Fresh Pestos From the Garden

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A Parade Of Pestos

The first time I tasted a pesto, I was nineteen years old, studying in Italy at an art academy in Perugia. My friends were all art student or starving artists so we often made dinners for each other. The dish we enjoyed that night was fettuccini tossed with tiny cherry tomatoes and a pesto made with tomatoes, almonds, and basil. It was insanely flavorful and I immediately fell in love. Fortunately, I was taking cooking lessons from my neighbor, Signora Savino, who had us rolling out the pasta on a special long, narrow table with a built-in slot for a rolling pin as wide as the table.

Signora Savino insisted that each kind of pasta was best partnered with certain sauces and that it was a culinary crime to pair, say, a robust, chunky sauce with angel hair noodles. Oh, and heaven forbid we should serve a pasta sauce on rice! When I asked her about the tomato pesto we had devoured, she said firmly that the only genuine pesto was made with basil. She showed me how it was made in her family, and it truly was delicious; rich, creamy, savory and spicy hot from the garlic. Here’s her recipe:

Signora Savino’s Pesto

3 large cloves red skinned garlic, chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts (fresh but not toasted at all)
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 bunch (about 4 cups) Genovese basil, rinsed, dried, stemmed
1/2 cup grated Peccorino cheese
few teaspoons extra virgin olive oil (very fruity)

In a mortar, mash garlic, nuts, and salt into a rough paste with the pestle. Add basil by the handful, grinding each addition well. Work in cheese, adding olive oil sparingly as needed to make paste smooth and creamy. Spoon into a glass jar, cover with a little olive oil and store, tightly sealed. Makes about 2 cups.

Safe Storage

Signora Savino did not have a refrigerator, and only made pesto when she was ready to use it. Today, I definitely store my pesto in the fridge, though it seldom hangs around more than a day or two. If I make a big batch, I leave out the garlic and freeze the pesto, first in a dedicated ice cube tray, then in tightly sealed freezer boxes. When I want to use it, I mash some garlic and stir it in to the thawed pesto before serving.

Interestingly, Signora Savino did not blanche the basil leaves (though they were carefully washed and dried), yet her pesto stayed bright green without discoloring the way pestos often do. I have since read about blanching the basil first, usually for just a few seconds, but in my experience, adding non-iodized sea salt before adding the basil seems to do the trick as well. I have to admit that I make my bright green basil pesto in my beloved cuisinart, not in my rather small mortar, even though I have been assured that the touch of the blade guarantees instant darkening of the pesto. Here’s my current recipe:

Summery Basil Pesto

2 tablespoons roasted almonds
3 large cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 teaspoon medium sea salt
6 cups basil leaves, rinsed, dried, stemmed
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Peccorino cheese, gated
1/4 cup Romano cheese, grated

In a food processor, grind nuts, garlic and salt to a coarse paste. Add basil 2 cups at a time, drizzling in a little olive oil as well, nd grind to a fine paste. Add cheese, grind briefly to a coarse paste, adding oil to desired consistency. Refrigerate in glass jars, topped off with olive oil. Use same day or within a few days. Makes about 3 cups.

Southern Style Tomato Pesto

So what was that yummy tomato pesto all about? Turns out it was a Sicilian version, rich and nutty, almost like a tapenade. There are as many versions of this as of basil pesto, so here’s my current favorite:

Sicilian Pesto

8 Roma or sauce type tomatoes, halved
2 red bell peppers, halved and seeded
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup roasted almonds
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups basil, washed, dried, stemmed
1/2 cup Peccorino cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub tomatoes and peppers lightly with olive oil and place cut side down in a rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt and roast until soft and slightly caramelized at the edges (40-50 minutes). Let cool. In a food processor, combine almonds, garlic and remaining salt and grind to a coarse paste. Add basil, grind to a fine paste. Add roasted vegetables and cheese, grind briefly, adding oil for desired consistency. Refrigerate in glass jars, topped off with olive oil. Use same day or within a few days. Makes about 4 cups.

Use any of these delectable pestos with hot pasta or in pasta salad, serve over grilled fish or chicken, or spread on crusty toast for bruchetta.

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