When I was little, my grandparents had huge bushes of shiso in the back yard of their home in Kadogawa, Japan. Every morning, I would be dispatched to pick some leaves for breakfast. I still remember stepping outside, and marveling at the giant dew covered spiderwebs that had magically appeared overnight.
These were no ordinary cobwebs, we’re talking massive Harry-Potter-sized webs strung between meticulously manicured oversized bonsai trees. The smell of the damp moss-covered earth underfoot mingling with the fresh aroma of the shiso was intoxicating and I remember delighting in the spray of cool water that rolled off each leaf as I plucked it free. For a kid, it was a magical world unlike anything back in suburban California, and for weeks upon returning home, I’d pine for the tastes, smells, and scenery of Japan.
Shiso is one of those ingredients that’s rare enough in the US that most groceries that carry it will put five leaves in a pack and charge you a buck fifty. That relegates it to garnish duty most of the time, which is sad, because it has such a wonderful flavor.
Imagine my delight when I found two vendors at the Union Square Farmers Market selling whole bunches of shiso, complete with flowering stalks, a few weeks ago. I happily counted out three dollars and change, and as I walked away with my find, it occurred to me that this was an awful lot of shiso.
Pesto may seem like a cop out, but the fresh, almost minty aroma of green shiso pairs marvelously with grassy green olive oil. When you toss it with long strands of golden pasta and top it with a few pieces of sweet creamy sea urchin, it makes for a sublime pasta dish that’s like the sexy hapa offspring of a Japanese-Italian couple.
I’m all for rustic hand chopped pesto in most cases, but since green shiso can have rather course leaves, you’ll want to puree it in a blender. I was really hoping to serve this with some roasted coco nibs, but upon returning home disappointment set in as I realized I didn’t have any left. Instead, I toasted pine nuts until they were a handsome bronze, which added a wonderful nutty note, balancing out the sweet richness of the uni and the fresh green flavor of the pesto.
Shiso Pesto Pasta with Uni
2 ounces green shiso leaves (japanese perilla)
1 ounces grated pecorino romano
1 teaspoon kosher salt (halve if using regular salt)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lime juice (from 1/2 a lime)
8 ounces linguine, cooked according to package directions
small handful of pine nuts or coco nibs, toasted
1 ounce uni (optional)
Put the shiso, cheese, salt, olive oil, and lime juice, in a blender or the work-bowl of a food processor and whirl it around until it’s a fine green puree.
Boil the pasta according to the package directions in generously salted water. When the pasta is done, strain it well and toss it in a bowl adding the pesto a bit at a time until it reaches your desired level of flavor.
Plate the pasta and top with toasted pine nuts or coco nibs. You can also add some uni or ikura on top for some extra color and brine.