Bonhomie in Boston – and the best (sun-dried tomato) pesto I’ve ever eaten

Giving you an indication of either how hungry we were or how tasty dinner was ... snapped before it was all gone! Arugula, fennel, and cannelini salad with a shallot vinaigrette, and farfalle with sun-dried tomato pesto.

Giving you an indication of either how hungry we were or how tasty dinner was ... snapped before it was all gone! Arugula, fennel, and cannelini salad with a shallot vinaigrette, and farfalle with sun-dried tomato pesto.

Some people drift in and out of our lives, and we’re honestly not too fussed at seeing it happen. For whatever reason, we’re not too bonded with them; they don’t really care what goes on in our lives and we don’t really bother with theirs. Other people, however, are close to our thoughts and hearts no matter if they live next door or in the next time zone (or two or three or eight). These people seem to have a little string clipped to our core, pulling us this way and that as we follow their lives while we lead our own.

I feel like I’ve been a nomad all my life, so 95% of those I call my closest friends fall into that latter category. They live at best two hours away and at worst an eight-hour flight away. But no matter what has happened between the time we first became best friends and the present – a decade of different schools attended and jobs worked, a heartache or two, or simply a move away – I always feel like I return back to my center when I manage to escape my current life and visit with those wonderful, old, forever friends. They’re better than a warm hug on a cool fall day or a gooey chocolate-chip cookie fresh from the oven – because they’re both in every way … always have been and (hopefully) always will be.

My best friend Shari is that to me, and I hope I am that for her! She is the seriously caring and seriously intelligent woman of ribbon cake. Shari got this patriotic American girl through a sometimes tough adaption to our Burlington, Ontario, high school – and in a truly serendipitous fashion we realized we share a connection that grew to make us two peas in a pod, at least in the emotional department. Sure, we both went through hard times between then and now, but somehow we can always reconnect and pick up exactly where we left off. Sometimes it’s been six months, once a year perhaps, but we always try to keep the lapses in communication and visits short.

Truth be told, there aren’t too many people with whom your friendship can span that long, with a generous sprinkling of voids here and there, yet still bake up sweet and strong. I know I’m lucky! The good news is, we share a lot of common interests, and one of them is a love of good food. Another is a love of good cities, which brings me to this past weekend…

I met up with her in Boston where she stayed in the adorable Mission Hill neighborhood, which is pretty close to Northeastern U and not too far from anything else. The house itself is an old 3-story, three apartment beauty complete with extensive original dark wood molding, stained glass transoms, the cutest niches and built-in cabinets, and the homiest vibe I’ve ever felt in an apartment. Shari used to rent two rooms from a couple that lives in the bottom two floors, and they were only too happy to host her (and me!) again.

A good deal of time was spent talking and laughing – for hours – with each other and friends, drinking quite a few glasses of wine, and both eating and cooking delicious food. We had brunch at Church near Fenway Park on Saturday (heavenly eggs Benedict – sorry, dad!), ogled the extensive arts collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, walked I don’t know where (the Shawmut area, says Google maps) to have a relaxing cup of Americano coffee (me) and English Breakfast tea (Shari) at the South End Buttery Café (I really must interject here to make three points: 1) the cupcakes there look pretty famous, so I bet they’re good … we didn’t give in, but probably should have for posterior’s posterity’s sake; 2) the outdoor seating area is entirely too small for anyone but a clan of dwarfs to sit in; and 3) the outdoor seating area is especially charming even on crisp sunny afternoons, when hungry sparrows jump right up onto the tables and cordon to catch a nibble or two), and held an impromptu dinner brainstorming session in the middle of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Oh – and ate a spectacular Saturday dinner … that we invented … genius!

