Smoked blue pasta with broccoli and walnuts

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Every time I talk to my sister, we spend at least half the conversation on food. “What are you having for lunch today?” “What did you put in your fried rice?” “What should I get on my pizza?” “Why am I always hungry?”

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Not only are we just 14 months apart in age, we also have incredibly similar palates and food philosophies.

Here’s a little taste:

    We both require starch at every meal to feel satisfied. (Read: salad with no bread is not a meal.)
    We feel compelled to eat a fresh fruit or vegetable at every meal. (Well done, Mom.)
    We eat omelets for dinner at least once a week.
    We can’t eat smoked salmon when we’re hungover…but we can always eat oysters.
    We will almost always take savory over sweet (especially if that savory item is pickled, cured or made of cheese).

That said, this pasta dish is dedicated to Mad. It satisfies several of our requirements for a perfect dish, per the descriptions above. Plus, no one–and I mean no one–loves blue cheese as much as my sister.

Smoked blue pasta is very simple to make. The key is to give each ingredient a little extra love to get the most out of it: roasting the broccoli florets till just singed; toasting the walnuts; and most importantly, tossing in a few ounces of blue gold, aka smoked blue cheese. If you haven’t tried it, it is heavenly stuff–albeit pretty expensive. Luckily, you don’t need much to reap its funky, smoky benefits. The moment the cheese hits the hot pasta, it starts to melt and mingle with the starchy pasta water to create a lovely, thick sauce.

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Smoked blue pasta with broccoli and walnuts
serves 3

Ingredients

    1 bunch broccoli (about 1 1/2 pounds)
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    Red pepper flakes
    Kosher salt
    Freshly ground black pepper
    1 pound spaghetti or bucatini
    2 ounces walnuts, chopped
    1 large shallot, diced
    Zest of 1/2 lemon
    5 ounces smoked blue cheese, crumbled into small pieces

Method: Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut the broccoli into bite-size florets (and the stem portion into about 1/2-inch cubes). Arrange the broccoli pieces in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Toss to coat.

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Roast the broccoli for 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp-tender and starting to brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Cook the pasta in generously salted water (it should taste as salty as seawater), just until al dente.

Meanwhile, toast the chopped walnuts in a large pot over medium-low heat until they become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Turn the heat up to medium. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the same pot, along with the shallots and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute for 4 or 5 minutes until they soften and start to caramelize. Add the roasted broccoli and toss for about a minute. Turn the heat off, and stir in the walnuts and lemon zest.

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Turn the heat back on low, and add the al dente pasta, about 1/4 cup of starchy cooking liquid and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle in the blue cheese and toss everything together with tongs until combined and the cheese starts to melt. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed with salt and pepper. Heap the pasta into deep bowls, grind a little pepper over the top and serve immediately.

6 Comments

Filed under Dinner ideas, Pasta, Vegetarian, Weeknight cooking

40-minute roast salmon and broccoli

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I have this weird guilt when it comes to salmon. My more health-conscious friends are always making it for weeknight dinner–I assume with some sort of nutrition powerhouse dark green vegetable, while I carry on with my porky, eggy, beefy and starchy things.

That’s OK. But every once in awhile, certain ingredients become like mini white whales for me and I have to conquer them. Just call me Ishmael. Plus, I actually do love salmon–though I can’t say for sure whether the Significant Other feels the same.

It was a blustery, gray Tuesday evening when I ventured into the new Mariano’s on Chicago Ave while the SO and Penny waited in the car. As expected, it was a damn zoo. I ventured to the fish counter, the lone gal in denim in a sea of Lululemon, leaving my cart just out of reach near the deli meat so I could make the fastest possible exit. After a few minutes of politely jockeying for “next in line” status with a particularly ambitious fellow who was eyeing the halibut, I could feel myself starting to sweat. Finally, the fish monger asked who was next, so I gave a subtle little wave. (Sorry, halibut guy. But I have to get the hell out of here.)

“I’ll take those two skinless salmon fillets,” I said. Turns out my white whale was sustainably farmed in Canada. I reveled in the clean rrriippp of brown butcher paper being slashed by the industrial cutter. As soon as she passed me my neatly packaged fish, I dashed out of there like a running back, almost colliding with a seriously fit looking woman who was undoubtedly there for salmon as well.

