Thursday, September 19, 2013

Charred Tomato and Asparagus Penne with 3 Cheese Pesto

When I was a child my parents always said West Virginia was "All ridges and hollers," no flat land to be seen anywhere. My Aunt and Uncle live at the bottom of one of those hollers, and we always referred to the sprawling, narrow reach of their land as simply "The Holler." As in, "We're heading down to the Holler this weekend to see Patsy and Bob." I thought of this as the name of their land, The Holler. I don't know how old I was when I realized holler meant hollow. Way too old, lets put it that way. 

They live at the end of road, which turns off of a named road, but doesn't bear any signage or name itself, to my knowledge. It's a dirt road, and it curves down the hollow at a steep angle before ending at the very bottom, where it joins with a creek. Their home, their land, is the last home at the end of the road where it joins with the creek. This, to me, has always seemed a wonderful place to live. 

At some point in my teenage years my aunt and uncle decided they would really rather everyone call their land the Homestead, and while it's mostly caught on, I still fondly refer to it as the Holler in my head, for as a child the Holler came to represent everything that was wild and free- I could play barefoot in the creek, explore the abandoned houses and myriad of caves that lined the hollow with my cousins, take a wild ride straight up the side of the "mountain" in my uncles suv, moo at their neighbor's cows, locate and attempt to ride their half wild horse, and even when we went to church on Sunday there were cookies afterwards and a tree in the church yard I liked to climb. For me holler isn't just a colloquial term for hollow, it's synonymous with the wild, unconstrained joy of a child turned loose in a large field.

Last week I spent some time on my aunt and uncles homestead, and largely discovered that not much changes down there, except that the half-wild horse's bones were found a few winters ago, the abandoned houses have further rotted into the ground, and they've replaced the gaggle of dogs they used to keep with two cats who live outside, keep the moles at bay, and tried to eat every food I brought out to photograph. 

By day my uncle took me up the ridges and down nearly completely vertical drops back into the hollows on the back of his atv whose warning sticker very clearly said not to carry anyone on the back. I brought my camera, and we circled wild apple trees looking for ripe ones, scared deer out of the path ahead of us, saw a phantom barn on a hill we couldn't locate, and I photographed every abandoned house and barn we could find.

When I was a child, this place was called the Hay House, it was intact enough then to walk in through the front door, and there was newspaper covering the walls of the front room in lieu of wallpaper, if I remember correctly the dates on the newspapers were in the 1920's or teens. I believe it was a house, but it's much smaller than the other Homesteads in the hollows around there, so I'm not certain. 

We also came across several abandoned old homesteaders houses, some of which my uncle knew the stories for, but one, the bottom left photo above, he had never even come across before. 

It was a large house, facing the dirt road we were on when we came upon it, just around the bend from a little house which had belonged to two old bachelor brothers who farmed the land together all their lives. 

All of the doors were blocked by various fallen bits of the house, but the inside was still pretty intact- here you can see that like the Hay House, the tenants here had wall papered with newspaper, probably for insulation purposes. I couldn't get close enough to read any dates, but the house was nearly identical in style to my aunt and uncles, which dates about 1892. 

One afternoon I followed the creek a long way, I found an old rusty horseshoe and an arrowhead, scared a deer out of the creek ahead of me, glimpsed a few turkeys, and only had to go in over my knees once.

One evening I made this delightful charred vegetable and pesto covered penne, while my mother and aunt cooed at my cousins baby via skype and my uncle grilled the chicken. It turned out lovely, I forgot what a simple luxury having a grill is.

Charred Tomato and Asparagus Penne with 3 Cheese Pesto

1 lb Penne
8-10 Small Tomatoes
1 bunch (1 lb) Asparagus

1.5 C loose fresh basil
1/3 C Parmesan grated (and some extra for topping)
1/3 C Asiago grated 
1/3 C Romano grated 
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
3/4 C Almonds
1/3-1/2 C Olive oil (more if you like it creamy, less if you like it grainier)
1/4 C Water- optional
3-4 Cloves Garlic
3-4 Scallions, extra for topping if desired

4 Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts

Boil penne until al dente. While the water boils, make your pesto. Roughly chop the scallions, then place all pesto ingredients in food processor and blitz until well combined and fairly smooth. The water is optional, and will make a slightly creamier, saucier pesto. Without it the pesto will be thicker and grainier, olive oil amounts also affect this. Personally for this recipe I like a saucier Pesto, and I used a 1/2 C olive oil and a bit of water. If you prefer a chunkier, more rustic pesto, keep an eye on your food processor and stop when there are still some chunks.

Grill chicken while pasta cooks, either on a grill over medium heat, turning frequently, or in your broiler for about 12-15 Minutes. I simply salted and peppered my chicken, but you could marinade it if you want. However, I find the pesto sauce adds plenty of flavor.

Cut Asparagus into 2-3 inch lengths, and place on greased, broiler safe baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, add a touch of salt and pepper. Cut tomatoes into halves or quarters depending on the size of your tomato, you want pieces small enough to pop in your mouth. Place tomatoes on separate greased baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Turn your broiler on and let it warm up a minute, then add the asparagus. After about 2-3 minutes add the tomatoes. Let cook, checking frequently, until both the tomatoes and asparagus have some blackened bits. I found this took the asparagus about 7 minutes and the tomatoes about 5 minutes.

Add about 1/2 your pesto to the pasta and toss to combine. Add some pesto pasta to your plate, top with chicken and charred vegetables, and a hearty dollop of more pesto. If you saved some scallions chop them up thin and sprinkle over top for an extra pop of flavor. Serve immediately and enjoy thoroughly.

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  1. Beautiful photos, interesting narrative and delicious recipe!

  2. I have always known that our hollow was magical. Thanks for putting it into words.