Pesto is one of the pleasures of summer cooking. It's also one of the easiest ways to save a little of summer for the rest of the year because you can make it when ingredients are at the best fresh taste and lowest prices. Then freeze it. Because pestos are intensely flavored and used to accent another food (pasta, fish, chicken, steamed vegetables), a full portion is small and easy to fit in our city freezers.
The most familiar pesto is made with fresh basil. If you live in a northern climate, fresh basil in the middle of winter not only is very costly, it has a gigantic carbon footprint. But in the summer it's cheap and bountiful so of course you must make pesto.
When I make basil pesto, I use a classic Italian recipe that I first learned from Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook. She offers two versions, one to make in a blender and the other, by hand with a mortar and pestle, kitchen tools not often found in our space-compromised city kitchens. That's okay because a blender or food processor produces a perfect pesto every time.
Italian purists, including Signora Hazan, will point out that a traditional pesto doesn't have pine nuts or butter but modern recipes include them, adding richness to the paste.
Basil Pesto (adapted from The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan)
2 cups fresh basil leaves (gently tear any large leaves in half)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with the side of a knife
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino cheese
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
In the basket of a food processor or blender container put the garlic cloves. Pulse to finely chop.
- Add the basil leaves, pine nuts and salt and pulse two or three times to chop together.
- With the machine running, drizzle in the olive oil while the ingredients continue to chop and come together. You will probably need to stop the machine a couple of times and use a spatula to scrape down the sides.
- After all the ingredients have combined, transfer the mixture to a bowl and add the grated cheese and combine by hand.
- Mix in the softened butter.
If you plan on freezing the pesto, leave out the butter. When you later defrost the pesto and are ready to serve it, add the butter at that time. The flavor and texture will be better with the butter added just before serving. Some say to also omit the cheese before freezing but unlike the butter, I find it makes little difference and I prefer to have the nearly finished pesto in my freezer, making it a low-fuss treasure to pull from my freezer on a weeknight in the winter. Adding butter at the last minute is easy; having to grate two different cheeses can be enough of a task that I won't do it.
Another tip from Signora Hazan is that if you're using the pesto on pasta, you should thin the pesto with a tablespoon or so of the pasta water before adding to the cooked pasta.
The classic way to serve basil pesto comes from the area in Italy around Genoa where the pesto is tossed with fresh egg fettuccine, green beans and boiled, sliced potatoes. To anyone who hasn't eaten this combination and may think it's redundant to combine potatoes and pasta, in fact the contrasting textures are perfect together and very satisfying.
While most of us equate pesto with basil, there are other flavorful ways to purée a primary ingredient with oil, nuts and cheese. Just follow the basic pesto procedure and ratio of ingredients with other combinations and you can create intense and versatile flavors.
- Arugula and walnuts
- Parsley and sunflower seeds
- Spinach and pine nuts (you can also use frozen spinach that's been defrosted, drained and wrung dry)
- Fresh or frozen peas with garlic, pine nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano (cook the peas first to soften)
- Sun-dried tomatoes, Pecorino, dried oregano and pine nuts
- Garlic scapes and pumpkin seeds
- Fava beans and pine nuts (as with the peas, cook the fava beans first)
- Mint and walnut (toss with pasta and serve with lamb burgers)
- Sage and pine nuts (excellent with a meal that also includes chicken, turkey or pork)
- Any favorite green herb -- sorrel, cilantro, savory, marjoram, chervil -- with a nut, oil and garlic but taste for ratios because some herbs are more gently flavored than others and you'll want to go lighter on the garlic.
Ways to Serve Pesto
Whatever you favorite combination, you can use pesto as a sauce or as a flavor base.
- On any favorite pasta. I think it's best on a long pasta like spaghetti or linguine because the little oily bits coat the strands, adding a subtle flavor in every bite.
- As a sauce on poached or grilled fish (both salmon or halibut are good choices).
- Diluted with lemon juice or vinegar and extra oil to make a big-flavored vinaigrette or a sauce for dipping vegetables.
- Drizzle on pieces of toasted bread on which you've spread softened goat cheese or ricotta.
- As a sauce for pan grilled sliced steak or boneless chicken breasts.
- To spoon over fresh mozzarella.
- Spread in a sandwich in place of mayonnaise or mustard.
- Add a spoonful to a bowl of hot minestrone or pistou soup.
- Spread as a flavor layer in a favorite lasagna recipe.
- As a sauce for plain, boiled potatoes.
- Spooned over pan-grilled tomatoes.
- Stirred in with scrambled eggs.
The point is to capture the flavor of a single ingredient when it's at its most intense flavor, convert its form into a paste, and add this flavor to something else. Enjoy it now, when to eat a raw pesto is like eating summer's perfume. And then save some for winter, when your appetite will be grateful that you planned ahead.