Things slowly came back into focus as I maneuvered into the familiar territory of produce. From there, it was a cinch: one jalapeño and one bunch of broccoli. I had everything else for this lovely dinner waiting for me in my kitchen.

This dish, adapted from a 2013 issue of Bon Appetit, is incredibly simple. You start by chopping and par-roasting the broccoli while you dress the salmon with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Then the fish joins the broccoli in the same pan for 10 or 15 minutes while you briefly marinade jalapeño rings in rice vinegar, which provide the base for a simple vinaigrette with capers. (I also used the 15-ish minutes to cook a few cups of jasmine rice with a large pat of butter and a sprinkling of salt.)

Being a lover of horribly time-consuming meals, I’m not one to bang on about “quick and easy” dinners. But I made this dish in exactly 40 minutes, from prep to plating. I know this because the SO had a late soccer game and wanted to eat dinner by 7:30. I started chopping broccoli at 7 and we were eating by 7:40. Knowing this, you have no excuse not to cook this on a weeknight, even if you fear the fish counter on a Tuesday.

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Roast salmon and broccoli with caper-jalapeño vinaigrette

Ingredients

    1 bunch broccoli (about 1 1/2 pounds), cut into florets (I like to hack the broccoli down into large trees and the stem into pieces of roughly the same length, then slice them in half)
    Olive oil, as needed
    Kosher salt
    Freshly ground pepper
    2 6-ounce skinless salmon fillets
    1 jalapeño, thinly sliced into rings
    2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
    2 tablespoons drained capers

Method: Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the broccoli with a few big glugs of olive oil on a large rimmed baking sheet, and season with salt and pepper. Roast the broccoli, tossing occasionally with tongs, until it’s crisp-tender and beginning to singe, 12 to 15 minutes.

Rub the salmon fillets on both sides with a drizzle of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Push the broccoli to the edges of the baking sheet and place the salmon in the center. Roast until the salmon is opaque throughout and broccoli is tender, 10–15 more minutes.

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While the salmon roasts, combine the jalapeño rings, vinegar and a pinch of salt in a small bowl and let sit until the jalapeño is slightly softened, about 10 minutes.

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Add the capers, and whisking constantly, drizzle in about 1 tablespoon olive oil; and sprinkle in some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

Serve the salmon and broccoli drizzled with a few large spoonfuls of caper-chile vinaigrette over a bed of plain white rice, plus extra vinaigrette on the side.

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Filed under Dinner ideas, Fish/shellfish

Deadly butter chicken

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I order Indian food at least once a week, toggling among a few different restaurants near my house because I have different favorites at each one. Raj Darbar for palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), Rangoli for the fried gobi (cauliflower) appetizer, Cumin for the Nepalese chicken dumplings. With so much lovely Indian food that’s willing to come to my door neatly packaged in a brown bag, I’m admittedly pretty lazy about making it myself.

But then I got my hands on the most recent novel in the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall. And I had to make the butter chicken recipe in the back of the book before I even finished reading it.

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If you aren’t familiar with butter chicken, it’s a rich, warming North Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken cooked in a thick sauce of tomato, ginger, ground almonds, tart citrus juice, spices and chiles that’s finished with cream, and yes, butter.

If you aren’t familiar with Tarquin Hall, you should get him into your life immediately. He’s a British writer living in India who has written a charming series of mystery novels following the sleuthing, chubby Vish Puri, who refers to himself as India’s Most Private Investigator. My dad, sister and I have been passing the books around among the three of us since the first one came out four-odd years ago. Aside from being really fun to read, these books will conjure a massive hankering for Indian street food–especially the fried, syrup-soaked or creamy kind, which also happen to be Puri’s weakness to the ire of his wife Rumpi.

