Homemade pesto lends itself to variations
For a long time, I liked the idea of using fresh herbs, but didn’t know much about what to do with them. Consequently, it wasn’t unusual to find bundles of decomposing herbs in my fridge.
While I still find some bunches of herbs too big for our two-person household, I have gradually learned more about using these flavourful fresh foods.
One Saturday morning this month, I bought a little bouquet of sweet basil at the Farmers’ Market, without a plan for using it. It didn’t take long to decide to make pesto.
Pesto — classic pesto — is an uncooked sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy. Besides being delicious, it is dead easy to make and doesn’t even require any cooking. It is made by crushing together fresh basil, garlic cloves, pine nuts, Parmesan or pecorino cheese and olive oil, combining them to make a thick sauce.
Pesto is spread on crostini, crackers or pizza dough or tossed with pasta. Without much trouble, one can imagine other uses as well.
The word pesto is derived from an Italian word describing the technique of crushing or grinding the ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Traditions, techniques and recipes evolve. Without a doubt, many cooks still make pesto the traditional way, using a mortar and pesto, but I have always used a food processor and would wager that many other people do, as well.
If you look for pesto recipes online or in cookbooks, you will find numerous variations, some using cilantro, parsley or mint, some calling for walnuts, almonds or pistachios. It can also be made using garlic scapes, the curly green tops of garlic that are in season right now. Making pesto can be a creative endeavour, and I like to think that, having followed a recipe the first time or two you make it, you are then ready to produce your own variations.
The one I made and then served with linguini last week, consisted of the perfectly fresh bundle of local basil, some ground almond meal and a few walnut pieces that I had in the freezer, extra virgin olive oil, two garlic cloves, a handful of grated Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, pureed with a food processor and thinned slightly with a few spoonsful of pasta cooking water. Tossed with linguini and topped with halved cherry tomatoes and another sprinkle of grated cheese and coarsely ground pepper, it made a colourful and tasty meal.
Had there been any left over, I could have stored it in the fridge for a few days or packed it in an airtight bottle or bag and kept it frozen for a few months.
Last weekend, I met someone else who is interested in making pesto. Connor MacAulay, a recent graduate of Bluefield High School, was one of the winners in the P.E.I. Women’s Institute’s recipe challenge for Island students in Grades 7-12. Students submitted recipes featuring Prince Edward Island foods, and winning entries were compiled in a cookbook available from Women’s Institute at its provincial office and at public events.
Now employed in the restaurant business, Connor is an avid cook. He demonstrated his recipe for Parsnip Chips and offered samples of his pesto as part of the cooking presentations at last Saturday’s Crapaud Exhibition.
Connor’s pesto, spread on crackers, was a big hit with the audience. A creative departure from classic basil pesto, his contains pumpkin seeds instead of pine nuts, and fresh parsley instead of basil, although I did hear him say that he sometimes adds other herbs that he has on hand.
Adapted from “Women’s Institute Island Product Cooking Contest Cookbook” salt 125 mL (1/2 cup) hulled green pumpkin seeds 75 mL (5 tbsp) olive oil 15 mL (1 tbsp) paprika 250 mL (1 cup) fresh parsley 2 green onions 25 mL (2 tbsp) lemon juice 1 clove garlic Heat 45 mL (3 tbsp) of the olive oil, 5 mL (1 tsp) salt and 125 mL (1/2 cup) of pumpkin seeds. Cook until seeds brown. Let cool and add 125 mL (½ cup) water, parsley, paprika, green onion, lemon juice, seeds, oil and garlic to food processor, and puree. Add salt to taste.