Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Creamy crab pesto with pasta

Pesto perfection

Pesto is one of those things that is incredibly easy to make, and I so rarely do. Then I make it, and wonder why I waited so long since the last time! Pesto is easily made in large batches, and a little goes a long way. Autumn is the perfect time to make it, when you're overloaded with the last of your basil and have no idea what to do with it.

The major drawback to my making pesto is the price of pine nuts. They are very expensive everywhere you shop. It's not an item the dollar store carries. However, I have recently discovered that Big Lots in Peterborough, NH does carry reasonably priced pine nuts in a re-sealable bag. One bag makes two batches of pesto, per this recipe (which is the one I use whenever I make pesto). You can also make your pine nuts go a lot farther by using half pine nuts and half another nut (raw peanuts work very well in pesto, giving very little flavor). Don't switch out the pine nuts entirely, though. They add a flavor you just can't get anywhere else.

Pesto can be used on its own to coat pasta, or you can spread it thinly onto bread while making savory sandwiches. It can also be mixed into a cream sauce with very little effort for an incredible meal that is both aesthetic and crowd-pleasing.

Have the following on hand before beginning:
  • 2 tbsp pesto
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 3-5 tbsp flour, all-purpose
  • 1 can of crab or miniature shrimp, liquid reserved
  • 1 cup half and half cream or milk (you may not use all of it)
  • 1/4 cup mushrooms, fresh or rehydrated (optional)
  • 2 tbsp flaked dried onion (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese for topping
  • pasta of choice
  • diced tomato for topping
Dried mushrooms
When I'm doing a quick cream pesto for lunch, I like to add mushrooms to it for extra flavor and bulk. I love shitake mushrooms, but they're both expensive and go bad very quickly for the amount I use. I discovered dried mushrooms work just as well, and they keep practically forever. This was another Big Lots find, and I got two bags of dried mushrooms, one chopped and one whole. All I need to do is simmer them in hot water for 3-5 minutes before using them, and drain them well.

Butter melting
To create a truly creamy sauce in a hurry, I start with a basic roux. Melt some butter in a sauce pan. The heat should be at medium, not enough to brown the butter and certainly not to burn it. I usually get impatient while the butter is melting, and rush to add my flour. Don't do it. Take the time. Put on a radio and dance, or make tea, or unload the dishwasher. Don't touch the pan again until the butter is completely melted and beginning to bubble.

Completely melted
Once it's completely melted, you should put in an equal amount of all purpose flour. There is no specific recipe for this, because the size of your roux depends on how much sauce you want to make. I made about a cup or so, and used about two tablespoons of butter and a bit more flour than that. You want to thicken the roux until it is not quite clumpy, but all the butter is fully coated and looks silky and even a bit gummy in the pot.

The roux
If you look at the picture to the right, you'll see the flour and butter are completely mixed, but the resulting roux is somewhat thin. I added an extra half tablespoon of flour to bring this to the thickness I wanted. It's very personal, and depends on your tastes how thick you want to make your roux. Luckily, a roux that is too thick is fairly easy to fix. A roux that isn't thick enough can be added to.

Add the pesto
As I mentioned earlier, a little pesto goes a long way. It has strong flavor, and for our recipe today you'll only need two heaping tablespoons of it. With your whisk, mix it together thoroughly, until it is evenly spread throughout the roux. You may need to turn down the heat on your stove now, if it seems to be sticking. You want to simmer the roux and pesto together to blend flavors, but you do not want it to burn or stick.

Add the liquid
I prefer a cream sauce with a strong flavor, and so once my roux is ready, I add the liquid from the can of crab or shrimp. The roux should thicken up significantly as you do this, so have the milk or half and half cream handy. Keep stirring with your whisk throughout the process, both to keep the ingredients well mixed and to make certain you avoid burning anything.

Adding cream
While you can do this with milk, there's a rich taste that half and half imparts, and so I always use it. Add the cream very slowly, about two tablespoons or so at a time. This makes it easy to judge how thick the sauce is as you go along. Continue adding cream and stirring well until the sauce reaches the consistency you prefer. Aim for a little bit on the thin side, because you'll be adding the crab or shrimp and your mushrooms. If you find you've made it too thin, don't panic. Add a bit of Parmesan cheese and stir, and it should thicken right up.

Green perfection
When your sauce is just about ready, it should be a light green in color, with no highlights of the white cream. The dark specks of basil from the pesto should be evenly distributed throughout the sauce, and there should be no clumps at all. The sauce should be thin enough to pour out of a spoon, but not be soupy at all. You can take a little taste at this point, and decide how much salt and pepper you'd like to add. I find the canned seafood adds enough salt, but I almost always add a bit of fresh cracked pepper to my cream sauce.

Add the crab
Empty the can of shrimp or crab into your sauce, and stir it in well. Drain your mushrooms by squeezing them in a coffee filter or cheesecloth, removing as much water as possible. Put them into the sauce as well. While your creamy pesto simmers, boil up whatever pasta you want to serve with your sauce. I like shaped pasta such as bow ties and shells, because they seem to hold the sauce better. My family prefers spaghetti and linguine.

Dice up a tomato
For color and flavor, nothing beats fresh tomatoes. Since this is the time of year when our gardens are full of tomatoes, grab one and dice it up while your pasta is cooking. Drain your pasta well, then toss it with the sauce you've made. Pour the whole thing into a bowl and top with tomatoes and a sprinkle of good quality Parmesan cheese. Garnish with a sprig of parsley if you have some.

When it's assembled, it will look fantastic. You can even make this type of sauce in quantity, simply by making more roux and adding more milk. You can also get creative by dicing up some crispy bacon or ham to garnish with, or switch out the seafood for chicken or sausage. Pesto is an incredibly versatile sauce that can be used in so many ways.

If you find you've got too much pesto and you're worried it will spoil, there's an easy way to store it. Scrape your pesto sauce into ice cube trays and freeze it. When it's completely frozen, just pop out the cubes and store them in a baggie. An ice cube is about a tablespoon, so the next time you want to make cream sauce, all you'll need to do is drop two pesto cubes in your roux, and work from there!

Check back often for information on canning, preserving, general homesteading and more. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! You can follow the blog via Network Blogs and Google Friend Connect (see the left hand column for the button).
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