June 17, 2011

Making it Up

It started with this.  A big bunch of wild and tangled greens tucked into a crate and set amid the sea of citrus at one of my favorite market vendors.  Agretti the sign read, "little sour one".

I love greens.  I've probably mentioned that three or four or one hundred times.  But this wild child, I'd never heard of it.  Turns out, it's something of a rarity.  Agretti grows alongside salt marshes or in salty soil and has a relatively short harvest season.  The salt in the ground imparts a salty/sour/acidic quality to the fresh green leaves, tasting reminiscent of sour grass.  It behaves similar to spinach when cooked and lends itself to many of the same preparations.  The man I bought it from, Bob Polito, who mostly grows it as a pet project recommended sauteing the tender leaves in olive oil, minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon and using that as a bed for fish.  The lemon, he said, was imperative.  I do not argue with the experts.

I walked over to the fish monger, who then sampled the green, agreed on the preparation and picked  out a beautiful fillet for me.  Dinner was decided.  I sauteed the agretti for maybe 4 minutes, just enough to get it pliable and wilty but still retain some crunch.  Indeed the lemon was imperative and I gave an extra squeeze over the top of the pan roasted fillet just for good measure. But I only made one fillet for the both of us and had barely used 1/3 of the bunch.  So, onward with the experiment.

Normally, Tastespotting  and FoodGawker are my go to resources to figure out a recipe or get recipe ideas - I like the visuals - but even Google was letting me down in the inventive idea department.  I'd already gone the sautee route and I wasn't in the mood to make a mock seaweed salad using agretti  in its place (though now that it's all gone, I could really get on board with that), so instead I made pesto.  I even broke out the big guns and purchased pine nuts for the occasion.  I remember now why I always use walnuts or hazelnuts in my pesto, pine nuts are an unholy level of expensive.  Oh how I suffer for my craft!

When I made the pesto I blanched the agretti for a few minutes before processing everything to mellow out it's acidity.  The result was light, vaguely tart and a nice change from your typical herbaceous basil variety.  I always toss in some red pepper flakes and use less olive oil than most recipes, preferring to add a drizzle once the pesto and pasta have been tossed together.  Also, I happened to have some Romano in the fridge instead of Parmesan and used that.  A little saltier, a little more pungent, it did the trick nicely.

For dinner another night, I tossed some pillows of ricotta gnocchi with a spoon full or two of the pesto.  It was light, bright and everything I could ask for in a late springtime meal.  I guess what I've been getting at the whole time is that: next time you see something new-to-you, grab it, take it home and start experimenting.  It's surprising how quickly you can turn something once unfamiliar into a new favorite.

Agretti Pesto

I don't know - I feel silly for giving you a recipe for pesto.  It's such an intuitive thing to make, tweaking to your own tastes.  All I'm really aiming for here is to 1) inspire you to experiment in your pesto making forays and 2) if you even see agretti, grab a bunch!

Makes about 1 cup

2 cups lightly packed tender agretti leaves
2 cloves or garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
salt & pepper

Set a small sauce pan of water to boil on the stove.  Strip the tender leaves from the thicker stem of the agretti, the way you might take rosemary off it's stem.  Hold onto the top of the spring and pull your fingers downward.  Blanch the agretti in the boiling water for 3 minutes and then strain and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking.

In a pan over medium heat, toast the pine nuts until they are golden in color and fragrant.

Add agretti, garlic, pine nuts, red pepper flakes and water to the bowl of a food processor and pulse to make a rough paste.  Leaving the motor on, stream the olive oil in until the paste thins and becomes smoother.  You may need a bit more than called for, but I like to add just enough to get it to a somewhat loose paste rather than something too saucy.  A little reserved pasta water in the mix with the pesto and pasta keeps things evenly coated but not too watered down.

Add the cheese, and salt and pepper to taste and pulse the food processor a few time to get everything incorporated.  Serve tossed with pasta, as a spread on sandwiches or on pizza. 

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