Pesto, Pesto, Pesto!

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.

Tony’s Pesto

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.

Soothe Your Summer Cravings with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

The groundhog didn’t see his shadow last month, and March has come barreling in like a lion. If you believe in the folklore, these harbingers of good weather mean that things can only get better. But, we have to be honest…we are itching for summer to arrive. Sunshine, swimming, biking, flowers, and of course, tomatoes.

There is nothing like the taste of a garden-grown tomato, and the hybrid versions we find in our local grocery stores in winter just can’t compare. But, there’s an easy way to infuse your winter culinary creations with the flavor essence we so enjoy from tomatoes, and our recipe for Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Crostini will bring some sunshine to your plate, regardless of the weather outside.

A staple in the Mediterranean diet, we love sun-dried tomatoes for their year-round tomato taste. Several years ago we visited Tony’s relatives in Sicily and I was delighted to watch his aunt, Zia Pinuccia, make her own sun-dried tomatoes from the scraps leftover after straining her homemade tomato sauce. She took the scraps, laid them on sheet pans and then set them out to bake in the hot sun all day. They were unbelievably delicious. I tried replicating this feat once back home in Fargo, but…yeah, it just wasn’t the same.

Pesto originated in the city of Genoa, in the Northern Italian region of Liguria. Many of us are familiar with pesto in its traditional form, known today as pesto alla Genovese, which consists of basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil. However, pesto has as many variations as your imagination will allow, and we love to be creative with different flavors.

There are five key ingredients to making a pesto:

1. A main flavor ingredient – typically an herb, like basil; however we are using sun-dried tomatoes for this recipe.

2. Nuts – pine nuts are often used for their wonderful flavor, but we have also used pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and even chestnuts.

3. Cheese – grated cheeses like parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino romano, and asiago work well.

4. Garlic – This is a must, so don’t be shy. Go for the garlic.

5. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – this is essential, so find the very best quality you can afford. TJ Maxx in Fargo often has a great, affordably-priced selection .

Tony enjoys working with pesto not only for its versatility, but also because it is quick and easy to make. This is a “no-cook” sauce, which means once it’s made it’s ready to use. Toss some pesto with pasta in a sauté pan for a quick meal, serve it as a spread on a sandwich or appetizers, or as a dip for parties.

For this recipe, we are serving the pesto atop crostini, which is an Italian word meaning “little toasts.” You can make your own crostini by cutting a loaf of good, crusty bread into rounds, brush each slice with olive oil and bake at 350’F until golden brown. Or, you can find pre-made crostini at your local bakery or grocery store. Breadsmith in Fargo makes wonderful crostini.

We top our crostini with fresh mozzarella cheese, a large leaf of fresh basil, and a generous dollop of the sun-dried tomato pesto. Smooth, sweet and milky, fresh mozzarella has a delicate, creamy texture and is a great partner with fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. Once assembly is complete, you’ll have a beautiful platter of appetizers, proudly displaying the colors of the Italian flag.

CLICK HERE for the Sun-Dried Tomato Crostini Recipe
CLICK HERE to watch Tony demonstrate how easy it is to make this pesto

This post is the full copy of our column from the March 6, 2013 edition of The Forum which you can subscribe to daily or find online at InForum. Our column appears in the SheSays section every Wednesday, and you can also access past columns right here on the blog. 


Thanksgiving Leftovers

This week the stars aligned for us and we found no difficulty when deciding which recipe to feature. With the Thanksgiving holiday now behind us, it only seems appropriate to offer a suggestion on what to do with your leftover turkey. And our recipe for Turkey Crepes is a great alternative to the standard fare.

“Most leftover turkey is either just reheated or turned into a sandwich, and that’s fine,” says Tony. “But this recipe allows you to be more creative with your leftovers. It’s elegant, different, simple.  And delicious.”

Tony created this recipe for a cooking class he was teaching back in 2008, and it has become our go-to “leftover turkey” dish ever since. We have to admit, we’re fairly spoiled on this holiday. Tony, with his mad knife skills, carves the turkey, I bring the Cranberry Sauce, and my sister-in-law (another Sarah) bakes three to four different pies from scratch.

But my mother does nearly all of the cooking, and she’s a bit of a culinary magician to me. Somehow, she manages to serve at least a half-dozen side dishes in addition to the turkey, and still manages to get herself and all that food to the table hot, and on time. And she always makes sure that we leave with some leftovers. What’s not to love about Thanksgiving?

We serve lunch every Friday at Sarello’s, with the exception of the day after Thanksgiving. It is one of the few days of the year that my husband will actually sleep in, a result, I suspect, of all that tryptophan. So there isn’t a lot of time to hang out together before it’s time for him to get ready for the evening service. And that’s why I love this recipe. The preparation is quick and simple, and if you aren’t familiar with making crepes, you can find them available, pre-made, in the produce section of our local grocery stores.

The ingredient that makes this recipe special is the Pistachio Pesto. Its brightness, texture, and nutty flavor make the dish come alive. It’s also easy to make, and can be done the night before, or even up to a week in advance if refrigerating. And any leftover pesto can be frozen for up to two months.

We spread the pesto along the inside of each crepe before assembling them, which you can do right before you start cooking. After you’ve finished preparing the crepes, lay them on a sheet pan and set aside till later.

Using a sauté pan, the next step is to heat up the leftover turkey, mixing in heavy cream and Fontina cheese to add flavor and keep it moist.

“Fontina is a great choice for this recipe. It’s Italian, so there’s that, but it also has really great flavor and melting properties. Fontina is a mild, nutty cheese, with an undertone of tanginess that brings a little extra zing to this dish.”

Once the cream has reduced and the cheese is melted, spoon the turkey mixture onto each crepe and roll it up, returning it to the sheet pan when done. Pop the tray into a 350°F oven for two to three minutes just to warm the crepes, and voila! They’re ready to serve.

“And you know, the turkey doesn’t want to be alone, so give it some company on the plate,” Tony says. “You can utilize leftover cranberry sauce by warming it up first and then drizzling some right down the middle of each crepe before serving. This adds a burst of color and its sweetness brings a nice contrast in flavor to the dish. ”

This recipe can also be enjoyed throughout the year by using a whole turkey breast instead of leftovers.

So set aside the plan for sandwiches and give these Turkey Crepes a try. We think you’ll just gobble them up!