"My mother is sending you some of the special foods of our region. The package should arrive today."
So said our houseguest, Flavia, a lovely, engaging young woman who is visiting from Abruzzo, Italy, while she interns as a researcher in a lab at Brigham & Women's Hospital.
Flavia arrived one Sunday in July, sight unseen. Meaning, literally, we had never set eyes on her, nor spoken to her. As I waited for her outside of Customs at Logan Airport, I held up a handwritten sign that screamed 'FLAVIA' in giant red letters. Needless to say, she didn't miss me.
Flavia is the daughter of a friend of a friend, one of the many people whose generosity made my new life as a food sherpa to undiscovered food destinations in Italy possible. My whole transformation has been filled with openness and good karma, and our family was happy to reciprocate on good faith alone. It was a good bet. Flavia is warm, witty, smart, and helpful, and we're already lamenting her departure next week.
Flavia's first week in Boston was a chaotic mixture of administrative and bureaucratic snafus. Long waits in line gave us a chance to get to know each other. Flavia became too well acquainted with the behemoth monstrosities that pass as government buildings in Boston.
As respite from the frustration of getting her paperwork in order, we visited our version of Italy, the North End of Boston. We savored an espresso and a cannoli at Caffé Paradiso as we chatted up the owner, Adriana. Turns out, Adriana has a house less than a mile from Flavia's in Italy. One thing led to another, and Flavia, my children and various friends were invited back to the caffé for window seats during a North End feast night. A rare treat, indeed.
"Our feasts in Italy are like this, too," Flavia reported happily, having seen many authentic trappings of the old world practice in the streets of the North End.
When Flavia's family found out my Italian heritage is partially Sicilian, they were ecstatic. It turns out, Flavia's home city, Cittá Sant'Angelo, has a sister city in Sicily. At feast time, they celebrate each other's regions by sharing foods and traditions. Flavia said her favorite Sicilian dish is pasta with pistacchio pesto. Pistacchio, in this case, pronounced with a very hard "K," like Pinocchio. Give it a try. pis-TACK-ee-o.
"Let's make it," she said. "I'll have my mom send the ingredients."
Silly me. I expected a small package. How big could pistacchios, pesto, and maybe some pasta be? Instead, a styrofoam shipping box the size of a small refrigerator arrived on my porch. It was wrapped in official-looking tape reading "U.S. Customs" and it weighed a ton. I could barely suppress my glee.
Filled with delicacies from Abruzzo and Sicily like frise, a ciabatta-like bread, three kinds of pecorino cheese (walnut, truffle and aged), and my personal favorites, several glass jars from the family's pantry shelves, I felt as if I had been magically transported to the dispensa of an old Italian farmhouse.
I kept digging and unpacked artichoke hearts that had been put up in oil by Flavia's boyfriend's mother, bright red peppers stuffed with tuna, plum conserves made by Flavia's father, and a pickled extravaganza of cabbage, carrot, and other veggies made by her nonna, that Flavia said simply "go well with chicken." The crowning glory was a glistening golden jar, filled with skinless whole figs in caramel, meant for dessert, Flavia told me, over vanilla ice cream and dusted with a bit of cinnamon.
It only took me a moment to recognize this gift for what it really is: a care package. A little piece of home for Flavia. A little bit of love and thanks to Jonathan and me for caring for her. A warm invitation to a home-cooked meal, comfort food to wrap around us like a hug. An opportunity to share a table across the expanse of an ocean. Old world care, in a new world care package.
And so, Flavia made us pistacchio pesto, and our family felt like her family, and the size of the world decreased to the size of a shared plate.
Flavia's Pistacchio Pesto
- 1 quart of whole milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter
- 1 cup flour, sifted
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup finely sliced white onion
- 2 tablespoons pistacchio pesto***
- 1/2 cup pistacchios, shelled and ground
- 1 1/2 lbs. pasta
- grated Parmigiano Reggiano, to taste
- salt and white pepper, to taste
- In a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat the butter and milk over high heat. Whisk in the flour, and stir continually as the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat slightly.
- Fill a large pan with 6 quarts of water and bring to the boil. Add pasta, and cook until just shy of al dente, about 10 minutes.
- Stir the pesto into the bechamel sauce. Continue stirring as the mixture thickens, about ten minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small frying pan, and sauté the onions until soft.
- Add the onions to the bechamel sauce.
- Add 1/4 cup of ground pistacchios to the sauce.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Drain the pasta, reserving one cup of pasta water.
- Add drained pasta to the large pan containing the bechamel pesto sauce.
- Stir well to combine, adding additional pasta water to keep the sauce creamy.
- Serve immediately. Garnish with grated Parmigiano and ground pistachios.
***A note on the pistacchio pesto. The one Flavia's family sent to me was simply a paste of sunflower oil, salt and ground pistachios.
There are other options, though, that more closely resemble a true pesto. Here's a simple recipe that can be used for a pistacchio pesto that can tossed directly into pasta, no fuss.
- 1½ cups packed basil leaves
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 cup pistachios, shelled and roasted
- ½ cup packed Italian parsley leaves
- ¼ cup grated parmesan
- 1 tsp. lemon zest
- 3 cloves garlic
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Place all ingredients, except salt and pepper into the large bowl of a food processor, or a blender. Process until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss immediately with hot pasta, add some reserved pasta water to keep the sauce creamy, if necessary.