“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” – Henry James
In the heat of a summer afternoon, I was struck by the almost embarrassing amount of basil accumulating in my kitchen garden. As one of the more prolific herbs, basil growing tends to go like this: Prune it carefully, and it will thrive. Allow it to form a basil jungle, and it still seems to thrive.
If you grow basil, there will be more than enough for batches of this delicious pesto. Alternately, you can find quality sweet basil at the market. Pick the most aromatic bunch since pesto is a raw sauce, and the quality of basil largely determines its taste.
½ cup pine nuts
½ tablespoon butter
3 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic
½ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of salt
1 pound orechiette
1 pound sweet Italian sausage without casing
Traditional pesto is made with pine nuts, and while they can be substituted with another nut, to me there is nothing like their flavor, particularly once toasted in butter on the stove. One of the hardest parts of making pesto is not eating them all before it’s time to serve with the orechiette and crumbled sausage. The scent and flavor will have you craving Italian pignoli (pine nut) cookies.
Begin by melting the butter in a small skillet and toasting the pine nuts over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat once they are toasted and golden. Allow to cool. We will use half of the pine nuts in the pesto and reserving the other half for topping the pasta.
Roughly chop the basil leaves and garlic and add to a food processor. Process until ingredients are minced. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and set aside. Add remaining olive oil and ¼ cup of the cooled pine nuts to basil mixture and process until incorporated. Add a pinch of salt and the Parmesan cheese, processing until just combined. Pour mixture into a bowl and stir in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Taste and add more salt to taste if desired. Set aside.
Bring salted water to a boil and cook orechiette until al dente, generally around 9 minutes. Timing is key to a good pasta dish, so make sure to check the pasta as it approaches this time. You may have to drain it early or allow it to cook a little longer. Pasta should be firm but not too hard.
Meanwhile heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble sausage into pieces and add it to the pan, cooking until browned and done. Use a spoon to break up the sausage as it cooks so that it becomes even more crumbled. Remove from heat.
When pasta is almost done, return sausage to low heat and add pesto so that sauce is warmed through. Once pasta is done, drain it and add to skillet along with some pasta water to loosen sauce to desired consistency. Begin with about ¼ cup and add more if necessary so that sauce coats the pasta. Bits of sausage and pesto will rest within the “little ears” or cups of the orechiette.
Serve with additional grated Parmesan and reserved pine nuts.