For many years my husband and I traveled to Provence during the summer to spend several weeks in the south of France. We were enchanted by the landscapes– fields of purple lavender, groves of old, snarled olive trees, and exquisite beaches bordering the Mediterranean. It was, however, the simple, yet vibrant food that inspired us to return.
Although we ate in a handful of Michelin starred restaurants, I liked the unpretentious, out-of- the-way bistros and cafés best. One of our favorites was La Merenda, a tiny place in the center of Nice, where there was no phone, and you could only reserve in person. Their signature dish was “pâtes au pistou,” prepared with house made spinach fettuccine tossed with pistou, Provence’s version of pesto. Over the years, I have tried to recreate the dish, but without much success.
Recently, I found several on-line articles in which the current owner, celebrated chef, Dominic Le Stanc, revealed that he tossed the pasta with butter and grated Emmenthal, and then with the pistou. Once I added butter and cheese, my version was close to the original. I used good quality purchased pasta and opted for linguine rather than the wider spinach fettuccine. And, I used Gruyère (which I always have on hand) in place of Emmenthal, with fabulous results.
This dish has become my “go to” main course for warm weather. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish and calls for easy-to-find ingredients, including fresh basil which is now in season. I pair this pasta with a salad of mixed greens, thinly sliced radishes, and red and yellow cherry tomatoes, while my spouse pours glasses of Rosé. We pause for a moment and dream that we are back in Provence!
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Pâtes au Pistou (Pasta with Provencal Pesto)
2 cups loosely packed basil leaves, torn in half plus 4 sprigs for garnish
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and halved
Generous 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup good quality olive oil
12 ounces good quality linguine such as DeCecco or Barilla
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
1/2 cup (about 1 1/2 ounces) grated Gruyère cheese
Several grinds of black pepper
1.To prepare the pistou, place the basil leaves, garlic, salt, and olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse machine until basil is finely chopped, about 1 minute. Set aside. (Pistou can be prepared 1 hour ahead; leave in the bowl of food processor or transfer to a bowl and leave at room temperature.)
2.To cook the pasta, fill a large pot 2/3 full with water and set over high heat. Bring to a boil, and add 2 teaspoons salt and linguine. Cook pasta according to package directions, until al dente or just tender to the bite. Drain the pasta in a colander and then return it to the pot in which it was cooked.
3. Add the Gruyère to the pot and using two forks, toss the pasta with the cheese until melted. Then add the butter and toss until it has melted. Taste the pasta and season with salt if needed. Stir in the pistou and continue to toss until well distributed. Season with more salt if needed and with a grind or two of black pepper.
4. Mound pasta in four shallow bowls and garnish each serving with a basil sprig.
Copyright Betty Rosbottom 2020