Pesto! Change-O!

As the weather turns warmer, I start to think about pesto. (No, seriously I do… Remember? I’m a total dork when it comes to food thoughts.) Traditionally, pesto is basil and pine nuts pureed with a bit of Parm, a bit of garlic, and a ton of olive oil. I think pesto during the summer because fresh basil from the garden makes the best pesto. Because it keeps well in the freezer, you can make a huge batch and then just thaw when ready to toss with pasta or spread on bread for impromptu appetizers or late night snacking. (Yes, I snack on pesto… don’t judge.)

Pesto, like most things culinary, is all about the ratio. And, once you know that, you can tinker with the ingredients. Some may disagree, but I find that this works well:

  • 4 C herbs or greens, loosely packed
  • ½ – ¾ C cheese, grated
  • ⅓ C nuts, toasted
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • Salt, pepper, and sometimes a squeeze of lemon or grated lemon peel
  • ½ – ¾ C extra virgin olive oil

To make the pesto, put all of the ingredients except for the oil in a food processor and chop them up. Then, while the processor is still running, slowly pour the olive oil in until the pesto is a lovely emulsified mess. That’s it. Pretty easy, right? This keeps for about a week or so in the fridge. If you’re storing in the freezer, put into an airtight container and pour a bit of olive oil on the top before sealing the lid. (This will prevent the pesto from turning a weird brown.)

The main thing with pesto is to use a high quality olive oil. So much of the taste is in the oil, you really can tell if you’re being a cheap ass. Fresh herbs and fresh cheese are also essential. You can still make a darn fine pesto with herbs from the grocery, but if you love it… why not just plant some basil in a pot? Also, buy a good brick of cheese and grate it yourself. Pre-grated cheese just won’t work. You’re going to need a hard, dry cheese. (Cheddar has too much liquid to stand up against the processing.)

Although it seems like an extra step, don’t skip out on toasting or roasting whatever nut you decide to use. It enhances the flavor of the nut and makes your final pesto taste less “raw.” You can roast the nuts in the oven or on the stove top. (I find the stove is the quickest, but you need to constantly stir or shake the pan to avoid burning your nuts… Mind out of the gutter, dirty birdie!)

If you’ve never made pesto before, I suggest you try it with the traditional basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Work on getting the consistency down before playing around. You don’t want garlic basil soup on your hands.

But, if you’ve done pesto even once or twice, you should be all set. Some combinations that I like:

  • Half basil and half arugula instead of all basil. The arugula adds a bit of depth. (Thank you epicurious.com.)
  • Kale or spinach and walnuts. If you’re going to use any hearty greens, I suggest parboiling them first. Just dunk them in boiling, salted water for 30 seconds or so and rinse under cold water. Make sure you drain them well and remove any of the tough center stems. Your finished product should equal the needed 4 cups. So, you’ll probably need to start out with 10-12 cups of greens as wilting will dramatically decrease your volume.
  • Mint and almonds. You’ll end up with a nice Moroccan flavor.
  • Unsalted pistachios or cashews rather than pine nuts
  • Parsley and cilantro also make fine pestos. Just be careful with the cilantro. You should probably cut it with arugula or parsley because the taste can be overwhelming. I’d also suggest using lime instead of the lemon juice to give it a bit of a Mexican flavor.

Any type of pesto you create should be served at room temperature (or over warm pasta). Cold pesto tastes oddly slick on the mouth. Here’s a kale and walnut pesto I made recently. Fabulous way to get more veggies in diets of people not used to eating greenery (ahem, Paul). I saved a few chopped, roasted walnuts to sprinkle on the top before serving.

Kale and walnut pesto over pasta

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