Wed 10 Sep 2008
Maybe it’s the proximity to creative culinary lights like Jose Andres and Michel Richard who love to put new spins on classic dishes. Maybe it’s an outgrowth of my love of mashups, covers and other songs that reimagine existing tracks to make new (and sometimes better) music. Or maybe it’s my love of puns and homophones.
Whatever the cause, I decided I wanted to approach something familiar in a slightly twisted way as I sat down to contemplate Endless Simmer’s Pine Nut Challenge. When editor BS put out the call for recipes involving pine nuts, I first thought of the variety of nut butters sold at Trader Joe’s: cashew butter, almond butter, even macadamia nut butter. Why shouldn’t pine nuts work, too?
Turns out they do – really well. I adapted a recipe for peanut butter that I read over at DC Foodies, using olive oil instead of vegetable oil and omitting the recommended honey. The pine nuts pureed easily, and their high fat content gave the whole thing a rich, creamy texture that has actually thickened nicely with time.
What to pair with pine nut butter? I couldn’t get away from the obvious – kept coming back to jelly. But grape jelly just wasn’t going to cut it, and that’s when I had my Minibar moment.
I had already played with the texture of the pine nuts, though I hadn’t done anything to their flavor. What if I could create a jelly with a flavor that I already knew would pair well with the flavor of pine nuts? Seemed like a winner in the making – and as anyone who has ever tried pesto will tell you, there’s no better combination than pine nuts and basil.
So there it was – my concept. “Pine Nut Butter and Gelee.”
To make the dish look like a traditional PB&J, I would need a purple-hued jelly. Enter opal basil. This purple variant on the more traditional green basil can be used in much the same way, and it lends an interesting reddish-purple hue to dishes and drinks. Having just used it in our Peach-Opal Basil Lemonade I knew it would provide a good color for my jelly – if I could just figure out how to make it in the first place.
As it turns out, gelatin makes it pretty damn easy to turn just about anything with a liquid base into a jiggly semi-solid. To achieve that delicious pesto flavor, I pureed two cups of opal basil with a tablespoon of olive oil, 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese, two big cloves of garlic and 1/2 cup chicken stock. I poured this nut-free pesto into bowl and sprinkled a packet of store-bought gelatin across the top. Adding about a cup of boiling water, I stirred the mixture for five minutes and put it into the fridge to set. After a few hours’ time, I had exactly what I was looking for – a rich purple jelly that looked like grape jam but tasted just like pesto.
All that remained was to find the perfect delivery system for my pine nut butter and gelee. I could spread them on bread and serve them like a sandwich, but I suspected the rich flavors would be too much to really enjoy a whole sandwich. I could serve them over pasta, but the heat would melt the solidified pesto and ruin the effect. I needed something like a Ritz cracker – something that would offer a manageable bite-sized snack.
And that’s when I remembered a discussion about polenta fritters. Sliced thin, they were the perfect size for my purposes. Fried quickly in olive oil, they offered complementary flavors to the rest of the dish. Allowed to cool, they delivered the goods without fear of melting or mess.
From there it was a simple matter of construction. The fritters worked like a charm. With a spread of pine nut butter, a small square of pesto gelee and a basil leaf for garnish, these “Pine Nut Butter and Gelee” appetizers fool you into expecting a sweet snack before delivering a traditional savory bite.