Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Pâtes au pistou
One of the things I love about Nice is the Italian influence in the food. But it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Nice adopted Italian cooking during its time under the rule of Piedmont and Sardinia, which ended in 1860. Rather, the ever-resourceful people of the Comté de Nice (the city and surrounding mountains) made Italian specialties their own.
Porchetta, which in Italy is a whole deboned pig rolled with herbs and roasted, became a pig stuffed with every bit of its innards so that nothing goes to waste. Pizza became pissaladière, a humble tart made of oily bread dough, slowly-caramelized onions and seasoned anchovy paste (pissala in the local language). And that Genovese classic pesto became pistou, a sauce of basil, garlic, oil and parmesan in which pine nuts are noticeably absent.
La Merenda, a little bistro two blocks from the end of the flower market, serves the definitive version of Nice-style pâtes au pistou. I've eaten this dish here time and time again and have always marveled at its unctuous quality, the perfect melding of green pasta and green sauce (in Genoa pesto would be tossed with little pointy-tipped white pasta called trofie, small cubes of potato and green beans). How does chef Dominic Le Stanc do it? There wasn't much hope of him telling me, since this former Negresco chef spent six months training with the old couple who ran this bistro in order to master their secret recipes. He has been kind enough to give me his recipe for daube, beef slowly imbued with wine and scented with porcini mushrooms (known as ceps in French), but when it comes to pistou his lips are firmly sealed.
Luckily, a few months ago one of the market stallholders introduced me to Jean himself, the former owner of La Merenda who still shops at the Cours Saleya market now and then. It couldn't hurt to ask, I said to myself, and boldly blurted out, "So what is the secret of your pâtes au pistou?"
To my amazement, Jean was forthcoming. "It's the cheese. You have to use emmental instead of parmesan to give the sauce its creaminess. When the pasta is cooked you drain it, but not too much, and then you toss it in the warmed bowl with the butter and pistou."
I should have guessed. So often in France, when a dish is mysteriously delicious, butter turns out to be the key. In Nice I have got so used to dousing all my food with olive oil - preferably the smooth, almost buttery AOC Nice oil - that I rarely even think about butter. But sometimes there is simply no replacement for it. I've since made pâtes au pistou many times, using the thick spinach noodles sold at the fresh pasta shop Barale down the street. I could make my own, but Dominic Le Stanc doesn't, so why should I? My pâtes au pistou are very good indeed, though perhaps not quite as good as his. Maybe he uses a little more butter, maybe he sneaks in a little parmesan with the emmental, or maybe it's just the way he tosses it (very vigorously). Whatever the slight difference, it's what makes me not feel too guilty about giving away this recipe.
I'll be contributing my pâtes au pistou to Presto Pasta Nights, a weekly event at Once Upon a Feast.
Note: I used to make the pistou in a mortar, the traditional way, but I found that this resulted in a darker sauce. I'm now happy to make it less romantically in a food processor.
Pâtes au Pistou
1 lb fresh spinach tagliatelle (if you make your own, the dough should be rolled 1.5 mm thick. Sorry, I don't know what that is in inches!)
A handful coarse sea salt
1 tbsp butter (you could probably use a little more, but this is how much I use)
1-2 cloves garlic
1 small bunch basil (about 2 cups of leaves)
1/4 cup very good quality olive oil (50 ml)
A good pinch of coarse sea salt and a few grindings of pepper
2 generous tbsp finely grated emmental
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When it boils, add the salt and the pasta. The pasta from Barale needs to be cooked for 4 mins once the water comes back to a boil, but yours might be ready a little faster.
Peel the garlic clove(s), cut in half and remove any sprouts from the center. Separate the basil leaves from the stems and discard the stems (or save to flavor a tomato sauce). Place the garlic, basil, oil and seasonings in the food processor and blend until you have a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the grated emmental. The sauce should be fairly runny, so add more oil if necessary.
Warm your serving bowl with the butter in the oven at the lowest setting. Drain the pasta quickly, transfer to the bowl and toss vigorously with the butter and pistou. Serve immediately.
La Merenda, 4 rue Raoul Bosio, no phone.