Right here, right now, I want to publicly thank my husband for being the uncomplaining, acquiescent and often, unsuspecting and trusting soul that he is. In our few short years together, he has transformed from a frozen burrito-eating, fasting food-inhaling, vegetable-avoiding carnivore into an adventurous, willing and extremely gracious culinary neophyte.
This, my friends, was no easy task.
I know that sounds flippant. Almost as if I took him on as a project. Or found him as a stray, starved half to death, not ever having known a good meal and a full belly. Which actually had been the case. But I took his tutelage very seriously. I knew he was capable of appreciating all kinds of foods he had never experienced if I gave him time and patience.
I never tired of encouraging him to try something new. The secret of my success is that I wouldn't exactly make full disclosure of what he was about to eat. You can file that under "Shady Ethics in Marital Relationships," but I knew that I had made a small triumph when, about a year ago, he came home and mentioned that he had eaten at B@#$%^ K&*$ for lunch that day and had not been able to finish his W~=++%^. The reason? It just didn't taste very good to him anymore.
My husband is not a foodie. I've mentioned this (numerous times) before. He does not live to eat. He does not swoon over plates of foie gras. His eyes do not roll back in his head when he savors a spoonful of warm chocolate souffle. He does not appreciate or even care about wine. He's a simple man, really. He likes a good, overcooked hamburger. He prefers his fish fried. The closest he gets to wine is grape juice, which he often drinks and teases me by offering this description, "Fruity and seductive, with just a hint of Welches." He uses words like, "tastes good" or "kicka**" or "is there any more of that?" to express his appreciation for food.
I feel rather smug about the fact that he rarely says these things when we eat out, even in swanky joints. The swooning over food, the eyes rolling back into the head, the Meg Ryan moment--these responses belong to me. And I am not ashamed of them. Not one little bit.
Let me tell you a secret: waiters love it when you swoon. And then they tell the chef. And the sommelier. And that's a whole lot of fun, because practically everyone loves to talk about what they do well with people who appreciate their efforts. My husband doesn't understand those interactions; however, he seems rather amused by them. "I have to keep an eye on you," he says, chuckling.
But last night, it was my husband who swooned. "What's that?" he asked, peering into my bowl of pasta.
"It's a new pesto I developed today."
"Why didn't you give any of that to me?" He was almost pouting. You need to know the backstory: pasta is what my husband would live on now that frozen burritos and fast food hamburgers have been purged from his system.
"Because you said you wanted the leftover pizza. Here, try a bite." I swirled some vermicelli around a few pieces of the roasted zucchini and cotija cheese that garnished the emerald green mound of pasta. You could really smell the garlic. It's possible that friends in neighboring states could smell the garlic.
"Wow! Now that is some kicka** pasta! That's the way I like my pasta!" I was really paying attention now; my husband does not commonly experience enthusiasm and food simultaneously.
"I didn't think you liked green things. You usually don't really like pesto, so I'm surprised."
"Well, it's really good, even though it's green."
So since the pasta passed the husband test, I wanted to pass the recipe on to you. There's plenty of garlic to give the other vegetables status. The celery lends a gentle, herbal note and the grated carrot gives it contrast and texture. But it's the toasted hazelnuts, along with plenty of olive oil, that make it rich. I garnished my plate with rough-diced zucchini that was roasted with a little olive oil and garlic. But if you had eggplant on hand, the black sheen on the eggplant's skin would lend a beautiful visual counterpoint to the vivid green.
I ate this pasta with a glass of Joel Gott Zinfandel 2009 (California), which was soft, smooth and very drinkable. This juicy red has plenty of jammy fruit and spice to balance out the herbal and garlic notes in the pesto. It's also one of those wines that makes you want to have more than one glass. I did.
Spinach, Celery and Toasted Hazelnut Pesto
2 large cloves garlic
1 rib celery, ends trimmed and cut into 3" pieces
4 cups spinach leaves
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, lightly crushed
1/2 cup or more of good quality olive oil
plenty of freshly ground black pepper
1 small carrot, grated (I use a Microplane parmesan grater)
1 lb. vermicelli or thin spaghetti, cooked al dente and kept warm
1/2 cup crumbled cotija or feta cheese, for garnish
1 cup diced zucchini or eggplant roasted with garlic, olive oil and seasoned well with salt and pepper, for garnish (you can do this in an oven or stovetop; what you want is caramelization for best flavor), optional
1. Using a food processor, finely chop the garlic.
2. Add the kosher salt and celery, processing until celery is finely chopped.
3. Add the spinach leaves and toasted hazelnuts and with the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil. Process until pesto is the consistency of mayonnaise, adding more olive oil if you wish.
4. By hand, stir in freshly ground pepper to taste and the grated carrot.
5. In a large pot or skillet over medium-low heat, toss together the warm pasta and the pesto until pasta is well-coated and gently warmed through.
6. Divide pasta among four plates and garnish with cotija or feta cheese and the roasted zucchini or eggplant. Serves 4 generously.