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Northern Italian Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans
The beginning of a love affair
A warm mid-October breeze filled with the scent of rosemary and salt air; the sound of waves gently lapping against the breakwater; the sun, a ball of flame, sinking into the Ligurian Sea. These were our introduction to Vernaza and how we will always remember her.
Italy and the Cinque Terra
In the Autumn of 2006 my husband, daughters, and I travelled to Europe. We spent a day in Venice and several days in Maniago and Aquillia. A short drive north took us through Austria and then to Slovenia where we visited my cousins. But most of our stay was in Italy.
The weather was ideal. Although our trip spanned mid-September to mid-October there was only one brief hour of rain. The days were warm, but not hot, and evenings were a balmy, shirt-sleeve temperature. Absolutely perfect.
Of all the places we visited, my fondest memories are of the Cinque Terre.
The Cinque Terre (5 Lands) is five small coastal villages on the west coast of Italy. Monterosso, the northernmost town is the only one that feels "touristy". If you love the Riviera (beach, boardwalk, luxury hotels) this is the place for you. Then there is Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, and Vernazza. These four still hold their old-world charm with narrow crooked streets, bell towers, castellos, fishing boats--and a footpath links all five of them together. My favorite of the five, and the place at which we stayed, was Vernazza.
Vernazza is described in guidebooks as "a quaint little fishing village", but it is so much more than that. Colorful homes cling to the cliffs. A lovely harbor nestles under the shadows of an ancient castle. The hills are dotted with ancient olive trees and wine-producing grape vines which are still tended by hand on steeply terraced slopes. Most of all, Vernaza is about putting aside the frantic pace, inhaling deeply, and taking life at a slower pace.
Our introduction to Vernazza
We stepped off the train at Vernazza in mid-afternoon...and stepped into another world. There are no cars in Vernazza. No traffic. No horns blaring. Just the pleasant sound of people laughing and talking, merchants bargaining with townsfolk and tourists. A gentle sloping cobblestone road leads through the center of town past storefronts and apartments. Within 10 minutes we arrived at Trattoria Gianni.
Whitewashed steps led to the room we had rented for the weekend. We hastily unpacked, and then descended the steps to the plaza. One hundred feet away was the sand, the breakwater, and a view of the sea, which becomes the ocean, and becomes forever.
As evening approached we sat at a table in the courtyard of Trattoria Gianni. Our meal began with a mixed seafood salad, a basket of crusty bread, and a bottle of Gianni's family wine. We asked our server for his recommendation for the evening meal; he said "You must try the trofie."
It was love at first bite. Trofie is a free-form pasta (no machine required) most often cooked with thinly-sliced new potatoes and slender fresh green beans, all tossed with homemade basil pesto.
The people of Vernazza brag that pesto was invented in their town. I don't know if that is true, but Gianni's pesto was so wonderful I am willing to spread the rumor.
When we returned home I did my best to replicate that amazing meal. What follows is my attempt.
One word of caution--this is not a meal you can whip up in 30 minutes or less. Making this pasta takes time. So save this one for a rainy afternoon. You could even enlist the kids to help.
How to prepare Pasta with Pesto, Potatoes, and Green Beans
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 cup cold water
- Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the water. Using a fork, start mixing the flour into the water keeping the wet mixture in the center of the well. When the mixture gets too thick for a fork, mix the dough with your hand until all the flour is incorporated and the dough looks cohesive.
- Clean your hands and press your thumb into the dough. It should feel tacky, but your thumb should come out clean without any dough stuck to it. If the dough is too sticky, add a bit more flour, knead for a minute and test again.
- Once the dough is the right consistency, it needs some serious kneading. Place it onto a clean work surface and knead for 8 minutes by folding and turning 90 degrees after each fold. Always turn the dough in the same direction. Do not short cut this step! You should end up with dough that is as smooth as a baby's bottom.
- Form the dough into a thick disk, sprinkle with flour, wrap in plastic and let it rest in the fridge for at least 1 hour or overnight.
Shape the Trofie
- Sprinkle a large cookie sheet with flour.
- Sprinkle a clean work surface with flour. Place the dough on floured work surface and keep it covered with plastic wrap except when using.
- Cut a 2/3-inch strip from the dough with a knife.Roll it on lightly floured surface with 2 hands into a 1/3-inch thick rope. Cut each rope into 1/4-inch wide pillows.
- Pick up one pillow with your right hand and place it at the heel of your left hand. Hold your left hand in place over the cookie sheet. Roll your right hand forward in a fast motion applying pressure. Your piece of pasta will turn into a little cylinder with tapered ends. Drop it onto the cookie sheet. Don't roll your hands back and forth or you'll untwist the pasta. Repeat with the remaining pillows of dough, dropping them all over the cookie sheet so that they touch as little as possible.
- Sprinkle the trofie with extra flour and gently toss them around to coat.
- Trofie can be shaped 1 hour before cooking and kept uncovered at room temperature.
Make the Amazing Meal
In addition to the trofie pasta you will need:
- new potatoes (Yukon golds are wonderful)--enough to make 2 cups sliced
- fresh green beans--again, enough to make 2 cups sliced. Look for green beans that are thin/young
- about 1 1/2 cups pesto (home made is best)
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil (at least 4 quarts). Season heavily with salt (pasta will be in the pot for less than a minute, so your water has to be salty enough to season it).
- When the water comes to a simmer drop in the potato slices and cook until almost tender--about 2 minutes. Lift out with a skimmer and set aside.
- Next, drop in the green beans. I remove the stem end and cut them in half--leaving the blossom end in tact. Cook about 2 minutes or until tender-crisp, and remove with a skimmer and set aside.
- Pour the pasta from cookie sheet into a colander and shake to remove the excess flour.
- When the water is at a rolling boil, pour the pasta into the pot, give it a stir and cover. After 30 seconds, start testing every 15 seconds until the pasta is desired tenderness. It should be supple with a little bite. This usually takes 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on the size of your pasta and how long it sat on the cookie sheet.
- Return the cooked potato slices and cooked green beans to the pot--wait 15 seconds, and then drain the pasta.
- Put pasta/potatoes/green beans back in the pot and mix with the pesto. Pour into a serving bowl and top with grated parmesan. Toss and serve.
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