Like so many other great novels, Hall’s descriptions of the food–from the shattering crunch of pakoras to the perfumey aroma of cardamom and tamarind to the sticky sweetness of sugar syrup-soaked gulab jamun (dessert dumplings)–have a way of transporting us to the muggy, traffic-clogged streets of Dehli. Here’s a little sample for you from his first book, The Case of the Missing Servant:

    “Vish Puri, founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd., sat alone in a room in a guesthouse in Defence Colony, south Delhi, devouring a dozen green chili pakoras from a greasy takeout box.

    Puri was supposed to be keeping off the fried foods and Indian desserts he so loved. Dr. Mohan had ‘intimated’ to him at his last checkup that he could no longer afford to indulge himself with the usual Punjabi staples.

    ‘Blood pressure is up, so chance of heart attack and diabetes is there. Don’t do obesity,’ he’d advised.

    Puri considered the doctor’s stern warning as he sank his teeth into another hot, crispy pakora and his taste buds thrilled to the tang of salty butter, fiery chili and the tangy red chutney in which he had drowned the illicit snack. He derived a perverse sense of satisfaction from defying Dr. Mohan’s orders.”

OK, back to the butter chicken. It’s rich, tangy and deeply aromatic–laced with a veritable laundry list of spices and herbs that I don’t use nearly often enough. I served it over plain basmati rice, though if you only want to dirty one pot, you could also throw a few parboiled potatoes in with the chicken near the end of the cooking process and call it a day. (No one would blame you after all the spice measuring you did.)

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Deadly butter chicken
adapted from Tarquin Hall, serves 4

Ingredients

    2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
    Juice of 1 lime
    Salt, to taste
    1 teaspoon red chile powder
    1 cup plain, whole fat yogurt
    1/4 teaspoon crushed bay leaves
    1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
    1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
    2 ounces ground almonds, toasted lightly in a small skillet
    1 teaspoon garam masala
    2 teaspoons ground coriander
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
    4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
    1 large red onion, chopped
    1 teaspoon grated ginger
    2 tablespoons grated garlic
    1 1/4-ounce can chopped tomatoes
    1 cup chicken stock
    2 tablespoons dried ground fenugreek leaves (substitute with 1 tablespoon mustard powder if you can’t find fenugreek)
    3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
    4 tablespoons cream
    1/2 cup cilantro leaves

Method: Mix the chicken, lime juice, salt and chile powder in a large glass or plastic bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt, bay, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, ground almonds, garam masala, ground coriander, cumin and turmeric. Add to the chicken, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the fridge for an hour.

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Heat the oil in a deep pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt, and saute until soft and slightly caramelized. Add the ginger and garlic paste, and cook for another 2 minutes, until fragrant and slightly browned.

Scoop the chicken pieces from the marinade and fry until the meat starts to turn white, turning frequently, about five minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the rest of the marinade, and cook for another five minutes. Then add the chicken stock and fenugreek leaves or mustard powder.

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Cook, partially covered, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes. (If you aren’t sure, pull out a thigh and cut into the thickest part with a paring knife. If the juice runs clear, it’s done.)

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Stir in the soft butter and cream. Add about half the cilantro leaves.

To serve, pile some rice on a serving platter and arrange the chicken thighs on top. Spoon a generous amount of sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the remaining cilantro leaves.

4 Comments

Filed under Chicken, Dinner ideas

Far from home

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I’ve been on the road for almost a week now, with still five days to go.

Last Thursday I flew from Chicago to Anaheim, CA, for Natural Products Expo West–quite easily the most massive food industry trade show I’ve ever seen. After three very full days of ducking in and out of educational sessions, meetings with registered dietitians, chefs, COOs, presidents, cofounders and whole lot of PR folks at company booths and coffee shops, awkward cocktail events and long, heavy dinners, I jetted to Portland, OR, for the second leg of my West Coast tour: a trade show combining culinary arts and food science (aka food nerd heaven).

In the week I’ve been gone, I’ve eaten just as much mediocre airport and chain restaurant food as really unique, regional cuisine. I tasted protein bars made from crickets, pecan milk, drinking vinegar, gluten-free empanadas, coconut bacon and powdered apples. I was told my deodorant was going to give me cancer (from a hippie selling the aluminum-free kind) and that my home city of Chicago is an unsafe place to live (by someone who works in Downtown Disney–go figure). I began sobbing while video chatting with my husband because the dog whined after she heard my voice.

