One of my favorite lines in a movie is from ‘When Harry Met Sally’; Carrie Fisher’s character Marie unknowingly quotes from Jess’ (Bruno Kirby) book by casually saying in a dinner conversation that “Pesto is the quiche of the 80’s”. Marie and Jess instantly form a bond ~ it is adorable and goes to show how something as simple as food can create a lasting relationship. Corny, yes, but oh so true! Just sayin’…
Since you are reading this blog, I assume that you cook or at least enjoy a good meal. Culinary herbs are your best friend; the allies of your kitchen garden. Year after year the herbs that I plant may vary but I never neglect to plant several varieties of basil. As I have written in the past (archive July 2016), it is the ‘King of the Herbs’. This post, however, is not about one herb in particular. It is about pesto and what you can do with it to liven up a dish.
When most people refer to basil, they know sweet ‘Genovese’ basil. I grow this variety almost exclusively to make my pesto. Pesto originated in Genoa, the capital city of Liguria, Italy around the 16th century. Originally, it included a cheese made from sheep’s milk called pecorino sardo in addition to Parmesan cheese. Variations that I prepare include garlic scape pesto (if I am lucky enough to get scapes from the plant – please refer to archive June 2013 for the recipe); mixed herb pesto with basil, oregano and parsley (equal parts of the 3 herbs) and arugula pesto (same quantity as basil) just to name a few.
Pesto is actually a purée; some would call it a sauce, but because it contains oil it is also partly an emulsion. It was originally and traditionally ground with a mortar and pestle.
This process would certainly give you a coarser pesto and will retain a greater flavor of the leaves. I don’t know about you but I look for shortcuts in the kitchen. This contraption isn’t one of them. My food processor and I are best buddies.
I’ll start with my basic basil pesto recipe as it is so fresh and easy to prepare. I can eat it by the spoonful. To prepare other pesto listed previously, simply substitute the herb or salad green and perhaps the type of nut.
Ali’s Basil Pesto
- 4 cups packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and lightly dried*
- 1 cup GRATED Parmesan cheese (purchase the cheese already grated to save a step)
- 1 cup pine nuts**
- 3 cloves garlic
- Salt to taste
- Approximately 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil***
- Combine first 5 ingredients in a food processor.
- With the motor running, slowly add the oil to create an emulsion.
- Immediately place pesto into canning jars with a very thin coat of olive oil on top and seal. ****
- Makes 3 half pints.
*Gently rinse the stems with leaves attached. Dry the leaves by gently shaking the stems upside down to remove most of the water. Do not be tempted to use a salad spinner as you will bruise the leaves and have dark spots in your pesto.
**99% of my pesto is made with pine nuts. For mixed herb pesto I sometimes substitute walnuts and arugula pesto is made with shelled pistachio nuts. Both are scrumptious.
***1 cup of olive oil is not an exact measurement. Watch the concoction spinning as you add the oil. Too much oil or higher water content in the leaves will result in a thinner emulsion.
****The oil on top helps to prevent browning of the pesto as basil oxidizes quickly like avocado. When ready to use, pour off the oil, use the amount of pesto that you need for your recipe and then replace with another thin coating of oil for storage.
Some simple uses for any one of my prepared pesto recipes include the following:
- Serve on grilled fish or chicken.
- Serve as a condiment on any sandwich ~ grilled cheese immediately comes to my mind!
- Serve as a sauce with pasta of choice.
- Use garlic scape pesto as a pizza topping in place of tomato sauce.
- As a salad dressing, thin pesto with a little vinegar and more olive oil.
- Place pesto under the skin of a whole chicken and roast (especially tasty with arugula pesto made with pistachio nuts).
- Kettle-style potato chips topped with any pesto for a bite-size snack.
- Bake thin baguette slices, spread with mixed herb pesto, sliced cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmesan for a quick and irresistible appetizer.
Years ago I made a pamphlet type cookbook of pesto recipes for my dear friends as a gift along with a small jar of pesto. Even though my computer skills are rustic to say the least, I must pat myself on the back as it turned out well and was greatly appreciated. The following recipes were included in that little book and I prepare them frequently as they are often requested.
Ali’s Pesto Crackers
- 1 pkg. wonton wrappers (usually found in the refrigerated section of the produce aisle)
- Prepared pesto (please do not be tempted to use store-bought pesto ~ homemade is so easy and has so much more flavor)
- Sea or Kosher salt to taste
- Punch out shapes with your favorite cookie cutter from each wrapper.
- Brush shapes with pesto.
- Season with salt if desired.
- Bake at 350 degrees on a parchment-lined baking sheet until lightly golden around the edges but watch them; they burn easily.
- Serve immediately or let cool; store in airtight container up to three days.
Fun, festive and flavorful ~ especially on St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas!
The following recipe is a terrific main dish salad especially for a summer picnic lunch. Serve with warm, crusty bread. Serves 6.
Ali’s Orzo Salad with Grilled Shrimp, Vegetables and Pesto Vinaigrette
- 8 oz. orzo pasta
- 6 T. olive oil, divided
- 4 T. red wine vinegar, divided
- 2 zucchini, cut lengthwise into ¼ in. slices
- 1 red or yellow bell pepper, quartered
- 3 T. fresh pesto
- 2 T. fresh lime juice
- 1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 2 c. cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- ½ c. thinly sliced basil leaves plus a sprig for garnish
- 8 oz. sm. fresh mozzarella balls, cut in half
- Cook orzo according to package. Drain and transfer to serving bowl then toss with 1 T. oil.
- Heat grill to medium-high. Brush zucchini and pepper with 2 T. oil; grill 3-4 minutes per side.
- To prepare the vinaigrette, whisk pesto, lime juice, 3 T. oil and 2 T. vinegar.
- Place shrimp in a bowl and toss with 2 T. of the vinaigrette, season with salt and pepper. Grill shrimp 2 minutes per side.
- Combine shrimp with orzo.
- Roughly chop zucchini and pepper; add to orzo.
- Add remaining vinaigrette, tomatoes, basil and mozzarella; toss to combine.
- Season again with salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature. Garnish with basil sprig.
If you are not growing herbs this year, hurry on down to your farmers market and buy them! You won’t regret the trip if you prepare any of these recipes!