The Italian Za’atar
Three years ago I have planted some Za’atar (Origanum syriacum) in the land we have in Italy, this is a native plant in Israel and the surrounding countries it is also the main ingredient in the Za’atar spice, made with sesame seeds and ground sumac. However, as we have been talking about our latest inspiration with food and rural development strategies this time I would like to go on a little journey into Italian food.
We All love pesto, originally a paste from Genova made with Pecorino cheese and pine nuts, Basil, garlic and olive oil. However like many things on our table, we make pesto from whatever herb grows plenty, so Thyme, Oregano, and even Rosemary. Instead of pine nuts, we use whatever nut is in the cupboard. Walnut is a good choice although it can add a little bitterness, Brazil is also a great choice, but as those don’t grow locally I prefer walnut after all the trees are just a little walk away, and so are almonds (although in this case, they came from the bag in cupboard which is quite local to the kitchen).
So back to our thread, in tonight’s cooking blog entry I would like to explore a very simple and potent mix, and what we think now is actually, the best Pesto.
We started with a load of Za’atar herb, at this time of year it has a strong new growth, usually I like to transplant a lot of the herbs by using cuttings, but at times one of the bushes does so well, and using it in teas doesn’t do it enough justice, because the amount exceeds what we can consume fresh. Although come summer we make pesto every third day, if you prefer Basil all you need to do is plant a few plants and keep picking the top leaves only, each leaf will sprout into two new ones so your plant will never go into seed and turn into a mighty bush, at least until winter comes.
Here is the recipe –
100g of fresh picked Za’atar herb, (you can use Oregano if you can’t get any because you live in northern Europe, although it is like 20% of the strength).
100g of organic Almonds (this makes for a sweet counteraction to the intensity of the Za’atar)
100g of Pecorino cheese (I prefer Sardinian mature pecorino to the Abruzzen ones, although at times you can find a really good homemade one locally).
Olive oil – We use the local veriaties of Intosso and la Gentile most as they are strong and flavourful and those are the trees we have locally.
3 cloves of garlic (you may want to use less if you don’t like it to strong) I prefer the local red garlic of Sulmona, as we grow it in the garden.
To make the pesto put all the ingredients, but starting with the nuts and herb only, in a strong blender, we have an omniblend V. Having now owned it for 5 years we use it daily, it’s good enough to make flour out of grain so the nuts aren’t a problem for it. Once it is all mixed till its a paste you add olive oil, garlic, and the cheese, at this point if your blender isn’t strong its motor has just burned out!, which is a shame as we can not make balck chickpea Humous or even Falafel (also known as blender killer).
This is a short way to making a great dinner because it takes all of 5m, and if you are a pasta lover you can simply cook a great pasta and serve with pesto only.
For the pasta part we use Ancient grain pasta. This time we used senatori cappeli. It’s not as ancient a grain as the Solina or Saragolla we love, but it is considered one of the highest quality “grano duro” for pasta. You can maybe be lucky and taste it at a good Italian restaurant in London, but here in Abruzzo we actually see it as the lesser grain, because it was crossed to produce its characteristics. Where the Solina is an older grain, and the Saragolla traces its origins to one of the earliest the Khureshan wheat (it’s Egyptian) and was supposedly brought over to the area by Bulgarians, hence its name meaning yellow grain, but it made for a better picture than hand made pasta.
For sauce we threw a simple red sauce, Italians maintain that one shouldn’t bother with fresh tomatoes, and they simply use Passata, we only buy organic ones, and although I do prefer fresh tomatoes, to do it justice one has to peel the skins off, and as this is all done already in the bottle and the seeds are sieved its a no brainer for a quick meal. If you start from fresh this could be a great way to say your tomato seeds, I just peel, blend and sieve in that case, or if you prefer having bits you can just peel and cook.
I prefer leeks to onions, and for the best pasta sauce I use an old Jewish Italian method that adds the onion (leeks in this case) only after the sauce, it is sweeter that way. I love using rosemary and I use a lot in pasta sauce, but that is also because I need to keep using as much as the bushes give us. You can add some green like broccoli heads (cima di rapa) or similar. Cook it until it runs thick, I don’t like to overcook it, but the rosemary is my guide in this case and I cook until the dryish herb becomes soft and one with the sauce.
Before we leave this meal there is another part that completes a good recipe. Or rather its a way of cooking, so if growing your own food and inventing dishes out of your favorite herbs and cereals isn’t enough, there is a secret ingredient that is the most important in my opinion, and that is conscious cooking. Although the name may be a little confusing, as it makes it sounds like some new age thing that goes well with yoga, it isn’t. But I call it that because its under that name that I was taught it, the idea is that everything is connected, and cooking is an alchemical act, conscious cooking is a lot about feeling, or the alchemy of only putting in the food what is meant to go there.
When I teach it to others I get asked if I mean cooking with love, I don’t. Conscious cooking is the act of being aware when cooking, It is done by trying to feel or sense all the feelings you actually feel at that moment so they don’t slip by and end in the dinner and get eaten by everyone, because most of the feelings we go through should not really be served to others, the same goes to thinking. In my opinion, it is best to simply not think at all when cooking. But if you already are thinking (we seem to not be able to stop) try and stay in touch with it, and don’t start “running it” into the dinner. There is a more advanced part, its about feeling all the feelings in the space even those which aren’t yours and saving the food from them too, but this may be too farfetched for most so lets keep sweet.
Now, I agree that once you master the basics and you can hold it, and if you have a flow of love you can add it to the mix, but I would prefer someone who is angry yet holding their feelings to cook my dinner most days. This is the basic law, it is hard to explain what feeling your feelings in full actually means, but whilst cooking this is the method I follow. Sometimes when I feel like I have a free hand and I can be creative I use consciousness as an ingredient itself, in that way you can actually choose what effect your dinner will produce in others, and I don’t just mean taste here. I had a great friend who I taught this method to, she used it on a guy she liked. She was so good she only needed to make him a cup of coffee and he fell totally in love with her, it’s not that she wasn’t the falling In love sort of material, she was. Its the magic she put in while making coffee, so you get the idea, and we should leave it at that.
So here is the best Pesto Recpie, the best pasta in London (but only one of the better ones in Abruzzo), and the secret to making guys fall in love with you through coffee.