Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Spring Ramp Pesto


Saturday was a "just us two" kinda' day, one we had been planning all week. Alex and I got up early and headed down to the St. Lawrence market for the morning, to eat and browse and shop. The St. Lawrence has always been one of my favourite parts of town, but there was something extra special about it this weekend. Maybe because we approached it from the north, along King Street, and it was a misty morning. The dome of the St. Lawrence Hall, verdigrised and scrollworked, loomed out at us through the fog as we approached. The streets were quiet, and we felt like the only two people in the city. St. Lawrence Hall, which separates the North Building of the market from King St., looks like something that belongs in an old French town, and it wasn't until we were walking home, our arms laden with bags of fresh fruits and vegetables, that we realized that the sidewalk that runs in front of it is lit with gas lamps. How quaint, and how lovely.

Braving the market on a Saturday morning requires sustenance--it's not a good idea to attempt to wade through hordes of shoppers intent on the freshest and cheapest rhubarb and asparagus on an empty stomach. Alex especially gets "hangry" (as he calls being hungry-angry) without breakfast (and I'm certainly not claiming to be all sweetness and light before I've had my coffee), so we hit up the George St. Diner for the Canadian as soon as it opened. I probably shouldn't be telling you about the George, but it's already not-secret enough that it doesn't much matter. Just don't steal my table. While a bit out of the way (at least for us West-of-Yonge people), the George is worth a visit if only for the buttered toasted challah smeared with homemade lemon marmalade. Lemon marmalade. Enough said. And no, I'm never telling you about where to get the best pierogies in the city. That really is a secret.

Our bellies full, our wits sharpened with caffeine, and our plan of attack set, Alexis and I marched on the North Building with conquest gleaming in our eyes. There were two trophies were were determined to come away with--local asparagus and ramps. Alex was drooling over the idea of pasta with ramp pesto, which he hadn't had in years, and which has as fleeting a season as the wild leeks themselves. There was enough asparagus to feed the city--piles of asparagus four feet high--but ramps were harder to come by. After a bit of searching, we came away victorious--although I'm regretting my decision not to buy rhubarb on the assumption that I would bake a pie and then eat the whole thing, and my missing out on the cutest lettuce planter, but rejoicing in my discovery of a mecca of couverture chocolate--and headed home to cook.

This ramp pesto pasta seemed like the perfect dinner to make on a day that  we shut out the rest of the world, like the buildings beyond the edge of the fog, leaving just us two. For one, it's easier to make in small quantities--enough for a couple of generous servings of pasta, and leftovers enough to make the amazing sandwiches I'll tell you about in a second. For another, this is a meal to eat with someone you love--someone who is also eating it, and someone who doesn't care that you smell like you just picked up an onion and bit into it like an apple. The pesto is sharp and pungent and sulphurous and absolutely delicious. The punchy bite of onion is tempered by the creaminess of cheese and the richness of walnuts, and everything is brightened up with a generous zesting of lemon. It sounds too strong, but it's not, and the colour is as punchy as the flavour--bright, bold, electric green.

The pesto recipe is below, and I would suggest doing two things with it, and in this order. When you first make it, put a big pot of water on to boil, pull out a package of fresh fettuccine, and slice about 8 spears of asparagus into two-inch pieces. When the water is boiling and salted, add enough pasta for two people and set the timer for a minute less than the full recommended cooking time. Throw in the asparagus for the last minute, and reserve a cup of pasta water before draining the pasta and asparagus and throwing it back in the pot. Add about 2/3 cup pesto and enough pasta water to loosen the sauce so that it coats everything evenly. Pile into bowls and slurp greedily. Extra cheese is always a good idea.

The next day, thinly slice some good bread--I used walnut sourdough--and put it in to toast. Heat up a griddle pan over high heat, and season a couple of not-huge portobello mushrooms before putting them in the pan and squishing them down with a spatula a bit. As they sizzle, thinly slice a pear and shave some Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. Flip the mushrooms and pull your leftover pesto out of the fridge, along with some greens. When the toast pops, spread it with a good dollop of pesto, and top it a handful of greens, and a few slices of pear. Slice the mushrooms on the diagonal like a steak, and drape over the pear. Top with cheese, and eat, rapturously. I was too greedy to wait and take photos, so you'll have to take my word that these open-faced sandwiches are as pretty as they are delicious.

Ramp Pesto

Ingredients:

1 bunch ramps (8-10), washed, trimmed, and cut into 4-inch pieces
8-10 basil leaves (optional)
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
1 oz Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano cheese
2 tbsp olive oil

1/2 tsp salt
zest and juice of one lemon

Instructions:

Add all ingredients to a food processor and process until well-combined, adding more water if necessary to achieve a thick but smooth consistency--think frosting.

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