shiso pesto and salmon pasta


people always tell me that tomato sauce is great because of its mild flavor, and it is this flavor that lends it towards all kinds of diverse uses in culinary traditions all over the world.  when people tell me that, i immediately think of the color tope.

tope is neutral and difficult to hate, precisely because it is so god awful boring that it is hard to even notice to begin with.  yeah, you’ll never despise tope without thinking about it for a while, but you will sure as heck never be wowed by it.

tomato sauce is the tope of my world.  hey, let’s put it on pizza!  hey, let’s put it on pasta!  hey, let’s use it as a base for curry!  hey, let’s make a condiment out of it and put it on sandwiches!

hey, how about we don’t and say we did?  how about instead we use a sauce with panache and flavor and elegance and refinement.  how about we call in the guy that has been warming the bench for quite some time.

yes, pesto, you are finally up to bat.

sweet, sweet pesto, you never let me down.  i have implemented pesto in more ways that a healthy human being should admit to.  a few of my friends have sampled my homemade pesto-proscuitto-buffalo mozzarella-red bell pepper-spinach pizza, and not a single piece made it into the fridge to be savored the following day.  i learned to make truly excellent chicken pesto paninis with great expedience from one of the strangest, most unlikely (and gangster) cooks i have ever met.  i spent the weekends of living in the rundown town of south beloit wandering around the farmers market and purchasing huge bundles of basil for $1 at a time for the sole purpose of stocking up on pesto.  but unfortunately, this fairy tale doesn’t have a happy end.

i came to japan.  and here, basil doesn’t flow like water.  in fact, in most places, it doesn’t flow at all.  the occasional grocery store will have a vacuum-sealed bag of five or six leaves for about 200 yen, but i’m not made of cash.  i can’t go spending 1000 yen on the most basic part of a sauce.  i just won’t have it.

but you know what, japan has some other really good aromatic leaves.  in fact, japan has one really good aromatic leaf that has a zesty freshness that almost gives basil a run for its money.  in fact, it is a close relative of the mint plant.

and that leaf’s name is shiso.

and so i endeavored to create a pesto recipe that contained no basil, and while it wasn’t quite what i intended from the start, it was definitely worth recording and reproducing.

you’ll need:

  • pasta (i prefer angel hair or spaghetti)
  • 12 or 15 shiso leaves
  • olive oil
  • fresh garlic
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • smoked (or aged) cheese
  • pine nuts (optional)
  • salmon (or lox)
  • lemon (or yuzu) juice
  1. stack your shiso leaves, cut off the stems, and make sure that the rough backsides of the leaves are facing up.  most of the beautiful aroma and natural oils of the shiso leaf are contained on the rough, not the smooth, side of the leaf.  so don’t go rubbing all that goodness all over your cutting board.  roll the leaves up and slice them super thin.  give them another once over with the knife in the opposite direction.  mince if the shiso isn’t yet your liking.  add to a mixing bowl.
  2. peel and cut the ends off some garlic.  i generally go heavy on my garlic, just because i love the spice and the freshness it provides.  mince it super fine, and add it in the with the shiso.
  3. add enough olive oil to make a sauce, not a paste.  then give your proto-sauce just a tiny dash or two of lemon juice.  mix.
  4. add black pepper and salt a little bit at a time.  remember, it is always better to under-salt than over-salt.  once you have gone too far, it isn’t like you can take the salt back out.  and then your sauce is ruined.  and nobody likes ruined sauce.
  5. if you are using raw salmon (such as salmon fillets or steaks), now is a great time to cook them in a pan with a little bit of oil or go ahead and throw them on the grill.  remember, salmon is meant to be cooked rare, especially if it is fresh.  don’t ruin your pasta with a tragically dry piece of fish.  you owe yourself better than that.
  6. add some water to a pot and salt heavily.  another excellent option is to use chicken stock to cook your pasta, but you don’t have to.  just a thought.  give it a few minutes on medium heat once it reaches a boil, and watch closely to make sure the pot doesn’t boil over.  give it a stir now and again to keep those tenacious pasta particles from clinging and burning onto the bottom of the pan.  once the noodles are al dente, it is on like donkey kong.
  7. drain your pasta in a colander, and then introduce it to the mixing bowl containing your pesto and toss.  when evenly coated, put a nice pile in the center of a plate with a dimple in the middle.
  8. grate your cheese super finely all over the pasta, and add your salmon to the dimple.
  9. stand back, think about how bad you might feel for eating something this beautiful, and then go ahead and eat it anyway.

goes excellent with:

wine.  shiso and wine complement each other nicely based on their mutual zestiness and the general lack of acidity in this meal.  a fruity red or a dry white might be in your best interest.  keep the red in mind especially if you decided to go the lox and smoked cheese path.

cheap man’s chashu.  a side of melty, tender, mindnumbingly juicy chicken chashu is an excellent alternative for those who just really aren’t that big on fish.  four or five beautiful disks of perfectly steamed meat can make this pasta into something altogether different (and 100% just as beautiful).

cranberry juice.  not just cranberry, but any juice that has a natural tartness is an excellent choice.  acidity provides an excellent contrast of flavors to the earthiness of shiso and the smokiness of your lox and cheese.

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