Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The best!

I am aware that I overuse superlatives. Especially when writing about food. Sometimes I just cannot help it: food is so marvelous, so delicious, so lovingly tied to life's best memories, so full of potential and tastes to be discovered and worlds to be explored that, well, describing it with tepid language just seems unfair, lazy and dishonest.

So it is with profound awareness of my unbridled enthusiasm that I must state that of all the pestos I've ever tried -- and there have been some great ones, to be sure -- the recipe I've been using since I was old enough to operate a Cuisinart is the best one. The best! And I don't even feel bad about saying that. Well, I feel a little bad, as my second bad habit, behind excessive suplerlativeness, is a tendency to muzzle proclamations of my own success. I don't want people thinking I'm full of myself. Because what I am full of is pesto. There is no room left for ego.

Though I do make pesto all year round, nothing compares to the batches I make from my own basil (or Mom's basil, or Sister's basil), grown right in our back yards. Buying fresh basil from the grocery store in the middle of December will suffice, but there is a freshness and a goodness and a wonderful feeling of self-sufficiency and accomplishment that comes from pesto made from basil grown from seed under your own watchful eye. Nothing beats basil that is still warm from the sun. Well, except tomatoes that are still warm from the sun. Indeed, put those two crops together and you've got...significant inspiration for another post.

As with most recipes that I cherish the most, this one comes from Mom and Dad. But I make it so much more than they do nowadays that I like to think of it as my own. It's ours, at any rate. This pesto recipe has become, for me, one of those recipes that you just know by heart. Its origins are unknown; where Mom and Dad got it is somewhat of a mystery. Maybe it came from someone back in New Castle, PA, their hometown. Maybe it came from someone in their Dinner Club. Maybe they found it in some 1970s issue of "Bon Appetit." Maybe they made it up. Who knows? Who cares?

I have made a few adjustments to the recipe over the years. For example, I always substitute walnuts for pine nuts. What started out as a way to save a little money by eschewing the expensive pine nut for the more affordable walnut morphed into a genuine preference for the walnut taste. When I make pesto for my friend Amy, who is allergic to walnuts, I of course turn to the pine nut. But, in my humble opinion, the dish suffers for the switch. Walnuts are meatier, nuttier, earthier, more flavorful -- the play much more harmoniously with the homegrown herbs than do the pine nuts. I also use Pecorino cheese instead of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sheepy Pecorino is sharper and saltier than Parmigiano-Reggiano and adds a zing to the sauce that its aged cows'-milk compadre misses. I made some pesto recently with Parmigiano-Reggiano -- there was no Pecorino in the house -- and the difference was clear. Even Husband noticed that something was off.

If you have a forest of basil growing on your back porch, now is the time to harvest it and start making pesto. Make lots and lots at once, for this pesto freezes beautifully in ice-cube trays (I prefer the old-school metal ones, available for a steal on eBay or if you're lucky from your grandmother's freezer, as they make extracting the frozen pesto a truly simple task). I'd like to say that you will be very happy, come winter, to pull a few pesto cubes from the freezer and prepare yourself a dinner to recall summer's happy, long days...but who am I kidding? You'll have gone through your freezer's supply before Labor Day.



2 c. fresh basil leaves, packed

1 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, packed

1 whole garlic clove

6 T. unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into a few pieces

1/3 c. walnuts

1 c. grated Pecorino cheese

2/3 c. olive oil

This recipe could not be simpler. Place basil, parsley, garlic, butter, walnuts and Pecorino in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the mixture is finely chopped, but do not over-process. Restart the food processor and add the olive oil in a stream until the pesto comes together. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and then process for another few seconds. Presto: pesto!

If you are going to use it right away, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook one pound of pasta per the package directions. Drain the al dente pasta, reserving the starchy cooking liquid. Place about half of the batch of pesto you just made into a large bowl with the drained pasta, adding a ladle or two of the pasta water. Stir to coalesce the pesto into a creamy sauce and coat the pasta. Top with grated Pecorino, to taste, and serve immediately. Place the remaining half of the pesto in a plastic container, push a piece of plastic wrap down onto the surface of the pesto and cover. Refrigerate and use within 2-3 days.

If you wish to make several batches at once and freeze them in ice cube trays, simply spoon the sauce into the trays. Triple-wrap the trays in plastic wrap then cover in one layer of aluminum foil to prevent freezer burn. When the cubes are frozen, release them from the trays and store them in heavy-duty freezer bags for up to 4 months.

When you are ready to use the frozen pesto, make sure that you don't defrost the pesto in the microwave or in a saucepan. The sauce should never be cooked: it kills the fresh flavor and turns the basil an unsightly brown. Instead, remove your pesto cubes from the freezer about 10 minutes before you start cooking, placing them on the counter in a serving bowl. Then boil water and cook pasta per usual. Do not throw away the pasta cooking liquid; rather, drain the pasta in a colander or sieve set over a large bowl. Place the hot, drained pasta on top of the pesto in the bowl -- the heat of the pasta will begin to melt the pesto. Then add a ladle or two of the reserved pasta water to the serving bowl, which loosens the pesto and creates a rich sauce. Stir well. Thus you will have a wonderfully home-grown, homemade supper on the table in basically the time it takes you to cook a pot of pasta. Ingenious!

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not state that pesto does not have to be limited to pasta. Spoon some over grilled chicken breasts; use it as a sandwich spread; mix it with steamed vegetables; put it on a simple grilled pizza; eat it with a spoon in a piggish fashion; use it as a garnish for soups. The possibilities are as endless as the bountiful basil harvest this time of year.

One batch -- or "go," as Mom calls it -- makes enough pesto to dress 2 pounds of pasta.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really good ideas for Pesto! Especially the freezing part. I have made my own pesto for the past few summers from basil that I have grown out on my deck. I also have found that I like the walnuts and pecorino better. Look forward to trying some of your recipes!