Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Adventures in Pesto-Making

Despite all the Italian food I ate growing up, pesto seems to have largely passed me by. This is probably because my grandparents were Sicilian, and pesto originated in Genoa, in northern Italy. Still, because of my love for the stuff (and a great affinity for all fresh herbs, really) I thought I might as well give it a shot.

The first surprise in this process, the product of my internet research, is the idea that you really should blanch your basil before making your pesto. I know, it seems crazy to dip those fresh little leaves in boiling water to keep them from turning an icky brown, but that does seem to be the method. Another trick, which may be combined with the blanching or used in isolation, is to float a thin layer of olive oil over the pesto to protect it from the air, and thereby prevent basil oxidation. Knowing that Tuesday is a long day, on which I usually don't get home until 9:15 or so, I made the sauce last night. To my great relief, it was still lovely and green this evening.

The second surprise was - What? Why are pine nuts so expensive? I still don't have an answer to that, but now that I know that a little goes a long way, I am less distressed about it. They bring all the richness and velvety deliciousness to the sauce, so I can forgive them their hefty price tag.

The yield from this recipe doesn't look like much, but for us it was more than enough, so I would call it about three servings. If you want to get all old-timey, or if you just have anger issues, you can definitely use a mortar and pestle instead of a food processor. I recommend toasting your pine nuts first (see Cook's Note), and of course the pasta you will cook according to the package directions:

3/4 cup fresh basil leaves, lightly packed plus another couple of leaves for serving
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted plus a few for serving
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove of garlic
1/2 box of whole wheat spaghetti; about 7 oz.

To blanch the basil - 
1. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Bring a pot of water to a boil (large enough that a colander can fit inside).
2. Place basil leaves in boiling water and stir so that they blanch evenly. Leave in water for 15 seconds, then pull colander out and plunge basil into ice water to stop the cooking process.
3. Squeeze excess water from the basil and place in food processor.

To make the pesto:
1. Combine garlic, blanched basil, Parmesan, pine nuts and olive oil in a food processor and blend to a smooth paste, scraping down the sides as needed.
3. Toss with pasta, sprinkling a few toasted pine nuts and a freshly-torn basil leaf or two on top.

Cook's Note: Toast your pine nuts in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently and keep a close eye on them, as they burn very easily. Remove from heat when fragrant and slightly golden in color.
I had some adorable baby leaves starting on my otherwise listless and garbage-bound basil plant, so I used those instead of tearing up the big, sad-looking ones. So cute, right?
Yum! Not only was this sauce delicious and easy to make, it is very fragrant and quite lovely to look at, too. If you are so inclined, you can add some fresh parsley along with the basil. The only caveat for this recipe is that if you are not a great lover of garlic, you might want to cut it down. Like, by half. Brady was too stuffed up to notice that I was loading him full of garlicky goodness (yay!) and I'm a big fan of the stuff, so we were both happy, but if your sinuses are functional and you are not a garlic-fiend, you could scale it down a bit.

This worked great as a make-ahead, and tonight took only as much time as it takes to cook the pasta. Once perfected with just the right amount of garlic to suit your taste, this will be a great classic dish to have in your repertoire.

Quote of the Day: Pounding fragrant things - particularly garlic, basil, parsley - is a tremendous antidote to depression. [...] Pounding these things produces an alteration in one's being - from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure. ~ Patience Gray

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