In my mind (and my household) there are two types of cooks: recipe followers and improvisers. I fall squarely into the former category. My cookbook collection stands at 37 and counting, and I have copies of Saveur magazine going back nearly a decade. I love recipes. I have no problem buying 14 new ingredients I will likely never use again — right now I’m thinking of a barely touched bottle of pomegranate molasses in the back of the fridge I employed for a delicious winter fruit salad circa Feb ’06 — whereas my husband is very much about using whatever ingredients we happen to have on hand.
There are, however, a few exceptions. My favorite one — actually, one of my favorite foods, period — is pesto. Not the slick puree you find lubricating too many mediocre chicken wraps or limp pasta salads, but the real thing: an herby, nutty, garlicky sauce with real texture and presence. I like to make it with whatever nuts and herbs I happen to have on hand. A few nights ago, I tossed three cloves of garlic, a few handfuls of roughly chopped roasted (unsalted) almonds, about two thirds of a bunch of parsley, a small handful of mint, and a generous grating of Pecorino in a food processor. I whizzed it a few times until it was chopped but still a bit chunky, then poured in some olive oil while the motor was still running. Once it had the right texture — somewhere between a liquid and a paste, with a little grittiness thanks to the almonds — I stirred in some salt, a little lemon juice, and a splash of pricey, peppery extra-virgin olive oil from Napa and then stirred it into some rhombi pasta, cute little rhomboid ribbons. It could not have been easier or, frankly, more delicious.
Obviously, this isn’t so much a recipe as it is a set of guidelines. The garlic, cheese, and olive oil are imperative, as is getting the texture right, but otherwise it’s pretty flexible. In the winter, I like walnuts, parsley and Parm. I bet pistachio and basil would be interesting, too, although my house’s resident improviser is also, unbelievably, a basil-hater. A dash of red pepper flakes wouldn’t hurt, either.