Pesto for Goodness Sake

the still-burgeoning basil

Pesto is simple and by nature flexible: herb, nut, cheese, oil, garlic, salt.

Because it’s so adaptable, there are a hundred different recipes with ingredients in various proportions. So take a deep breath and wander from a recipe. It’s pesto for goodness sake. It will taste good.

Traditional Basil Pesto

a very large bunch basil
a handful of pine nuts
a few cloves of garlic
a few good glugs of olive oil
a fist-sized pile of freshly grated parmesan cheese
a few pinches of salt, enough to bring out the flavor

Heat a heavy pan on the stove over low-medium heat. Toss in the pine nuts. Shake the pan back and forth over the heat to toast the nuts. Watch them closely; all nuts—but delicate pine nuts especially—burn quickly. When they turn fragrant and golden brown, pour them into a dish and set them aside.

Now turn up the heat to medium-high and add the garlic cloves with their skins still on. Give the pan a few good shakes to brown the cloves on all sides. They’ll probably sizzle and pop. That’s a good sign. When the skins have turned dark but not black, remove the pan from heat and let the cloves cool.

Grate a block of parmesan until you have a decently sized pile. Remove the stemmiest parts of the basil so you’re left with mostly leaves. When the garlic has cooled enough to touch, peel the cloves. It helps to set them, one at a time, under the flat side of the blade of a big knife. Use the heel of your hand to give it a hearty pound, which will smash the clove and split the skin.

Then, in a food processor, add the parmesan, nuts, garlic, a few pinches of salt, and several good pours of olive oil. Don’t skimp. Pile the basil in the top. It might not all fit, so you can add the basil in batches.

If you don’t have a food processor, a blender works too, although it will be chunkier. Immersion blenders also work, as does the tried-and-true method of chopping it all by hand, which will reward you with a very rustic pesto.

Pulse the food processor in bursts until it all the parts start to converse with each other and talk like pesto: dense, green, wet, flecked with nuts. Pause and stick a spoon in. Taste the pesto. If it tastes flat, toss in a few more pinches of salt. If the consistency is off, add more nuts to thicken, more olive oil to thin, more cheese to make creamy, or more basil to boost, well, the basil. If it the texture is pleasant and the flavor intense and herby, you’ve mastered pesto.

NOTE: In the winter especially, basil can be expensive. And pine nuts always cost a fortune. I nearly always make pesto with walnuts instead, which are much more reasonably priced. It’s also perfectly acceptable to swap in spinach or some other sturdy green (chard or kale, for instance) for all or part of the basil. The good news is that pesto freezes well, especially in ice cube trays, so you can make a great big batch in the summer, freeze it, and enjoy it until the basil grows again next year.

surviving by the window

Pesto Toasts

one loaf chewy, crust bread, perhaps French
one 8-oz. ball mozzarella, or 4 oz. goat cheese
pesto

Preheat the oven to 450˚F, or turn on the broiler if your oven has one.

Cut the bread into 1-inch thick slices, and arrange them on a large cookie sheet. If you’re feeling extravagant, brush each piece with olive oil, slice a clove of garlic in half, and rub the garlic over the oil. Then slather each slice with a spoonful of pesto.

Slice the mozzarella into irregular pieces. Set a few on top of each slice of bread to mostly cover the pesto.

Slide the pan into the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until the cheese has begun to bubble and brown.

Serve immediately to a hungry crowd.

(This post is one in a November series for NaBloPoMo, National Blog Posting Month. You can find the rest here!)

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