Au Contraire, Pesto Pasta Pistou Prawns

It’s Basil: Day Two.

All that talk on Basil: Day One of making pesto while the sun shines really put me in a mood.

A mood to not make pesto.

But before you think I am relishing my role of contrarian (a role I do indeed relish). Let me tell you what I am in the mood to make. Pistou!

Pistou? What’s pistou?

Well, before you answer gesundheit! Let me just say, that pistou is a French sauce.

It is an olive oil based basil sauce and it closely resembles pesto (minus the pine nuts). Though it is also practically synonymous with a soup too. The classic soupe au pistou! But to be true and technical the pistou part of this soup is the basil topping served on top or stirred into the soup.

I can hear you sayng…“so why is there a pretty picture of grilled prawns?”

I’ll get to that.

pistouI consider Paula Wolfert’s version of pistou sauce to be classic. Though in truth I adjust the ratios and ingredients as my mood and pantry sees fit. Paula’s version goes something like this:

1 tablespoon crushed garlic

1‑teaspoon kosher salt

4 1/2 cups basil leaves, torn into pieces (2 ounces)

1/4 cup coarsely grated plum tomatoes

1/4‑cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup finely grated Mimolette or slightly aged Gouda (3 ounces)

In a large mortar, pound the garlic with the salt to a paste. Add the basil by the handful and grind the leaves against the side of the mortar until almost smooth. Stir in the tomatoes, and then gradually stir in the olive oil until it’s incorporated. Stir in the cheese and refrigerate until ready to serve. 

But, today I am using this recipe as inspiration. By changing this recipe, as freely as do, I want you to know I am not dissing the venerable Ms. Wolfert. No, I would not dare…

soupe ay pistouIn truth I am following in the time-honored footsteps of the original contrarians. The good and kind folk of Provence! They can’t seem to agree what is a proper pistou, let alone a soupe au pistou! Well wait til they get a load of mine. It’s not even a soup!

But I don’t think it matters much, I have heard say that the folks in Provence love to quarrel about pistou.

Quarreling over food. I love that!. In my book when there is room to quarrel, then there is room to extemporize. So I have.

But before you can wing it you really should know something about the original.

First let’s discuss the soup– of which the pistou is a vital condiment. It is a fairly straightforward vegetable soup. Traditionally, it is a summer soup. Which should help define its ingredients somewhat. It typically requires a homemade broth, white beans, green beans, and elbow macaroni, or broken pieces of vermicelli.

In reality, the vegetables can be what ever you have on hand. But in my opinion it is best to include at least one of the Provencal classics like green beans, zucchini, eggplant and/or tomatoes. Though, contrary to some opinions this is not absolutely essential.

Which brings us to the pistou (sauce) itself. As I mentioned it is basically a spare version of pesto. And just so you have an expert opinion about a proper pistou I will again quote Paula Wolfert:

“There’s only one way to make true pistou– by hand. Tear the basil leaves into pieces first, then grind the leaves against the side of a mortar with a pestle to puree them into a silky, creamy sauce. Like its Italian twin, pistou can also be served as an accompaniment to grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables.”

prawnThat being said, here is the part where I tell you about all of my changes and what I did in developing this recipe for Grilled Prawns with Pasta au Pistou.

Because, my version is not really a soup at all… but it does make a great mid-summer meal. And it does get its zing and appeal from the bright bold flavor of our star ingredient this week. Basil!

Paula says it’s perfectly acceptable to serve basil packed pistou with grilled fish. I am going to assume she is also cool with my choice of prawns. So far I think I am in the clear.

However, as much as I admire her handmade method, I am making my sauce in the Cuisinart!

Don’t look down your nose at me. I use my mortar and pestle quite a bit. It’s not that I am lazy. I promise. It’s just that in this case I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the handmade texture and my food processor version. Did anybody faint? Well when you recover I’ll let you in on my little trick.

To me, the best thing about the mortar and pestle is it allows for a varied texture. The food processor tends to be more uniform. In my version I add the ingredients to the bowl of the food processor and pulse the herbs 6 or 8 times. Then I begin adding the oil in a long slow drizzle with the machine running. I skip the “scraping down the sides of the bowl” step that is so often mentioned.

By doing this (or rather not doing it) some of the bigger pieces stick to the side of the bowl, and I promise you I get a very nice, varied texture in my pistou!

pasta piecesThe next bit of blasphemy I commit is in the pistou ingredients. As I said, I am serving mine with grilled prawns. So I just do not want cheese of any kind in my sauce. But I have to admit, in a generic sense; the cheese does add a certain nutty, earthy, saltiness. This just might be missed by the culinarily astute. And by that I of course, mean me…

So I am adding a few almonds and quite a few anchovies. I think the end result is quite inspired. Both are traditional Provencal ingredients so even my contrarian friends along the Mediterranean coast will feel pretty comfortable with my choices.

But now it is time to fess up to my biggest omission. Don’t worry. As far as the pasta goes I am still using vermicelli broken into bite size pieces I know this will be perfectly acceptable to most of my Gallic readers.

But what might surprise them is I am not using a lot of broth. Just enough to bring the pasta and vegetables together in a low bowl. I want to serve my prawns on top of the pasta and I don’t want to have to fish through too much liquid to get at its sweet meaty flesh! You can get the SippitySup full recipe for Grilled Prawns with Pasta au Pistou here.

grilled prawns with pistou pastaSo there you have it. It may not be a traditional soupe au pistou, exactly. But you gotta admit to drooling over those prawns. I can see you doing it.

In fact, this is such a non-traditional pistou dish I don’t even care if you call it pesto! Grilled Prawns with Pesto Pasta!

Just don’t get all in my face if Paula Wolfert comes a knockin’. It’s not my fault. You know how au contraire I can be… !


Greg Henry