Fresh and meatless in January? Here’s how

Mario Batali

I have long been a proponent of meat, often expounding on the virtues of pig fat and beef cheek. However, I do not hesitate to declare, in black and white, that there is very little more delicious than a perfectly ripe pear or local ear of corn in season. In an interview with “60 Minutes” last year, my friend and constant inspiration, José Andrés, called meat “overrated.” He added, “I believe the future is vegetables and fruits.”
I don’t think that meat is overrated per se. It’s delicious and I enjoy meat frequently, especially a good burger. It is, however, overused. Not out of malice or foolishness, but out of habits learned over the last century. It is the centerpiece of most tables in America for most of our meals.
But I do agree with Chef Andrés’ sentiment that its reign at the center of the plate is waning. Fruits, grains and vegetables are undeniably the future of sustainability and of healthy eating and nutrition in this country and eventually the world. In the words of the sage and excellent writer Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Yes, it’s January. It’s not necessarily the time of year you think of “just picked” freshness, especially in the Mid Atlantic Coast, where I live in New York City. We’re typically emptying out root cellars and pantries of cans for hearty soups and stocks. But warm and hearty isn’t necessarily or exclusively synonymous with meaty.
We’re making this column “meatless” with a zippy and exciting pasta: Trenette with Jalapeno Pesto.
What we commonly think of as “pesto” is only one variety of the sauce. Pesto Genovese, the basil pesto native to the beautiful Ligurian coast in northwestern Italy, is the one most commonly replicated in America.
But pesto can be made by combining any green leafy vegetable (or even a ripe or preserved vegetable, say, sun-dried tomatoes) with Parmigiano Reggiano (or some other kind of cheese) and usually some nuts. Here, I mix hot Latin American peppers with onions, almonds and olive oil.
In my house, family dinners are fairly regular. Mondays are meatless, and I always cook. Tuesdays are either homemade by me or “takeout Tuesdays,” utilizing New York City’s unique Chinese offerings, or my own Otto Pizzeria just down the block. Wednesdays and Thursdays are almost always homemade Mexican fare by Chef Leo, my boys’ babysitter of 10 years.
Eventually, when the boys move away to college or trade, I hope that Chef Leo will stay with us, simply because she’s such a great cook and a true force around the house.
For family meals, the schedule is as important as the discussion. It’s the little things like rhythm and ritual that bring the family around the table and trigger a shift in mentality away from the guarded thought processes developed during long and stressful days, and toward the relaxed state of mind found in the safety and comfort of the family supper.
This pasta dish serves eight to 10 as a first course, all’italiano, or six as a main. Use any leftover pesto to top cooked vegetables or as a spread for crostini. Stored in a plastic container with a snap-tight lid and covered with a thin layer of olive oil, it will keep nicely in the fridge for two weeks.
A presto!

Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 as a main.
Jalapeno Pesto:
6 fresh jalapeno peppers, cored and seeded
5 fresh Serrano chiles, cored and seeded
1/2 medium red onion, chopped into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup sliced blanched almonds
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds trenette (or use linguine fine pasta)
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted

– Make the jalapeno pesto: Place the jalapenos, Serranos, onions,almonds and 1 cup olive oil in a food processor and process untilsmooth. Season with salt to taste.
– Bring 8 quarts of water to a boil in a large pasta pot.
– While the water is heating, combine the olive oil and the garlicin a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan, and sauce over medium-high heatuntil the garlic is almost brown, about 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cupsof the jalapeno pesto and bring to a simmer.
– When the water comes to a boil, add 2 tablespoons salt. Drop thetrenette into the boiling water and cook for 1 minute less than thepackage instructions indicate. Just before the pasta is done,carefully ladle 1/4 cup of the cooking water into the pancontaining the jalapeno mixture.
– Drain the pasta in a colander and add it to the jalapeno mixture.Toss over medium heat for about 30 seconds, until nicely coated,and then pour it into a warmed bowl. Scatter the breadcrumbs overthe top and serve immediately.

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