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May, 2008

Linguine with Arugula Pesto
Linguine with Arugula Pesto
Linguine with pesto is an iconoclastic Italian dish that comes from the Lugria region of Italy. Traditionally, this labor-intensive sauce was made by hand -- a mixture of young basil leaves was pounded with salt, garlic, pine nuts and aged cheese in a large marble mortar and pestle. . Dressing pasta with a pesto that’s pounded (or chopped) by hand produces small flecks of basil that separate from the olive oil. The upside to using this ancient culinary technique is that it creates a definition of ingredients. The downside is that requires the right equipment and a lot of time to get it right - about 30 minutes

In America (and even in Italy), pesto recipes now call for the herbs, pine nuts, garlic, cheese and oil to be pureed together in a food processor or blender on a high speed, which produces an emulsion. Although you sacrifice texture, this modern technique makes pesto available to anyone who does not have the skill set, equipment, or time to make it by hand.

The secret to making this machine-driven technique work is to grind the ingredients separately on a low speed, which controls the texture. First, roughly chop the herbs, salt and garlic. Then add the pine nuts and roughly chop. Fold in the grated cheese. With the machine running on low, steam in the extra virgin olive oil. Layering the ingredients in this order, rather than placing all the ingredients in the blender at once, creates a dish that closely resembles the original.
Arugula
In this rendition, the slightly peppery bite of the arugula is tempered by adding a touch of sweet baby spinach to the mix. In Italy, the cheese of choice varies by region (and household), but it’s often a 50/50 mixture of Parmiagano and Pecorino Romano. After testing this dish with a variety of aged Italian cheeses – Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano, Fiore Sardo-- I found the salty, earthy and nutty flavor of the sheep’s milk Romano mellowed with a few tablespoons of the sweeter-tasting Parmiagano was the best flavor complement for this bold, piquant herb. It’s also crucial to toast the pine nuts, which brings a subtle, sweet underpinning to the dish. And, as with all dishes that rely on only a few ingredients, using the best quality extra virgin olive oil in this recipe is a must.

But this dish brings more to the table than just great taste. Arugula has significant health benefits: it is rich in vitamins A and C and is an excellent source of folic acid, calcium, manganese and magnesium. This peppery herb also contains potent phytochemicals, such as carotenes and chlorophyll, making it an excellent source of antioxidants.

Linguine with Arugula Pesto
Serves: 2 as a main dish; 4 as a side dish

Pesto ¾ cup arugula, packed, (about 1 oz.)
¼ cup baby spinach
1 large clove garlic, smashed and finely minced (about 1 teaspoon)
¼ cup finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese plus 2 Tbsp. of finely grated Parmesan cheese (It must be freshly grated)
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. Kosher salt
6 ounces dry linguine
2 Tbsp. warm pasta cooking water

Preparation:
Place the arugula, spinach, garlic and salt in a blender and pulse on low until roughly chopped. Add the pine nuts and roughly chop. Scrape down the sides of the blender and spoon up paste that settles on the bottom of the blender; add cheese. Purée on low to get an evenly chopped mixture. With the machine running on low, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream until it is incorporated into the mixture and resembles a paste. Remove pesto into a bowl and mix in cheese. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

Heat a large pot of salted water to a boil and add pasta. Cook until al dente. Remove ½ cup of cooking water and drain pasta. Add pasta back to warm pot and top with pesto and 3 tablespoons of the hot pasta cooking water. Toss pasta with pesto and water with tongs until coated. Serve immediately.

Notes from the Author:
Pesto is also great on boiled potatoes, or can be used as a flavor topping for soups or even whisked into scrambled eggs.