Lily, my Portland writing companion

Lily, my Portland writing companion

I’ve always had very mixed emotions about traveling for work. It’s often a lonely business, though I’ve been fortunate to have generous friends in both places this time around, plus the Mister is joining me near the end of the trip.

I perform neurotic little rituals whenever I arrive in hotel rooms, like yanking the comforter off the bed, neatly arranging my toiletries on a washcloth on the bathroom sink, and smelling all the soap and lotion. And I always seem to mis-pack just enough for it to be annoying. No hairbrush. Forgot the one nice pair of pants I meant to bring. Not enough socks. The wrong tights. And as the trip winds down, it becomes harder and harder to physically separate the clean and dirty clothes in the suitcase–which doesn’t really matter because they all smell like hotel anyway.

Then I return home with renewed affection for all the things that drove me nuts about my house before. The popcorn/vacuum cleaner aroma wafting off my dog, who is a month overdue for a bath, becomes my most favorite smell. I feel a weird, misty nostalgia for the ugly recliner in the living room, and even a temporary acceptance of that nasty old light fixture I’ve been meaning to replace in the kitchen. In other words, I’ve been jolted out of my comfort zone just long enough to gain a small dose of much needed perspective.

And it’s damn good to be home.

6 Comments

Filed under Food writing, Travel

Peach-bourbon beef brisket

Sometimes I get a little carried away.

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Don’t get me wrong; brisket is just as good braised for a few hours with a little booze and broth. But when I have nothing on the calendar for a whole weekend and I come across a tantalizing (yet ridiculously time-consuming) recipe like peach bourbon-glazed brisket, I can’t resist.

The great thing about chef-driven recipes like this one is they offer fabulous little tidbits for any home cook. Straining and reducing the braising liquid till it thickens into a beautiful sauce; and glazing the fatty side with something sugary and sticking it under the broiler till you get a crisp, richly browned crust. These techniques elevate recipes just a bit, refining your flavorful cooking liquid into a sauce and injecting texture and crunch into a slow-cooked hunk of meat. They add a little time to the overall process, but they’re worth it.

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Peach bourbon glazed brisket
by chef Edward Lee

Ingredients

    Rub

    1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
    1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
    1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

    Brisket

    1 4-pound flat-cut brisket
    Vegetable oil, as needed
    1 medium onion, chopped
    3 large garlic cloves, smashed
    4 cups beef broth
    1 12-ounce bottle stout
    3/4 cup bourbon
    1/4 cup light brown sugar
    1/4 cup soy sauce
    6 large sprigs thyme
    3 celery stalks, chopped
    2 plum tomatoes, chopped
    1 large carrot, chopped
    1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

    Glaze
    1/2 cup peach preserves
    2 teaspoons bourbon
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method (rub): Mix salt, pepper, paprika and cinnamon in a small bowl.

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Method (brisket): Rub brisket on all sides with the spice rub. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight. Let the brisket come to room temperature (for about an hour) before beginning.

Preheat the oven to 325F. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large wide pot over high heat. Add the brisket, fat side down. Cook undisturbed until well browned, 5 or 6 minutes. Turn the brisket over and brown the other side, about 3 more minutes.

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Transfer the brisket to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium and add remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add the onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened and begun to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the broth, stout, bourbon, brown sugar, soy sauce, thyme, celery, tomato, carrot and balsamic vinegar. Bring the liquid to a simmer. Return the brisket to the pot. Cover and transfer to the oven.

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Braise until the brisket is very tender to the touch but still holds its shape, about 4 1/2 hours. Transfer the brisket, fat side up, to a large plate (this might be a two-spatula job). Strain the braising liquid into a large bowl over a fine mesh strainer, forcing some of the vegetable mash through with a spatula. Return the liquid to the pot, bring to a simmer, and cook until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes.

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Score the fat side of brisket by cutting a cross-hatch pattern of 1/4-inch-deep slits spaced about 1/2 inch apart. Return the brisket, fat side up, to the pot with the reduced braising liquid.

