What do you do when faced with a prolific amount of fresh basil in your garden, just begging to be cut so that more can grow in its place? If you’re like us, there’s only one answer: make pesto.
Basil pesto is a simple sauce originating from Genoa, a city in the Liguria region of Italy (also known as the Italian Riviera). Pesto received its name based on how it is prepared, and derives from the Italian word pestare, which means to pound or to crush. Traditionally, pesto was made using a mortar and pestle to grind the ingredients together. Today, we use a simpler method thanks to the invention of the food processor.
To make basil pesto, you need only five ingredients: fresh basil, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese (we use parmigiano-reggiano). As a guide, Tony has his cooking students hold up a hand and count the ingredients on each finger as a way to remember them – that’s how simple this recipe is.
We love fresh pesto for its simple ingredients, fast preparation time, wonderful fresh taste and versatility. It’s a great sauce to use with pasta, chicken, fish and salads, or even as a condiment for sandwiches and burgers. Pesto can be stored in the refrigerator for about five to seven days in an airtight container, or in the freezer for several months.
We usually make a few batches each summer, and freeze the final batch using ice cube trays for easy use later. We transfer the cubes to a plastic freezer bag and enjoy our own basil pesto all winter long. There is something so satisfying about eating food made from your very own garden, especially in winter.
The trick to making a pesto is to create an emulsion by adding the olive oil in a slow, steady stream once the other ingredients have been pulsed into a paste. This process allows the oil to become incorporated into the mixture and binds the ingredients together.
You can play around with pesto by using different herbs, vegetables, or nuts. In past columns we’ve shared our recipes for pistachio pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto. Walnuts make a terrific substitute for the unfortunately rather expensive pine nuts, but we’ve also made pesto without any nuts so that those who have a nut allergy may also enjoy the deliciousness.
One of our favorite uses for basil pesto is our recipe for Pesto Pasta Salad, which is a great dish to make in large batches. It’s full of flavor, easy to make, and can be prepared up to three days in advance.
Our recipe calls for toasted pine nuts, because they just taste better than plain ones. To toast the nuts, heat a sauté pan over medium heat and toss or stir the nuts continuously for about five minutes, until just lightly browned, but be careful not to burn the nuts.
We served this salad at our recent Schmeckfest family reunion, and it was a big hit with our German-Russian clan. It’s a colorful dish, and is perfect for potlucks or a party buffet (with its red and green colors, we even feature it every year on our Christmas Eve menu).
Oh, in case you were wondering, we did make the Bacon Pancakes last week for all 26 family members who traveled to Delaware for Schmeckfest, and received two thumbs up from Zack. Whew.
Pesto Pasta Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
1 lb. penne pasta – cooked al dente in salted water (Tony uses DaVinci pasta)
1 cup basil pesto – see Tony’s recipe below
1 cup or 1 large tomato, medium diced (you may also use grape tomatoes, cut in half)
½ cup chopped Kalamata olives, pitted
¼ cup toasted pine nuts
2 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water until al dente (according to package instructions). Drain in a colander and transfer the pasta immediately to a bowl of ice water for about a minute to stop the cooking process. This will ensure that your pasta remains al dente. Drain and transfer pasta to a serving bowl. Stir in one tablespoon of vegetable oil to prevent sticking.
Mix the chilled pasta with the pesto until evenly coated. Add olives, pine nuts tomatoes and red wine vinegar and toss until well mixed. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight if possible.
To store: Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 3 to 4 days. Great dish to prepare in advance.
Serves: 4 to 6
3 Tablespoons pine nuts
2 cups fresh basil leaves
1 garlic clove
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano – Reggiano cheese (Parmesan or Romano also ok)
1¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
In a food processor, add the pine nuts, basil, garlic and a pinch of kosher salt and pulse until a paste has formed. Add the cheese and pulse again until just combined. Turn the processor on and run it continuously as you add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream. Once all the oil has been added to the mixture, continue to process for an additional 30 seconds. Makes 2 ½ cups.
To Store: Place in an airtight container and refrigerate for 5 to 7 days, or freeze in small amounts (ice cube size works great) in a plastic freezer bag. Typically, one cube is equal to one portion.