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A Tale of Versatility and A Special Seasonal Pesto

One of my favorite things about the Joy of Cooking, even way before I became part of the family and started working on the book, is that the recipes are always a great place to start. Say you want to make a chicken casserole, but with your own touches. All you really need to do is find the basic recipe in JOY, then improvise a little. It really helps to have a guide even when you want to do your own thing.

And thus my ongoing love-hate relationship with uber-specific cookbooks. Recipes that call for particular varieties of heirloom vegetables, or for really expensive ingredients in small quantities, or even just the "Asian Pear Cardamom-Scented Layer Cake with Brown Butter Cider Glaze" syndrome--the proliferation of hyphens and adjectives that ensure a recipe you might make once, but that will also require a special shopping trip and a special occasion to warrant making it.

Not that I have anything against Asian pears, cardamom, brown butter, or cider. But I do feel that these sorts of recipes leave nothing to the imagination. I like to innovate on my own in the kitchen. Thanks for having faith in my ability to do so, JOY.

This recipe, for instance, comes directly from JOY's pesto recipe. It's basic enough--basil, parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, and salt. But none of these elements are fixed. The basil can be replaced by almost any green, from spinach to arugula to kale; a variety of cheeses could take the place of parmesan; walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc. can supersede the pine nuts (and, frankly, with pine nuts clocking in at around $20/lb, I would recommend using something else).

This time, because these things are in abundance at our house right now, I used nettles and ramps in place of the basil and garlic, and sunflower seeds stood in for pine nuts. I had parmesan on hand, but if I hadn't, I may have used a very sharp white cheddar, romano, or even goat cheese or feta.

A note about foraging: never eat anything unless you can positively identify it. Nettles are one of the easier plants to find in the wild--if you've ever been stung by them you won't soon forget what they look like. They're also plentiful, and you need not worry about overharvesting them. Also, never eat plants from an area that has been sprayed with herbicides or other chemicals.

Where ramps are concerned, unless you live in the Appalachian region or a major metropolitan area with really good grocers, you will probably not be able to find ramps. If you have the privilege of being able to hunt them, please read this article first. The jist is, never pick more than 10% of the ramps in a given patch, and cut them off above the roots to ensure that they can come back in future years. Ramps are very slow-growing and slow-spreading plants that are in danger of being overharvested due to the current ramp fervor. Be conscientious.

If ramps are out of the question, simply use a few cloves of garlic or a handful of garlic chives. The flavor is different, but your pesto will still taste delicious.

Other articles you might enjoy: Nettle Champ (Mashed Potatoes with Nettles), Sweet and Spicy Ramp Bacon, Rose Hip Tea with Hibiscus and Ginger

Ramp and Nettle Pesto
Makes about 1 cup

*Note: Use care when handling nettles. Their little stingers are not terribly dangerous, but they can cause a great deal of discomfort. I like to wear rubber gloves or use tongs to handle them. Blanching, however, neutralizes their sting.
A particularly nice feature of this pesto is that, while basil will quickly brown, nettles make a bright green pesto that remains fresh-looking for days. Thus, there's no need to cover the surface of the pesto with olive oil.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Have an ice bath ready. Plunge into the boiling water for a few seconds:
           2 cups very tightly packed nettles (about 3 ounces)
Remove the nettles to the ice bath using a slotted spoon or a pair of tongs. Drain the nettles thoroughly, pressing them to squeeze out as much water as possible.
Combine the nettles in a food processor with:
           1/2 cup grated Parmesan
            1/3 cup sunflower seeds
            7 ramps, roughly chopped (about 1 1/2 ounces)
With the machine running, slowly add:
            1/2 cup olive oil, or as needed
If the pesto seems dry (it should be a thick paste), add a little more olive oil. Season to taste with:
            Salt
Use immediately, or cover, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

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Joy of Cooking App for iPad and iPhone

After three years of collaborative effort with our friends at Culinate and Scribner, it is our pleasure to introduce the Joy of Cooking for iPad and iPhone! Please check out this full-featured, digital version of the 2006 edition. In addition to the recipes and indispensable reference information our readers know and love, the app has many features that are brand new to JOY:

  • Built-in recipe timers (you can have multiple timers going simultaneously)
  • Search for and filter recipes by key word, ingredient, cuisine, season, technique, diet, and more
  • Create shopping lists from within the app
  • Convert any recipe to metric automatically
  • Give voice commands or have recipe steps spoken to you
  • Create menus in the app
  • Share recipes from within the app
  • Color photography

Truly a JOY for the 21st century! Download by directing your browser to www.joyofcookingapp.com. Don't forget to review the app!

Adapted from Alice Medrich's "New Classic Coconut Macaroons" from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy, Artisan, copyright 2010.

Preheat the oven to 350˚F with racks in the upper...