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Method (glaze): Transfer 1/4 cup of the braising liquid to a blender. Add the jam and bourbon and puree until smooth. Taste, and season with salt and pepper.

Preheat the broiler on high. Spoon 3 or 4 tablespoons of glaze on top of the brisket. Broil the brisket in the pot until browned and glazed, watching carefully to prevent burning, 4 to 5 minutes.

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Transfer the brisket to a large cutting board. Slice against the grain and transfer to a large platter. Ladle the braising liquid over top. Drizzle with a few spoonfuls of glaze, and serve with additional glaze for table drizzling.

6 Comments

Filed under Meat, Restaurant remakes

Chile scrambled egg and cheese sandwich

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On a typical Saturday morning at my house, Penny and I always get up first. I make coffee, she goes back to sleep on the couch and we wait for Sean to wake up so I can make breakfast. Once 9 a.m. hits and my stomach gets especially rumbly, I start sneaking in the bedroom every 20 minutes or so to determine if there’s been any movement.

Sometimes I cheat and have toast, but on the days I’m patient enough to wait, we usually have eggs.

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This has become one of my favorite ways to prepare scrambled eggs–laced with mild green chiles, shallot, cilantro and buttery Chihuahua cheese. I like piling them onto toasted bolillo rolls with their pillowy interior and thin, crisp crust.

The secret to keeping the eggs inside the sandwich is to scoop out some of the interior of the bread and nestle the eggs into that little canyon you’ve made.

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Chile scrambled egg and cheese sandwich
Serves 2

Ingredients

    1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more if needed
    1 medium shallot, minced
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    1 4-ounce can diced mild green chiles
    5 large eggs
    2 ounces Chihuahua cheese, crumbled (mozzarella works too)
    1/2 cup cilantro leaves
    2 bolillo rolls (could also use French bread, cut into 6-inch pieces)
    Green tobasco or tomatillo salsa, for serving

Method: Melt the butter in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat, and add the shallot and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the chiles and cook for 1-2 more minutes until heated through. Add a bit more butter if the pan looks dry.
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Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and break the yolks in a medium bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and 3/4 of the cheese.

Pour the egg mixture into the pan, and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook the eggs for 4-5 minutes, until set and slightly brown. With about a minute to go, sprinkle in half the cilantro leaves.

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While the eggs cook, slice the rolls in half lengthwise, leaving one edge attached. Rip out most of the interior of one half of the bread, and toast in the toaster oven until very lightly browned.

Once the eggs are done, toss in the remaining cilantro and cheese. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Heap the eggs into the scooped out side of each bolillo roll. Close the sandwiches and serve with green Tobasco or tomatillo salsa for sprinkling.

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Filed under Breakfast/Brunch, Eggs, Sandwiches

Quick artichoke pesto

The past month has been a busy one! From snowy New York City to chilly Ponte Vedra Beach, FL and back again to frigid–and I mean FRIGID–Chicago.

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You don’t really need another picture of this icy city, do you?

It’s hard to cook healthy meals when it’s this cold out. All my body wants is fatty, meaty and starchy things. And I usually listen to it.

But in this light, quick pesto, I combine artichoke hearts with fresh basil, parsley, lemon, garlic and pine nuts. So I pretty much eliminated the meaty, fatty (aside from extra virgin olive oil and Parmesan) and starchy parts.

…But then I went and tossed it with pasta. I’m only human, right?

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Artichoke pesto

Ingredients

    8 ounces frozen or canned artichoke hearts, drained
    1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
    1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
    1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
    Zest and juice of one lemon
    1 clove garlic, smashed
    1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    Extra virgin olive oil
    2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Method: In a food processor combine the artichokes, basil, parsley, pine nuts, lemon zest and juice, garlic, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Run the machine to roughly puree all the ingredients, stopping the machine a few times to scrape down the sides. Then, with the machine running, drizzle in about 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

Take the blade out, and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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This recipe makes enough for pesto pasta for 4. You can also fold it into scrambled eggs, drizzle it on grilled meat, fish or vegetables, stir a little into vegetable soup just before serving, or smear it on a sandwich. To store the pesto, place in an airtight container and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. It should keep for up to 1 week.

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Filed under Sauce