means "little ears" in Italian, and the pasta does look a little
ear-shaped -- a shape which allows sauce and cheese to cling and
collect in the hollows of the pasta. (Props to Marco Polo for bringing
pasta back from his travels in the far East: a world without orechiette
would be a sad world indeed.) You don't have to make your own pesto,
but hey -- all you have to do to make it is throw stuff in a blender or
food processor, so why not give it a whirl?
250 gram package of dried orechiette pasta
4 tablespoons pesto (store-bought is fine, or you can use the recipe below)
4 medium-sized heirloom tomatoes
1 ball fresh mozarella
approximately 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Toasting pine nuts is easy -- just put them in a dry skillet and toast over medium heat, tossing or stirring regularly, until they begin to smell really nutty and are starting to turn golden brown in spots. You can do this as much as a couple of days ahead of time, but because of their high fat content pine nuts turn rancid quite quickly and are susceptible to picking up unpleasant flavors from the refrigerator, so store them in an airtight container in a cool dry place, and use them up quickly.
Fill a large stockpot with cold water, add a handful of salt (your pasta water should be seawater-salty in order to enhance the flavor of the pasta), cover, and bring to a boil. (If you're using as much water as you should be -- a lot -- you will have time to make the pesto while it boils.) When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta. The packaged orechiette I've seen takes at least 10-12 minutes to cook, so use this time to chop your other ingredients. Set your timer for a couple of minutes less than the minimum suggested cooking time on the package so you can test for doneness once it starts getting close.
While the pasta is cooking, chop your tomatoes and mozarella into bite-size chunks, and set aside. When you get close to the minimum recommended cooking time on your pasta, start tasting it at one minute intervals until it tastes done -- it should be just cooked all the way through, but still have a pleasant chew. Drain the pasta, and toss into your serving bowl. Add your pesto -- I use about 4 tablespoons, but how much you'll need will depend on your pesto and your taste buds, so start with a small amount and then add more as needed. Stir in your mozarella and tomatoes, then spoon into serving bowls. Top with toasted pine nuts and grated parmesan. I've also made this with about 1/3 cup black olives mixed in, but if you add olives, skip the pine nuts. Another variation which is both beautiful and tasty is to skip the pesto and instead add a handful of basil chiffonade (a fancy way of saying basil cut into little ribbons) and drizzle everything with really good olive oil.
1 1/2 bunches basil
2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 cup grated parmesan
This is a very flexible recipe. You can pretty much vary the ratio of the ingredients as you like, and feel free to substitute toasted walnuts or pistachios for the pine nuts -- or do a mix of nuts, if you like. I've had good results with all of those. Just be sure to toast the nuts, to develop their flavor. The cheese doesn't have to be parmesan -- a hard asiago or romano would work just as well, and you could of course experiment with other hard salty cheeses. Garlic is a matter of personal preference, so use however much you like, and the lemon juice is just something I happen to like because it adds a nice freshness and it seems to keep the basil in the pesto from oxidizing and turning a yucky color. You do this how you like it.
In a food processor or blender, whiz up the garlic until it's in little pieces, then add the grated parmesan (a food processor can grate the cheese for you, of course), the toasted nuts, and the basil. Whiz the ingredients together and start drizzling in the olive oil. Add as much as you need to get the texture you like. Some people like their pesto with a pastey texture and some like it looser, so I'm not going to tell you how much olive oil to add. When it looks good, add lemon, salt, and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Keep in mind that lemon juice can create a "salty" taste on the tongue, so add them one at a time and taste between additions. The parmesan is salty, anyway, so sometimes you don't need much salt.
Pesto isn't just for pasta -- it's really easy to make a delicious cream cheese spread by combining pesto and cream cheese. Usually a tablespoon or two is all I need for one of those little tubs of cream cheese. For a really delicious sandwich spread, combine a tablespoon or two of pesto with a half-cup or so of mayonnaise. I actually sometimes spread a thin (ish) layer of the pesto mayonnaise on toast or hot fresh bread, something I first tried when I worked at an artisan bakery in my hometown. Hmm, that gives me an idea -- don't you think a few tablespoons of pesto, and maybe a bit of salami crisped up in a pan, would be good mixed into bread dough? I may have to do some experimenting.