Presto! It’s Pesto

I present to you a perfect summer recipe, with just a single caveat: this is not a first date food.  Pesto is on a short list of dishes I can’t in good conscience recommend for times when you might perhaps want to feel and/or look sexy.  This list, for your consideration, includes: sushi (nothing sexier than realizing mid-bite that maybe that piece was a little too big for one mouthful), lobster (the bibs make me feel ridiculous, but, hey, if your first date includes lobster, this person is probably a keeper; I take it back), BBQ ribs, and corn on the cob (the latter two for the same obvious reason).  Pesto earns a spot on the list because it typically leaves me with a very green smile and some garlic breath.  Hot.

Hopefully I have not turned you off yet.  Because despite the green teeth, I’m actually here to extol the virtues of pesto.  It’s versatile as a condiment, is well preserved in the fridge or freezer, and adds a lovely freshness to whatever it’s spread upon.  I was inspired to make pesto last week when I realized that I had a whole bunch of basil on its last legs (you can improve its chances at survival by putting the stems in a glass of water, but it only helps for a few days).  So I threw it all in the food processor with some garlic, olive oil, and a good pinch of salt, then stirred in grated Parmesan by hand.  I have read that legit pesto-makers, like the ones in Genoa, wouldn’t dream of using a food processor (they prefer the mezzaluna crazy-chopping approach), but I don’t think mine suffered at all from a touch of technology.  What I didn’t realize was that 2 full cups of basil leaves would leave me with little more than ½ cup of pesto.  It was a shocking disappearing act, but luckily a little pesto goes a long way.  That half cup coated about 4 servings’ worth of orecchiette pasta, incidentally a great choice, as the little cups of pasta cradle the pesto in its deep pockets.  What I love about pesto is the incredibly fresh taste of basil, with the saltiness of cheese, the richness of pine nuts and the bite of raw garlic.

Though it happens to be a great way to get rid of wilting herbs, pesto tastes best when the basil is very fresh. If you happen to have a lot of high quality herb (um, you know what I mean) then it’s not a bad idea to make a whole lot, leaving out the cheese, and freeze whatever you’re not using with a layer of olive oil on top to help preserve it.  Just defrost and add freshly grated Parmesan right before eating.  (Speaking of freezing with olive oil, I haven’t tried this method yet, but it looks pretty cool.)

And there’s no need to stop at basil.  You can use parsley (or, better yet, add some oregano and vinegar to make chimichurri), cilantro, or even spinach.  I am also including a killer recipe below for cilantro/parsley pesto with nut butter.  PB + anything = better.  I should think tahini would be a close second here too.  And as for what to do with your pesto?  Tradition dictates pasta, but it could be spread on bread, spread on bread with mayo, or mixed into potato salad, for starters  So next time you find yourself with a whole lot of herbs on your hands, think pesto.  Presto!

Traditional Super-Speed Pesto

This pesto can be used in any way you like, as a condiment, pasta sauce, etc.  If serving with pasta, grate extra cheese for serving and top with freshly ground black pepper.

2 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried well

1 clove garlic

2 tbsp pine nuts

1 good pinch of salt, or more to taste (it’s ok if it tastes a little too salty because all the flavor is concentrated until you spread it on something)

½ cup olive oil

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, salt, and half the olive oil in a food processor.  Process until basil is very finely minced, slowly adding the remaining olive oil.

2. Remove the mixture from food processor and stir in cheese.

Parsley or Cilantro Sauce

From Nava Atlas’s The Vegetarian Family Cookbook

¾ cup parsley or cilantro leaves (or a combination)

2 tablespoons cashew, almond, or natural PB

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, rice vinegar, or other mild vinegar

Pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in the food processor with ¼ cup water.  Process until fairly smooth but not completely pureed.  Transfer to a small bowl.  Pass around to serve over noodles.

Freya Bellin writes alternate Wednesdays for Frontier Psychiatrist. Her recent FP recipes include Red, White, and TipsyThe Sandwich of Champions, and Perhaps It Won’t Be a Pie.

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