Our celebration of Columbus Day took place at home rather than at the mall. No big-box stores or car dealerships. No “On Sale! 50% off!” for us. We paid tribute to the Genoese origins of that “big Italian fellow,” as Calvin Trillin has called him. For dinner last night we made Linguine al Pesto.
Cheap local ingredients—foraged pine-nuts, and what might have been one’s own cheese, olive oil and garden basil—gave the cooks of Genoa all they needed to make Pesto alla Genovese, the sauce for their signature dish, Linguine al Pesto con Patate e Fagiolini. Note the inclusion of boiled potatoes and string beans…
Potatoes were not there in Columbus’s time, and indeed, did not really make it into mainstream Italian cooking until the 19th century. When they did spread, from the Peruvian Andes to the botanical gardens of Mediterranean aristocrats and finally out into wider cultivation, they were looked upon more as a vegetable to serve with pasta than as a starch to replace it. But one might argue that without Columbus, the potatoes might never have been there at all, so the dish is a subtle nod to some fortuitous fusion—a once-exotic New World vegetable meeting up with Old World frugality.
As for the delicate young string beans? Hard to pin down dates for that; beans were found in both hemispheres long before the Age of Exploration. Regardless of how this particular dish evolved, the combination of those beans with new potatoes, basil pesto and pasta is sublime.
Myriad permutations are to be found—pumpkin seed pesto, arugula pesto, cilantro and citrus pesto… pesto soy burgers… But none surpass the Ligurian original. (By now, you may be wondering why we’re posting this pesto article here on Sarasota Soundings and not on our blog devoted to Italian-American food. The reason is that the recipe which follows is not Almost Italian, but really is Italian.)
Here in America the ingredients for the classic pesto are no longer cheap, but you’ll find that a little pesto goes a long way.
Linguine al Pesto con Patate e Fagiolini
Linguine with Pesto, Potatoes, and Young Green Beans
4 Medium thin-skinned potatoes (such as Red Bliss )
1/2 Lb. Fresh string beans (as small as possible)
1 Lb. Linguine
3 Cups large basil leaves, loosely packed
2 Cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 Cup pignoli (pine nuts), plus 3 Tbs. for the final garnish
1/2 Cup freshly grated Parmigiano
3/4 – 1 Cup extra virgin olive oil
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the potatoes and green beans, and cook until all are tender. Note: the beans will be done in only a few minutes, so remove them with tongs or a slotted spoon when they are done to your taste. Refresh beans under cold water (so they will retain their vivid green hue) and set them aside. When the potatoes can be easily pierced with a sharp knife, remove them and reserve.
If needed, add more water to the pot and bring it back to the boil. Add the linguine to the pot, stirring until the strands are submerged. Cook until it reaches the al dente state.
Meanwhile, place all the pesto ingredients, except the olive oil, in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse ten times for approximately one second each pulse, until the ingredients are finely minced. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl, then—with the machine running steadily—add the olive oil in a slow stream, pausing to scrape down the sides of the bowl if necessary.
Continue adding olive oil until the mixture develops the consistency of a thick sauce.
When the linguine is cooked, remove the pot from the burner and drain pasta in a colander.
Cut the potatoes into wedges. Add them along with the green beans, and approximately two tablespoons of the pesto, to a large bowl. Toss to coat the potatoes and beans. Add the pasta and the remainder of the pesto. Toss again to combine all. Using tongs, or two large forks, divide the mixture equally among four plates.
Garnish each serving with a sprinkling of the reserved pignoli.