Big Girls, Global Kitchen: Umami, No Cheese

DISH: Genovese Pesto Pasta with Potatoes and String Beans
MAIN INGREDIENTS: Basil, Pasta, Olive Oil, Pine Nuts

Sometimes it seems as though the whole blogosphere is about to explode in one big umami-gasm. People seem to obsess over that perfect taste sensation that is umami–a self-defining, you’ve-got-to-experience-it-to-believe-it flavor. Though I’m a food blogger, I’m not really one to think about food overly much, at least not when I’m in front of it. I much prefer to eat it than to dissect it.

But then I went and made as authentic a Genovese pesto as my skills and ingredients would allow, and it put an interesting thought into my head. I decided to run with it. The idea was this: that the taste of pesto before you add in the Parmesan cheese tastes something like the Parmesan cheese itself. Both very umami. In other words, the thought boiled down to the following:

fresh herbs + olive oil + toasted pine nuts + garlic = cheese


zing + fat + rich nuttiness + pungent spiciness = cheese

Now this may not be a perfect equation, but I do think it’s a noteworthy observation, especially for those who prefer to use little or no dairy in meals. I don’t mean to claim, necessarily, that dairy is so insanely good (insanely good though it may be) it must be emulated with non-dairy products. But I do think it’s interesting to taste how the flavors we most enjoy and crave may converge to hit many of the same notes. And I think, as well, that somewhere therein, among the savory and the sweet and the fatty tastes, must lie this umami of which everyone speaks. Perhaps I may be the newest disciple of its mystique.

Anyway, that’s all the opining about food you’ll get from me today. To say it straight: you should make this pasta, especially in winter, when its freshness will be particularly resonant and unexpected (and of course you should make it in summer, too).

From my kitchen, where I’m back to cooking and eating–and not theorizing–to yours,



Genovesey-Not So Cheesy Pesto Pasta
Serves 2-3

1 cup small potatoes, sliced
1/2 cup string beans, cut into thirds
8 ounces fettucine or other pasta, whole wheat if you choose (fresh is good too)

large bunch basil (about 1 1/2 cups, packed)
2 small cloves garlic
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup olive oil, plus 1 or 2 tablespoons as needed*
generous pinch salt

Parmesan for serving (optional)

*I used about 2 tablespoons of the wonderful O&Co Basil Olive Oil, which I received as a gift from none other than Alex, the dairy-free person in my life. Especially in winter, this really amps up the taste of basil. In any event, use the best-tasting olive oil you can.

To make the pesto: Toast the pine nuts in a small pan over medium heat until just browned. Set aside to cool to room temperature.

In a mini food processor, grind the garlic to a paste. Add the basil leaves, pine nuts, and salt and process, pouring in olive oil by the tablespoon as needed. Remove to a small bowl, drizzle with olive oil, and set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour to let the flavors meld.

Meanwhile, set a big pot of water to boil. Add the sliced potatoes to the cold water, then once it’s boiling, let them cook until tender, 6-8 minutes. Check to see if your knife inserted into one goes in very easily and smoothly. Remove the potatoes with a slotted spoon and keep them nearby in a bowl or colander.

When you’re ready to eat, add the string beans to the pot of boiling water. After 2-3 minutes, add the pasta and cook al dente (8-9 minutes for fettucine. The string beans should cook for a total of 10-12 minutes, so if you’re using quicker-cooking pasta, add them even earlier). Just before the pasta is done, throw the potatoes back in to warm them up.

Drain all, reserving about a cup of pasta water.

Toss the hot pasta with the pesto, adding in pasta water as needed. Taste for salt and richness, adding more salt and olive oil as necessary. Garnish with basil and pass cheese around with a grater if you’d like.

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Kate

    There goes thinking about what I will have for lunch today. Thanks for solving that void! I can't wait to try it, though I think I'll have to make some substitutions to avoid running to the store.

  • KathyCooks

    This is a cute post, and a great idea for brightening up the winter assortment of foods. I'd like to hear more about this basil olive oil. Have you ever made it yourself?

  • Karine

    Your dish sounds delicious! thanks for sharing :)

  • Alex

    Your cheese equation is clever. Often I'll eat something that gives me the "this is too good to be dairy free" reaction. I'm always surprised to find that it is the combination of many ingredients that gives it the effect.

  • PRN

    Peas also make an incredible pesto base. They add a lot of sweetness, as well as the mass that pesto so desperately needs… because there's never enough pesto.

  • preventionrd

    MAIN INGREDIENTS: Basil, Pasta, Olive Oil, Pine Nuts

    *Drooool* I am obsessed with your taste in food!!!

  • Phoebe and Cara, the Quarter-Life Cooks

    Kathy–I've made rosemary and garlic-infused olive oil, but never basil. Sounds like a fun project though.

    PRN–Phoebe made a sweet pea pesto once to toss with fusilli. But I love the idea of combining it with a basil one to stretch. Cause you're right: never enough pesto!

    preventionrd: indeed. They're ingredients with endless possibilities for yum.

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