Pesto Experiments

It turns out that while, yes, the classic pesto sauce we all think of is basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, you can make many varieties of pesto. I mean, we all know this because we’ve seen them on various menus or in jars at the grocery store, but I hadn’t really thought of experimenting with them.

However, the other night, we were out at Pasta Passion, a new place in the neighborhood, and a member of our party had the Genovese pesto, which was made with walnuts…I think. So I made a basic basil pesto, but instead of pine nuts, I used ground almonds. It came out delicious. There’s definitely a flavor difference because pine nuts have their own particular taste, but it was good. I am super curious to try it with walnuts!

You can also make pesto from a ton of other things. I learned from one of my beloved cookbooks, East Like a Gilmore, that all you need is 1) an herb or vegetable, 2) a nut or seed, 3) cheese, and 4) oil. Most people stick with olive oil, though I have seen some recipes with avocado or grape seed oils. Just use an oil you would eat as a salad dressing.

For herbs, you can stick with basil or use cilantro or mint. Anything that has that same texture profile works. Or, you can use a vegetable like sun dried tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers. If you want an Italian flavor, Parmesan is good, but so is Asiago or Romano. But you can go a little Mexican or Greek using cotija or feta. You just want a cheese that is a little harder like the texture of Parmesan. And you can add to these four basic ingredients, if you want for a little sweetness, a little honey. If you want a little spice, jalapenos or red pepper flakes.

Anyway, there are no rules for pesto. Feel free to experiment with flavors you love. Your family is nothing if not your own little focus group. I have to avoid the spicy, but I think I could do almost any other crazy combination of the above basic four categories and throw it on pasta, and my kids would all eat it. But we’ll see…in any case, trust me that it is worth it to make your own pesto. Nothing in the store will ever compare, and it’s super easy. Check out my basic Pesto Sauce recipe.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!

Oops, I totally botched dinner!

I love to cook. I pride myself on being an excellent home cook. I can cook lots of different cuisines, though Asian has mostly alluded me. I am working on that one. But last week, I totally botched the easiest possible dinner. I had purchased a couple of bags of frozen pasta dishes from Trader Joe’s. This is an easy dinner, right? All you have to do is heat and eat. Somehow, I messed that up, and it worked out great!

I steamed cauliflower to go with the pasta, which was a basic tomato sauce penne type dish. We had cauliflower, and it was going to go bad if not cooked soon. I normally roast it, but it was hot out, and I try not to run the oven. The cauliflower turned out to be the star of the evening.

We sit down to dinner and start to dig in, and the pasta is cold. I cooked it for more than the recommended times. It looked warm. The bowl felt warm. But I didn’t try it before putting it on the table. (All the Food Network judges would be cringing about that one.) I don’t mean it wasn’t quite warm enough. It was cold. It was like I took it out of the refrigerator and put it on the table. But here’s the good part. The sauce was also spicy. It had a zing that I knew the youngest kid was going to be extremely “anti” about. But because it was cold, that never came up. She ate all her cauliflower and then had two more helpings. She claimed she just didn’t really like cold pasta.

I seriously did some victory laps here. Don’t get me wrong. She eats cauliflower. She loves cauliflower and pretty much most vegetables. Getting her to eat a veggie you put in front of her is not a problem. But she also is a breaditarian. She would take pasta, bread of any ilk, and rice, over all other foods. We struggle to make sure she isn’t just carb loading on a daily basis. I messed up pasta in a way that made it so that she ate it like it was the side and devoured the veggies and fruit. I am calling that a big win.

Sometimes we all really mess up dinner. I could tell you some stories about my early days of cooking. But sometimes, a mistake leads to a victory or a great work of art, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. Also, as a side note, never trust the package instructions. Taste your food, even if it wasn’t your own creation before putting it on the plate!

Change is a constant

One of the more interesting challenges of dealing with picky eater children is that their tastes also change. And sometimes, they change like a see-saw, so it’s hard to keep up. I mean, my Katie has changed from vegetarian to vegan to vegetarian to pescatarian to eating some meat but not all meats. I literally have to ask any time we’re gonna have a meal to make sure I’m on the current menu!

We all know that our tastes change as we grow. I didn’t really like red meat as a child. It turns out this was partially because my mother only eats meat so well done that most cultures would be making clothing or shoes from it. When I was around 19, I tried a rare steak, and I’ve never looked back. But there are other foods I’ve tried after years of not having and discovered that I now like.

But combine changing tastes with pure stubborn child-like attitude, and man, it gets fun. For example, the 9 year old won’t eat anything that has a texture similar to mashed potatoes or applesauce. However, she loves pesto. I am not going to explain that it’s basically the same texture she claims to not like. Somehow putting it on pasta makes it edible. But short of a penne that had a little kick, I haven’t really found much pasta she wouldn’t eat. I am trying to convince her she should retry different textures as that definitely changes with age. So far, not too open to that idea.

And her food preferences or tastes change so frequently, we need some type of daily briefing to keep up. She’ll eat eggs every morning for months, then one day, the eggs are just left on the plate, and we’re told she’s just kind of tired of them. I recently bought strawberries from a street vendor. She was super excited when I bought them. I gave her a bowl for snack and each strawberry was half-eaten. When I inquired, I learned that she saw a wrinkle here, or it wasn’t worth the work to get around the stem. After a little more discussion, she informed she really doesn’t like strawberries that much. Well, this was new, as she usually eats them up. Next week, we could have a total reversal of this opinion.

The best part is that asking prior to offering the food is of no help. As an added bit of fun, she doesn’t have the self-awareness often to even know that these changes are happening. In her defense, I’m not sure how you would know your taste buds have changed until you try something. But it usually takes a couple of times of her not eating it or eating it weird (I’ll try to explain eating weird in another blog sometime) and us asking a lot of questions to get her to analyze and realize that said changes have occurred. So add food-therapy to our dilemmas?

Oh the fun of having picky eaters!