Last summer about this time I arrived in Provence for a three week family holiday in Cassis, a storybook fishing village turned fashionable retreat. Like any food writer worth her salt, I arrived armed with a list of Provençal specialties I wanted to have at the source, like wine off the vineyard or water gushing from the spring. Unadulterated and authentic.
The list included the likes of soupe de poisson, bouillabaisse, socca, pissaladière, tapenade, and aïoli. It was enumerable—and I managed to eat it all. But first on my list was the contested pistou.
I say "contested" because there appear to be a million ways to make pistou, a southern French version of pesto sans nuts. I was thrilled to drag my family to a casual sidewalk bistro tucked up the hill whose menu touted pasta pistou, only to find when it arrived that it wasn't green, but red! It was like getting Coke when you'd ordered Sprite. Not the worst thing in the world, but a surprise all the same. Of course, it soon dawned on me that the two competing iterations of pistou that I'd heard about were the one with tomato and the one without. I had always grown up on a straight basil pistou, so this steaming heap was even more of a boon that I had bargained for: I was finally going to get to taste the competition.
It's as summery as green pistou, which reeks of anise-sweet basil and garlic and soaks in the olive oil in which everything in Provence seems delightfully afloat. Red pistou is equally, if not more, pungent—garlic galore, with hints of fresh parsley and basil. Pistou can be made with tomato paste, but this version undoubtedly had dried tomatoes. It was sweet, sharp, and we stank of garlic for two days, but it was heaven. There was nothing shy about it: the flavor, the portion, the color, the declaration of Provence.
For this version, I take my version of red pistou, and crown it with crunchy, salty bread crumbs made from crumbled old baguettes and earthy herbes de Provence. I add seared jumbo shrimp to make it a meal, but the shrimp or crumbs could be omitted for something more authentic. Serve it as it is, or with grilled fish or steak. You'll feel like you're back in Cassis in no time.
- 1 pound spaghetti or spaghetti rigati (pictured)
- 1 cup sundried tomatoes in olive oil
- 2 tablespoons oil from the sun dried tomato jar
- 1 1/2 cups basil leaves
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 to 2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- Zest 1 lemon
- Juice 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, divided
- 1 1/2 cups baguette crumbs
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
- Note: To make baguette crumbs, take the left over stale ends of baguettes, tear them up, and whiz in the food processor until they are in a rubble. Put in a plastic bag, and keep in the freezer.
- 12 jumbo shrimp
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and salt it.
Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain, but reserve at least 1 cup of pasta water.
While the pasta is cooking, combine all ingredients but the Parmesan and spaghetti in a food processor, and blend until smooth like a pesto.
While the pasta continues to cook, make the herbes de Provence crumbs and the shrimp (recipes follow). Both are optional. The traditional presentation is just spaghetti pistou.
Toss the spaghetti with the shrimp and the red pistou. Moisten with reserved pasta water as needed. Top with the herbed crumbs.
Herbes de Provences Crumbs
Heat the oil on medium heat in a nonstick skillet. Add the baguette crumbs, herbes de Provence, and salt. Toast until dry and crisp, stirring often.
Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Cook the shrimp 2 minutes per side.