May 10, 2006
Spinach Pesto Pasta with Lemon Crusted Chicken

spinachpesto.jpgMany years ago, in our wild youth, Barrett and I were roommates in a coachhouse in Chicago. Barrett's then-girlfriend was also there and so we had our little Three's Company household. Except that it was the late 1980s and nobody cared if two girls and a guy shared a house. And the wild youth? Every Friday in the winter, almost without exception, we would play out the same comedy. "What do you want for dinner?" "I dunno, what do you want?" "Let's order in." "Where?" "I don't care." And so Barrett and I would shoot out suggestions - Thai, Indian, Italian, Ethiopian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Jamaican? (Yes, our neighborhood was that rich in ethnic choices. There are things I miss about Chicago and that's high on the list.) And She would shoot down every suggestion. "Nah." "Don't feel like it." "Had it for lunch." "Not AGAIN." (Roll of eyes.) So in the end, we nearly always ended up with the same restaurant: Leona's. Italian-American food, not even great pizza. And She always had the spicy Buffalo wings. And I, after much deliberation and hemming and hawing and "this time I really AM going to try something different" would always get the ravioli (mixed cheese and meat, please) with spinach pesto. (Barrett actually changed his order frequently enough that I don't remember what his standby was, shades of the experimental genius he has become.)

If you are wondering why we always ordered in on a Friday night, you obviously have not experienced many Chicago winters first-hand. In the summer we would barbecue or possibly drag ourselves to a restaurant with good air conditioning.

Spinach pesto is one of those dishes that probably has authentic Italian lovers shuddering. But it's pretty tasty. I have always loved spinach and I also love "real" pesto. And I love them mixed together. So sue me. I'm half Austrian and half Irish-American, not Italian.

When I lived in Chicago I never made spinach pasta for two reasons. I had a large cement planter in the cement yard in front of our house and it was full of bushy basil. That was the summer of the pesto and the failed Mint Liqueur experiment. Barrett tactfully doesn't mention it in his post about pesto, but when I think of those days I remember that he and She were begging me to stop making pesto by the end of the summer. I made a lot of it. So that is reason number one; I didn't need to "cut" my pesto with spinach. Reason number two, of course, is that I could get the Leona's stuff simply by picking up the phone and anyway by the end of the winter I was sick of it.

Now that I live here in Paris I sometimes get nostalgic about things I ate in Chicago. (One of these days I'm going to make a true Chicago stuffed pizza and enlighten the masses, or at least our friends here in Paris.) I also recognise that one of the reasons Leona's probably made the spinach version is that spinach is cheaper and easier to source all winter long. And right now, it's in season in France. Bingo.

Spinach Pesto (serves four as a side dish)

500 grams spinach
200 grams basil
100 grams pine nuts
3 plump cloves of garlic (or more, to taste)
about a 1/2 cup of olive oil
salt, pepper
100 grams (about a cup) grated Parmesan, divided

In a dry frying pan, scatter the pine nuts and place the pan on a medium flame. Watch them carefully and shake the pan from time to time so that they do not burn, but brown a bit on at least two sides. Remove to a food processor. Wash the spinach and place it, water still clinging to the leaves, in a large pot (or the same pan as you used for the pine nuts, if you were far-sighted enough to use a nice deep one). Cover, and over a low flame cook until all the spinach is just wilted. Drain the spinach (if necessary) and add it to the food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients, reserving the olive oil and a few tablespoons of the cheese. Process until you have a thick sludge and then add olive oil until you achieve the consistency you like. It has to be thin enough to mix well with the pasta, but thick enough to stick to the pasta. Cook enough pasta for four according to the directions on the package. (We used the bow-tie shape as I thought it would make it easier for the Boy to eat the leftovers.) When the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss it with the spinach pesto. Garnish with the remaining grated cheese.

To accompany the pasta, I wanted a very simple chicken dish and this one goes perfectly.

Lemon crusted chicken breasts (serves 2)

2 boneless skinned free range chicken breasts
juice of half a lemon
1 Tbs chopped fresh (or frozen) basil
1/2 cup flour
1 egg, beaten
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs olive oil
salt, pepper

Marinate the chicken in the lemon juice and basil for at least half an hour. Dredge each chicken piece in the flour, coat it with egg and then roll it in the bread crumbs. Melt the butter in a pan and add half the oil. When it is hot, but not browning, add the chicken breasts and quickly brown on both sides. Remove to a hot oven and bake until the juices run clear, about half an hour at 200c. (This is when I made the pesto and pasta). Serve with a lemon wedge and sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper.

The crunchiness of the chicken is very satisfying next to the soft pasta and the basil pulls the two parts of the dish together nicely. And the leftovers were enjoyed greatly by the Boy the next day. He likes spinach. Not as much as broccoli, but frankly I can't complain.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at May 10, 2006 2:05 PM Print-friendly version

The pesto you made was great, but DANG we had a lot of basil. I think you successfully raised four or five varieties.

I should point out that "cooking" for me during this time consisted of pressing the buttons on the microwave and going to the door to pay the delivery guy.

All the cooking was done by the two females of the household, and our health was better because of it.

Posted by barrett on May 10, 2006 at 4:04 PM

Barrett, I have never grown basil so successfully since. As I recall, aside from immediately after planting I never watered the plants and they just thrived! Wish I could do as well here, but I guess the weather just isn't extreme enough.

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 10, 2006 at 4:20 PM

I guess the basil grew like the old joke:

Q: How do you plant zucchini in the Midwest?
A: Throw the seeds over your shoulder and RUN!

Posted by barrett on May 10, 2006 at 4:43 PM

I can't believe you'd eat at Leona's more than twice. The 2nd time just to confirm it was as bad as the first. It's traditionally ranked as the worst Italian food in Chicago. In reality, it's not THAT bad, but its the eqivalent of choosing a chain restaurant when there are hundreds of other options.

Posted by Chris (From Chicago) on May 11, 2006 at 12:02 PM

We ate a lot of other places too, when the weather was bearable. But of the places that delivered, Leona's was far ahead of Domino's and its ilk. If nothing else, it was hot and filling and delivered. Anyway, cut us some slack - we were lazy 22 year olds!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 11, 2006 at 5:23 PM

Oh, and another point: if you read the story again, you'll notice that Barrett and i were willing (even eager) to try any of a dozen other options. Leona's was always for some reason the only one She would agree to. And we didn't have the strength of mind to outvote her...!

(Why that was the case would take 20 years of analysis, which would not be interesting reading.)

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 11, 2006 at 5:27 PM
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