brings you a variation on a rustic home sauce from Umbria.

pesto

  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper, or to taste
  • 2 large garlic cloves
  • 1 tight-packed cup coarse chopped shives or scallion tips
  • 4 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, tight-packed
  • 1/3 cup shelled salted pistachios or almonds
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • pasta and finish
  • 1 pound spaghetti (or substitute linguine)
  • 1 tablespoon exra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fine-shopped red onion
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated asiago cheese

Boil water for pasta. Prepare according to package directions. Before draining, reserve 1 cup pasta water. Drain pasta and set aside.

To make the pesto pile the salt and peper on a chopping board. Crush the garlic into it with the size of a large knife and fine chop. Add the chives, basil and onion and continue chopping unti l the pieces are cut very fine. Add the nuts to the pile and continue cutting until they are coarse chopped. Directly on th e board, blend in the oil. Taste for salt and pepper.

Film the empty pasta pot with one tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Saute the fine-chopped onion in it for 1 minute. Stir in the pesto. Warm it for only a few seconds to let the flavors blossom — do not cook it. Stir in about 1/3 of the reserved pasta water to stretch the sauce. Immediately pul the pot off the heat.

Add the drained pasta to the pot and tos with the pesto and cheese, adding more pasta water if the mixture seems too dry. Taste again for seasoning and serve.