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In the summer, we have gorgeous basil plants all over the balcony and take the best possible care of them to ensure we always have a plentiful supply of the wonderful herb, my favorite and my husband’s. (By “we” I mean “he” takes care of them– R has the greenest thumb when it comes to basil of anyone I’ve ever met and babies those plants to make them grow grow grow for us!) The one thing we haven’t succeeded at yet is wintering the plants; we tried making pesto and freezing it with mediocre results, so mostly we wait through the winter until it’s fresh again. Sometimes I get so enticed by the big boxes of basil at the grocery store that I just can’t help buying one, and that’s what I did last week, and that’s why we happily devoured spaghetti with pesto for dinner.

My version of pesto does not contain pine nuts or parmesan, so I always get scolded by traditionalists for calling it “pesto”. But, to me, the crucial elements of a good pesto are the basil, garlic & oil, and those are all present, so you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to call it pesto, I guess. We favor an extra-garlicky, slightly salty version; this is the same base sauce we use on pizza with fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella all summer long and it is a favorite. I wanted a bit of substance to the dish, which is where mushrooms come in, and here they are sauteed quickly in butter, olive oil, salt and pepper, as easy as you can get. The punch of flavor comes from the pesto, so the mushrooms don’t need a lot of gussying-up. If you like, add a diced tomato or some bell pepper for some additional color and sweetness, but I like the simplicity of the pasta with just pesto and mushrooms: the freshness of the basil, the kick of garlic, the meatiness of the mushrooms. While eating, I like to dream of the warm summer days when basil will be flourishing on the balcony once more; they’re not too far away… right?

Spaghetti with Sauteed Mushrooms & Pesto (serves 2-3)

  • 5 small to medium cloves garlic
  • 1 c. basil, packed down
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 3 T. olive oil
  • 1 c. sliced mushrooms (I used portabello)
  • 1 1/2 T. butter + 2 T. olive oil
  • salt & pepper
  • 8 oz. spaghetti, cooked according to package directions

In a food processor (or with an immersion blender), roughly chop the garlic with a few pulses; add the packed cup of basil leaves, 2 T. of olive oil and the salt. Pulse-chop until the pesto reaches a consistency you like– you’ll need to stop a few times and scrape down the sides with a butter knife– and then add the last tablespoon of olive oil and give it one last whir. Taste and adjust for salt, if necessary, and feel free to add a drizzle more of olive oil if you like a looser pesto. Set aside.

The next step can be timed with putting the spaghetti in to cook; be sure to reserve 1 c. of the cooking water when you drain the pasta. In a skillet, heat the butter and 2 T. olive oil over medium heat; when the butter is melted, add the mushroom slices and allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown (about 5 mins.). (Using portabellos, I judged the firmness more than the color, taking them off the heat when they had softened to my liking.) Season with salt & pepper. Add the drained spaghetti and pesto to the mushrooms and toss to mix thoroughly. Use the cooking water from the pasta, 1/4 c. at a time, to add moisture and help combine your ingredients; I generally use 1/2 c. total. Serve with a dusting of parmesan cheese, if you like.