August 13, 2006

In Honor of Pesto

I can’t remember the first time I had pesto. I’m certain I never had it during my childhood. With few exceptions, pasta in my house came dressed in red gravy, usually with a meatball or two.

Now that I’m a firmly entrenched, 30-something adult, pesto is an important part of my life. I’m fairly certain that I could eat some pasta with pesto—or put it on some sort of sandwich, or maybe on some eggs and toast even—at least once a week. Pesto is something I always look forward to, even when it’s leftover. Heck, especially when it’s leftover.

The beauty of pesto is twofold. First, it’s easy to make and requires only a handful of ingredients. But the quality of the ingredients is critical to creating a pesto worthy of adulation. Freshly grated parmesan really is a must. Don’t insult this dish by using any of that pre-grated stuff from the store that is closer to lint balls than cheese. A fairly good quality extra-virgin olive oil also is critical. Along with the basil, olive oil is pesto’s foundation. Using a cheap olive oil in your pesto is like using mud to hold together the bricks on a house. You may complete the task, but the end product is sure to let you down.

Second, pesto is always satisfying. When I eat a good pesto, I can taste every ingredient in it, but no one ingredient – even the basil, I suppose – dominates. The pine nuts, assuming enough have been added, comes through, the cheese, the garlic. It’s all there, and it all works together to slather your tongue and stimulate every taste bud on it (even, I swear, the sweet ones!). Some pasta coated with pesto is my idea of simple perfection.

And although I can’t necessarily fault anybody for only making classic pesto, I highly recommend doing some branching out here and there. Following the wise words of Molto Mario, we’ve made a fantastic pesto that substitutes hazelnuts for pinenuts and throws in a little crushed red pepper and… wait for it… goat cheese. Man is it good (see below).

We also recently made a mint pesto that has both basil and mint but that also included some ricotta cheese. In that case, however, the ricotta was mixed in with the rest of the ingredients in the food processor. The mint to basil ratio was about 1:2, and that seemed about right, because the mint was there, but it didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients.

And I just read on another food blog I recently started visiting (and that is apparently quite popular - even though its author is only, gasp, 27!) about a makeshift strawberry basil pesto. I recently had a strawberry basil mojito at Six Penn Kitchen in downtown Pittsburgh, and it was tasty (but not as good as a well-made classic mojito). This strawberry concotion sounds interesting. I may have to give it a shot, but not until next year when we can get "luscious berries" from Harvest Valley Farms.

A traditional northern Italian preparation with a classic pesto is to mix into the pasta some blanched green beans and thinly sliced, cooked potatoes. Yes, that’s a lot of starch. But it’s pretty darn delicious. Just don’t put in too many potatoes.

With the colder months not too far off and the basil we have growing in various spots around our house likely to start going south, I just made two batches of classic pesto and two mint to put in the freezer.

I’m already looking forward to the day in mid-January when I mix some linguini with pesto for dinner and then head outside to clear a few inches of snow from my driveway. If you’ve got to shovel snow, might as well start the job with a smile on your face, eh?

Classic Pesto

This should make enough for you to use half one day and freeze the other half for use another time, but play with it and see what you think. You may, in the end, need a little more basil, and, in turn, a little more of everything else.

  • 5 cups of basil
  • 6 tbs of pine nuts (some recipes suggest substituting walnuts; I don't)
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • Few generous pinches of kosher salt and some pepper
  • Half- to 2/3-cup of grated parmesan
  • 1 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¾ lb of pasta (linguini, penne work particularly well)

Throw everything but the olive oil into a food processor and pulse to it’s somewhat pasty. Then begin to drizzle in the oil through the top (with the food processor going, that is).

Important note: You don't have to add all of the oil. Add half, check the consistency, and then taste the pesto. At this point, you probably want to add some more oil to make sure it’s sufficiently oily to coat the pasta, a little more cheese, even some more pine nuts. Tasting it after the first go round is very important.

Variation on the theme. Substitute a few tablespoons of hazelnuts for the pine nuts, and add a teaspoon of crushed red pepper. Then, when you’re pasta is just about cooked, put some pesto over medium heat in a large saucepan and throw in 4 oz of goat cheese, stir until it’s just incorporated, add the strained pasta directly to the pan and stir ‘til it’s coated.


Anonymous said...

spent most of today making my pesto to resurrect sometime when the snow flies. one recipe from Giada uses walnuts, lemonjuice, basil, mint, garlic and parmigiano cheese...looking forward to using that batch on lamb...

Fillippelli the Cook said...

Some pesto on lamb sounds good. The mother of a good friend of mine, who still spends 3-4 months out of the year at her family's home in Genoa, nearly spit on me several years ago when I suggested putting lemon in a pesto. In this case, I assume it's in addition to extra virgin olive oil. Nevertheless, I believe it was the first time I ever met her and she was not pleased! :D