Monday, February 16, 2009

Pesto Presto

If you've ever seen the movie Houseboat you've heard Sophia Loren look beautiful while singing:

Presto presto
Do your very besto
Don't hang back like a shy little kid
You'll be so glad that you did what you did
When you do it with a bing bang bong
A bing bang bong

And that's what runs through my head as I make this recipe, adapted from Marcella Hazan's. Fifteen years ago at an estate sale I found a pristine used copy of The Classic Italian Cook Book and I've cooked with it ever since. Before this recipe I never realized pesto was so simple and so delicious; all you need is a blender, and excellent ingredients: salt, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts, basil, butter and parmesan cheese.

First, in your handy dandy blender, add two cups basil leaves, one teaspoon salt, two peeled cloves garlic, one third cup olive oil and two tablespoons pine nuts. Blend. Remove from the blender. Now by hand mix in one half cup of Parmesan cheese, and two tablepoons softened butter. And presto, pesto.

Use it to sauce your gnocchi or pasta, as a sandwich spread in place of mayonnaise, or even better, as a dollop of flavoring in minestrone.

Which brings us to another recipe of Marcella's. For a long time I thought vegetable soup was what restaurants called their leftovers. When I'd order a cup and it would be filled with soggy bits: spongy green beans, sad carrots, bewildered kernels of corn. Desperate one day when my crisper was turning into my soggier, I had to find a way to rescue my overload of vegetables.

The true secret of this vegetable soup is that first you start with the sauteed onions, then as you add the vegetables you let each one saute a few minutes before adding the next. The result is terrific, each vegetable distinct and distinctly edible.

Coat the base of your soup pot with olive oil. Add a cup of sliced onions. Saute until soft. Add a cup of diced carrots. Coat with the oil, and stirring occasionally, let that cook for two to three minutes. Add a cup of diced celery, and cook as the carrots. Follow with a cup zucchini, then potatoes, then string beans, all diced, and cook just like the carrots. Marcella recommends three cups of Savoy cabbage, but I can never find it when I want it, and since I can't stand the old carpet smell of boiled cabbage I instead add three cups sliced Napa cabbage. You want to coat that then cook that for six minutes. Now add a cup of fresh or canned diced tomatoes and six cups broth. I usually use water flavored with instant Knorr beef boullion. Now let it simmer, covered, on very low, for three hours. Ten minutes of simmering left, add a can of cannelini beans or a cup of frozen peas. To bring it as close to heaven as vegetable soup can get, add a dollop of the pesto mentioned above.

Beware: This soup is for a lazy day when you don't mind at all something bubbling away on the stove for three hours. Perfect for a very cold afternoon.


  1. Will you kill me if I use walnuts in my besto pesto?

  2. I'm a restless chef, not a rigid one!
    You know, anybody who tweaks a recipe is an artist, as far as I'm concerned. I'm the literal one, and each time I deviate I think I've done something equally daring and devious--such a goof.

  3. So, is your vegetarinan soup the best you've ever tasted?

  4. Best is a big word! Some day I'll post a pasta and bean soup which I think is about as good as it gets!

  5. I was just perusing my Bon Appetit mags tonight and saw a recipe for veggie soup. Of course, I had to peek to see if they sauteed the veggies first, and they did. I've never tried that tecnique, but it sounds delish.

    The Huntington used to have an annual Pesto Festo with a prize for the best pesto recipe. Cooks got really creative.