|Heating and gently sauteing the pesto in olive oil.|
|Raw Pesto Mexicana|
|Pesto Mexicana after adding the hot pasta water|
Cinco de Mayo Italian style! Gnocchi with a nice tasting Mexican flavored pesto that is made with traditional Italian techniques!
Well, the first Italian pesto in this food blog turned out to be a creative Mexican cilantro flavored one! I learned how to make pesto from two great Italian chefs at one restaurant that I apprenticed in. One chef was from Modena and the other chef was from Sicily. Both chefs knew Genovese cooking like the back of their hands. The technique of making pesto is the secret to creating a great pesto!
I have seen some really poor quality pestos that were made by television chefs, French chefs and American chefs. A poor quality pesto looks like a chopped loose worthless puree rather than a paste. Pesto means paste and nothing else! Really awful pesto sauces that are made at corporate chain restaurants look like chopped herbs in a cream sauce. Pesto is never served as a cream sauce in Italy!
I have been hired at many restaurants as a sous chef, saucier or saute chef, and quit those same restaurants after only a few hours on the job, because the head chef's food was of very poor quality. When a chef says add cream to an Italian pesto, I start looking for another job. I did not apprentice in Italian restaurant kitchens for 14 hours a day for 3 years to learn authentic Italian cuisine for no reason at all. I like authentic Italian cuisine and I have no taste for bastardized watered down look alike amateur Italian cuisine that is cooked by chefs that have their head up their nose hole!
One thing that I learned in Italian kitchens is that Italians do like to try new flavors of cuisines of other nationalities, if the food was made with the authentic traditional methods of that nationality. Italians also enjoy new good tasting creations that are made with traditional Italian techniques.
I walked into the Italian kitchen that I apprenticed in one day and I saw something that puzzled me. The great Sicilian chef was making a pesto with cilantro, pine nuts and aged Spanish hard cheese. The chef noticed me watching him with a dumbstruck look on my face. The Sicilian said "Don't tell anyone that you saw me doing this! Okay! I just wanted to create a different flavor for my lunch!" I just responded by saying "No problem!" I did ask about the flavor that he was trying to create. The Italian chef told me that he recently became fond of the flavor of cilantro and he wanted to try to make a Spanish flavored pesto using Italian techniques.
After the chef finished his lunch in the dining room, I watched as he came back into the kitchen. The chef had a look on his face, like the Spanish pesto needed a little bit more work to be perfected. I didn't have to ask. The chef looked at me and said "The Spanish pesto was a good idea, but it needs something. The pesto just seems to lack a flavor that would pull it together." I saw the chef make the pesto, so I noticed the ingredients that he used. I said to the Sicilian chef "Try a green jalapeno pepper in the mix and see what happens." To my surprise, the chef from Sicily said "Thats it!"
We never ran that Spanish cilantro based pesto as a special at that Italian restaurant, but I never forgot that day. That was the day that the two Italian chefs started calling me "Good Cookie" every time that I did something good. That was nice!
Italian chefs can spend hours discussing a recipe in detail or a plate of food that they like. The two Italian chefs at that restaurant spent hours talking about the possibilities of me becoming a successful chef, just because I made one good suggestion for a recipe that was being created and because I worked very hard in their kitchen. I had no way of thanking them enough for teaching me great Italian cooking techniques!
So, eons later, today I finally remembered that afternoon in that great Italian kitchen. With the memories of those long days of Italian apprenticeship and my promise to never tell anyone about how the great Sicilian chef was secretly making a cilantro pesto for himself, I finally am breaking my vow of silence. Breaking a vow of silence is very serious to Sicilians, as you know. Very serious! I could end up being turned into Italian sausage or be fitted for cement shoes.
As a token of appreciation, I decided to make a Mexican style cilantro pesto for Cinco de Mayo, with the Italian pesto techniques that I learned from the chefs at that fine Italian restaurant. You really gotta promise me one thing! Promise that you will never tell anyone that you saw me making cilantro pesto Mexicana, so I do not lose face in the Italian chef community! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Pesto Mexicana Recipe:
This recipe makes enough pesto for 2 medium size portions or one large portion!
Note: It is best to make the pesto first and then refrigerate the pesto for 1 hour, so the flavors meld. The pesto sauce should be started at the same time that the gnocchi are dropped into the boiling water. The pesto sauce only takes a couple of minutes to make. The pesto is turned into a sauce by using a good traditional simple Italian technique. This is how it is done in Genoa Italy. Keep in mind, Italian cooking is perfection cooking. Do not be tempted to add more items to the sauce, such as cream, like amateur second rate cooks do!
Genovese pestos do not only contain herbs or basil. A leafy green vegetable is added to buffer the very strong flavors of the pesto. If a pesto bites back when you taste it, then the chef did not know to add a leafy vegetable or the chef prefers a sharp strong flavor. Even the most seasoned Italian diner will back down from a pesto that is unpleasantly strong.
