Saturday, July 23, 2011

Pesto Pasta - The Royal Herb

Summer is the time of year when my garden is overflowing with pesto's essential ingredient and what the Greeks called the "royal herb"; basil.  If you don't grow it, you should consider it as it is simple to do in a flower pot on your patio.  You can also find it at farmers markets for a fraction of the cost that you pay in the winter when it's sold in those tiny plastic bags looking all wilted and unhappy at your supermarket.

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Fresh basil has a strong and wonderful aroma and an incredible flavor.   I like to grow standard Italian basil, but you can find other flavors and colors.  But for pesto, none of those more exotic varieties (i.e., Thai Chocolate Basil, etc.) are recommended.

Pesto is a sauce that originated in Genoa, Italy and traditionally consists of crushed garlic, basil and nuts blended with olive oil and cheese.  The name comes from the Genoese word pestâ (Italian: pestare), which means to pound or to crush.  This is a reference to the original technical of crushing with marble mortar and wooden pestle.  Using this technique makes a very nice sauce, and if you have the time and are so inclined, I would recommend it.  Nowadays, however, the ingredients in pesto are generally blended in a food processor, as shown in my photos here.

The earliest reference I could find for pesto in the USA was in a 1944 New York Times article that mentioned imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset magazine published a pesto recipe by Angelo Pellegrini.  Pesto did not really become popular in North America until the 1980s when it seemed to spring up on many restaurant menus.

2 large fist fulls of basil leaves torn fresh from the plant
2 large cloves of garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts (optional)
Pinch of course salt (to taste)
1/4 cup grated Parmesean or Romano Cheese (grated)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, more or less as you desire

Dunk the pesto leaves in water to clean the leaves.  Dry on paper towels after spinning off the excess water.  Garlic and pine nuts are then placed in the food processor bowl and reduced and pureed as much as possible.  Then the dry basil leaves are added with coarse salt and processed finely.  Add the grated cheese and process while drizzling in the olive oil until I have the right consistency for pasta sauce. 

When making this for a first course or luncheon which will be a smaller serving, I tend to use more sauce for the pasta which provides a stronger flavor.  If making this for a main dish and therefore a larger serving, I use somewhat less sauce but add Italian sausage, which I have cooked separately and added to the dish just prior to serving. 

When I make a batch of pesto in the late summer, I freeze several containers of extra sauce.  This way whenever I need a quick pasta meal out of season, I  am prepared.   

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