When a kitchen trick makes something both better-tasting and easier to cook, you have to wonder which came first. (Or don’t wonder, and just send your fork a-twirl in a mess of pesto-speckled noodles, which is what you came to do.)
On first glance, this recipe could have been any other pesto pasta recipe on the internet (there are—oh—3.1 million of them), but, for a few reasons, this one caught my eye. For one thing, I implicitly trust what now has to be my favorite Food52 Hotline thread of all time (1), in which readers shared the best thing they’d cooked all year (2). I also admire the recipe’s maker, Nancy Harmon Jenkins—the olive oil expert and cookbook author who we have to thank for popularizing the very notion of the Mediterranean diet (3).
And then I noticed that, unlike in some versions of this classic pesto pasta from Liguria, the recipe Jenkins published in The New York Times in 1997 (4) calls for adding all your vegetables to cook with the pasta in a well-timed swim. In go the potato slices first, then the green beans, and then the pasta. After bubbling together, they’re hauled out to mingle with pesto and then, in short order, your mouth.
When I asked Jenkins about this technique, she told me that home cooks in Italy layer vegetables straight into the pasta pot often, famously with tenerumi (the young leaves of a squash that grows in Sicily), and almost always with broccoli rabe.
Not only is this method much faster and more mentally streamlined than the rigor of fishing out each vegetable the moment it’s cooked just right, but the pasta absorbs some of the flavor in the vegetables, too. “It’s one of those Italian techniques that gets missed out,” Jenkins told me, “like making a sauce and finishing cooking the pasta in [it],” so that the noodles and seasoning become one.
“You’re not going to do it with something like eggplant,” Jenkins then said. “Because I think boiled eggplant is one of the worst foods in the world. But any kind of green!”
Knowing that Jenkins has very high standards, I was curious about the potential inexactness of the method. What if the only green beans you could find were quite fat and squeaky (or matchstick-thin)? The potatoes starchier, the pasta a thick linguine instead of the traditional trenette?
“For the potatoes, it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re done—it’s okay if they break up a little. The green beans,” she admitted, “you don’t want to be soggy.” But even that depends on personal taste.
Then she told me a story about Benedetto Cavalieri, founder of the eponymous pasta brand. As Jenkins related, when told that the wagon wheel pasta his company invented in the 1930s cooked unevenly, Cavalieri responded, “But of course that’s the whole point of it—so you end up with different textures on the plate.” Some perfectly al dente, some even more stiff to the bite, some downright soft (5).
This stuck with me. I’ve cast the same judgment on poor wagon wheels before—no more. There is a similar beauty to the green beans being softer and sweeter one week, firmer the next; the potatoes jumbling to bits in the sauce sometimes, or staying resilient coins another. In essence, Jenkins was telling me, “Relax.”
• 2 cups packed tender young basil leaves
• ¼ cup pine nuts
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with flat blade of a knife
• ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste
• Salt to taste
• ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, or more to taste
• ½ pound small potatoes, peeled and sliced about
• 1/4-inch thick
• ¼ pound tender young green beans, cut into 1 inch lengths
• 1 pound trenette, or other long, thin pasta
(1) After this one, of course.
(3) On top of that, her most recent book with her daughter Sara is all about seasonal pasta.
(4) Incidentally, this was the week the Living section (before there was a Food section) was first published in color.
(5) She did implore that we try making the pesto the old-fashioned way just once with a rough-surfaced mortar and pestle, to experience the silky texture that’s hard to describe. But pesto in the food processor is just fine for dinner tonight.
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