Pine nuts are part of Pesto Genovese. For this Pesto Mexicana, sesame paste (tahini) and pepitas take the place of pine nuts. Pepitas are toasted hulled calabaza seeds. Mexican mole pastes are usually made with sesame seed and calabaza seed, so the choice of using those two seeds in place of pine nuts gives this cilantro pesto an authentic Mexican flavor!
A large heavy mortar and pestle or a food processor is needed to make this pesto. If you use a food processor to make a large batch of pesto, then allow the ingredients to sit and cool occasionally. Food processors will build up heat in the ingredients from the friction of the blade!
Place 1 large handful of cilantro leaves into a large mortar and pestle or food processor.
Pull the leaf off of the stem and veins 2 to 3 small Swiss Chard leaves. 1 medium size handful of deveined Swiss Chard leaves are needed.
Add the deveined Swiss Chard leaves.
Add 1 tablespoon of minced seeded green jalapeno pepper.
Add 2 pinches of epazote.
Add 1 pinch of Mexican oregano.
Add sea salt and black pepper.
Add 2 pinches of herba buena. (Mint)
Add 7 cloves of garlic.
Add 2 tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese.
Add 3 tablespoons of tahini. (Sesame paste)
Add 1 tiny handful of pepitas. (Toasted hulled calabaza seeds.)
Add 1 teaspoon of lime juice.
Add 1 tablespoon of virgin olive oil.
Puree or mash the mixture, till a smooth paste is formed. The paste should look like a thick heavy smooth puree that can easily stand up in a spoon. (Refer to the pictures above!)
Refrigerate the pesto while making the gnocchi, so the flavors meld.
This recipe makes 2 full portions of gnocchi!
Gently boil 2 peeled russet potatoes in water over medium heat, till they become starchy and very soft.
Cool the potatoes under cool running water.
Drain the water off of the potatoes.
Thoroughly mash the potatoes in a mixing bowl.
You should have about 2 cups of potato in the mixing bowl.
Add 1 cup of flour.
Add a few pinches of sea salt.
Add 1 pinch of nutmeg.
Add 1 whisked egg.
Mix the gnocchi dough with your fingers, till a light sticky potato pasta dough is formed.
Add a tiny amount of flour at a time, while mixing, till the dough easily pulls away from the bowl and from your fingers.
Place the dough on a lightly floured counter top.
Cut the dough into 3 sections.
Roll each of the gnocchi dough sections with your hands, so the dough sections turn into a long thin ropes.
The dough ropes should be 3/8" to 1/2" thick.
Cut the dough ropes into one inch long segments and place the gnocchi on a floured plate.
Fill a pot with water.
Gently boil the water over medium high heat.
Note: Now is the time to start the pesto sauce!
Use a fork to roll tiny groove indentations into each piece of gnocchi and immediately place each finished gnocchi into the gently boiling water.
Note: You have to work quickly, when using this technique. Hold the gnocchi plate in the air by the pot of boiling water. Indent the gnocchi one at a time and place them in the water after indenting. You can do this all in one motion, by using the fork to flick the each finished gnocchi into the water after the gnocchi is indented. When done very quickly, this technique looks very impressive in an open kitchen! If you want to take your time, then indent all the gnocchi and place them in the pot all at one time.
When the gnocchi float in the gently boiling water, then they are finished cooking.
Gnocchi al Pesto Mexicana:
This recipe makes 1 portion. Double the ingredients if you intend to add all of the gnocchi from the recipe above!
Heat a saute pan over medium low heat.
Add 2 1/2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil.
Add about 3 1/2 to 4 ounces of the Pesto Mexicana per portion of gnocchi. (Picture above!)
Gently heat and saute the pesto, so it becomes aromatic and partially cooked. Do not allow the pesto to brown at all!
Add 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of the boiling pasta water from the gnocchi pot.
Stir the ingredients together, till a medium consistency pesto sauce is formed. (Picture above!)
Use a fryer net to gather the boiling gnocchi from the pot and place them directly into the sauce.
Toss the gnocchi and sauce together.
Place the Gnocchi al Pesto Mexicana on a plate.
Sprinkle a tiny amount of finely grated parmesan cheese over the pasta.
Garnish with a cilantro sprig.
The pesto sauce making technique and the sauce finishing technique is so simple, that many chefs cannot fathom the idea. As you can see, the sauce turns opaque and creamy. This is because a small amount of parmesan cheese is in the pesto. Ingeniously Italian!
The flavor of this Gnocchi al Pesto Mexicana entree is hard to describe. It tastes fantastic!
Feliz Cinco de Mayo and Ciao Baby! ... Shawna