Massimo Bottura has been fixated on ugly bananas lately.
“I always look at the ugly banana over there,” he says one day in November, pointing to a misshapen, browning banana decaying in the corner of the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen. “It’s more interesting. It’s more challenging.”
Bottura, 55, is a titan of the restaurant world. He is the mind behind the lauded Osteria Francescana restaurant in Modena, Italy that boasts three Michelin stars. More recently, though, he's been harboring an obsession with foods other people might find unspeakably hideous, like the world’s ugly bananas and all of nature’s other bastard children. You know, the ingredients that get discarded before they're even consumed because humans have been conditioned to conflate appearance with actual taste. The planet’s been substantially worse off for it. Food waste is a problem bigger than most people realize, he feels, and he wants to snap us out of our stupor.
The best way to fight food waste? Cook.
This is the guiding principle of Bottura’s latest book, Bread is Gold: Extraordinary Meals with Ordinary Ingredients, out last November. Well, the book isn’t just his; it’s more of a joint labor love from the world’s most perspicacious chefs, from friends like René Redzepi to Alain Ducasse. The book imagines the possibility that we can feed ourselves and fight the waste we introduce to the planet at the same time. It's a book filled with recipes for three-course meals, their ingredient lists composed of all the stuff we might have an impulse to throw away.
Bottura reckons it’s the most important book of last 30 years.
“There’s no other book like this,” Bottura insists. “All of us have given our time, creativity, and vision to this.”
One of the recipes he’s cribbed from the book is for mint and breadcrumb pesto. Yes, breadcrumbs—the kind you’ve got idling in your pantry, or made from stale bread. Some may feel that breadcrumbs are unorthodox for pesto, he acknowledges. But he insists they’re the ideal alternative to pine nuts.
“This is the switch,” Bottura says. “Breadcrumbs are much lighter than pine nuts.”
This particular recipe is born out of Bottura’s nostalgia for his childhood in Italy, he explains, a time when he didn't have much to eat. “A warm cup of milk with some breadcrumbs and a little touch of chocolate or coffee was my favorite meal as a kid,” he tells me. “That’s it. My palate started like that.” Back then, he didn’t have a choice. No "Cheerios or sugary cereal" to select from, he says. This became his favorite snack by default.
He takes a Vitamix and pulses basil, parsley, and mint leaves; breadcrumbs; two cloves of garlic; and about five ice cubes until they’re chopped finely. Don’t go overboard on the basil, he warns, as he adds a pinch of sugar to correct against the bitterness of the herbs. He adds in some extra-virgin olive oil, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and sea salt, pulsing them all together gently until they're combined.
“This is the pesto of Brooklyn!” he says, with an air of sarcasm and triumph after the solution has achieved the consistency of a paste. “Brooklyn pesto. Williamsburg pesto.”
He's admiring what can best be described as mint-hued gloop. It tastes divine. Here is a pesto that’s rich in flavor but feels supple, almost featherweight as it coats your tongue. He tosses it in a bowl of fusilli—though any short pasta suffices, really—cooked al dente.
When you have nothing else, he reminds us, you can still have the world's ugliest breadcrumbs. Maybe you'll find something beautiful in them, too. You just have to be looking hard enough.