Wine and dinner, 10Oct09

Our host, the lovable Jeanne, had earlier suggested whipping up some pasta with pesto, the ingredients for which Shari and I decided to pick up on our way back to the house. Well, there just wasn’t a big, healthy bunch of basil at Trader Joe’s, so we had a brain spark to substitute sun-dried tomatoes for half the basil … and by a happy chance, Joy of Cooking – the first cookbook I plucked off Jeanne’s bookshelf – had a smash-bang recipe for pesto! I don’t know why this tasted so good, but I think it’s due to the generous amount of garlic, salty young parmesan we found at Whole Foods, and chunkier-than-normal texture of the pesto. The pesto recipe gave us an enormous amount of the stuff, but we only used about half a cup for dinner. The pasta was farfalle with halved grape tomatoes (thrown into the warm pasta before the pesto was added) – simple, piquant, perfect. And the accompanying salad? Equally simple due to the freshness of the arugula, fennel, even the shallots and herbs in the easy mustard vinaigrette. The cannellini beans provided a little protein to the meal, but probably weighed down the salad a little; be careful to go easy on the vinaigrette – I might have been heavy handed on Saturday on account of rushing! But in the end, the meal was delightful, and I think at least half of this was due to the company. And the wine. And even the leftover chocolate and raspberry cake from the previous night’s party. But especially the friends and wine.

So, whether it will be a few days or a few months until we touch base again, I know our friendship will be as strong as ever. And with great weekends like this in Boston, we’ll always have great memories to add those from the past!

Sun-dried tomato pesto (adapted from Joy of Cooking)

Note: you could use sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, and therefore reduce the amount of olive oil you add, but if you let the finished pesto marinate for a few hours after processing it, you’re not really gaining anything in terms of making your tomatoes softer. I prefer the dry variety, since the tomato flavor is pure and not marred by spices that won’t necessarily work in a pesto.

  • 2 huge handfuls fresh basil, washed and cut in a chiffonade
  • 1 1/2 cups sun-dried tomatoes, well chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1 1/4 cups grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese (we used a particularly salty, young variety)
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup olive oil, mild-flavored such as kalamata
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (easy on the salt!)

Farfalle and grape tomatoes with sun-dried tomato pesto, cropped, 10Oct09Toast the pine nuts in a skillet over medium-low heat until they’re fragrant; allow the nuts to cool completely. Add all the ingredients except salt to the bin of a food processor. Whir the mixture well, pulsing to get a texture that retains non-homogeneity and avoids becoming a mushy soup. You may need less or more olive oil than I called out, so use a light hand at first and adjust the amount. Taste the pesto and add salt if it’s needed; we didn’t have to add any due to the cheese we used (if you choose something like a pecorino instead of parmesan, I highly doubt you’ll need to add salt, either). Store in the fridge for 3-4 weeks, max; pesto tends to mold over rather quickly, so use this up! To this end, this recipe can be easily halved, but if you make a full batch you can freeze the extra in ice cube trays or small containers.

Fennel, cannellini bean, and arugula salad with mustard-shallot vinaigrette

  • 1 bag pre-washed baby arugula
  • 15-oz can cannellini beans, rinsed
  • 1/2 bulb fennel, quartered and sliced 1/8″ thick
  • reserved fronds from the fennel bulb
  • 1 small shallot, halved and very thinly sliced
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1 Tbsp grain mustard, or combination of Dijon and grain mustards
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil, mild-flavored such as kalamata
  • 10-12 kalamata olives, pitted and quartered lengthwise
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme
  • 2 large sage leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lay the arugula in a large salad bowl. Slice the fennel, taking care to cut out the core and discard anything that’s tough. You don’t need to discard the outer “leaves”, but do wash the bulb well. Sprinkle the fennel over the arugula. In a medium bowl, juice the lemon half and discard the seeds. Whisk in the mustard, then the olive oil, poured in a thin stream. Add the shallots, thyme, sage (or other combination of provençal herbs as you have available), and salt and pepper to taste. Add the cannelini beans and stir gently to coat; try not to mash the beans! Pour this all over the fennel, artfully down the middle of the serving bowl, then top with then sliced kalamata olives. Finally, sprinkle the fennel fronds on top. Consume the entire salad after serving, since the arugula will wilt after being dressed.

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2 thoughts on “Bonhomie in Boston – and the best (sun-dried tomato) pesto I’ve ever eaten

  1. i love you! i have far too much to say in response to this awesome post, so i will save it for another mode of communication – my own blog perhaps. this was lovely :o)

  2. Hey there – thanks so much for commenting on my blog. I love the idea of throwing sun-dried tomatoes in a pesto! I will have to try it out. I am about 20 minutes from NYC, in Bergen County. Have you been around these parts? I don’t think I’ve ever been to Flanders.

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