The crowd at the Farmers’ Market Saturday makes me hopeful that more folks are eating real food. That’s exciting, but I’m not a fan of crowds like that. I never like throwing an elbow to get good produce, but you have to do what you have to do. My haul looked like this,
Pesto is another food that I get all snotty about. Just add it to the list. I don’t buy it in a jar, I usually won’t order it in a restaurant. So that makes it a lot like pie, if it’s not homemade and it has been preserved in a jar, it’s not worth eating. Pesto isn’t rocket science. Anybody can make it in about five minutes. It doesn’t even require a recipe. That makes it super easy to become a pesto elitist, like me.
A few notes on ingredients
Basil – Fresh crisp leaves are best. The biggest issue is that you need a truckload of them to make just a little pesto. Buying fresh in the grocery store herb section is cost prohibitive and the leaves are always wilty. You don’t want flaccid basil. This time of year growers start harvesting it in larger bunches and sell it at the farmers market. I find that the cut flower growers sell the largest bunches for the best price. A few years back I harvested enough from my mother-in-laws garden to fill a 30 gallon trash bag (with stems and stuff), and that only made about six batches.
You’ll need to wash it well as it tends to be sandy. Let it dry and remove the stems. Stems will make your pesto bitter. (I’m not endorsing child labor, I’m just saying that small children tend to be quite good at this and it’s makes an excellent consequence for having wedgie-d your brother.)
Many recipes suggest that you briefly blanch the basil. I think that sucks the joy and the fresh taste out of it, but do as you like I suppose.
Other Herbs – As far as I am aware there is no ruling Pesto Authority. That means if you don’t like basil, or you are bored with it, you can swap other herbs. I like cilantro and arugula, personally. The character of different herbs may lend you to change-up other ingredients. For instance, when I use cilantro instead of pine nuts I use pumpkin seeds, for cheese I use just a small bit of Monterrey Jack, and I add a squeeze of lime. Just experiment in small batches and see what you like. No one is going to slap your hands and tell you that it’s wrong if you think it tastes good.
Nuts – Toasted pine nuts are traditional. They are also extremely expensive. Some people don’t like the flavor they impart. I don’t find that they are super-essential. I think a few almonds, walnuts or pumpkin seeds can be easily substituted. Again, there is no Pesto Authority. Get crazy, break the rules.
Garlic – This is essential, in my humble opinion. But add as much as you need based on your taste preferences, the power of your garlic and your desire to repel others. I use a lot.
Cheese – Parmesan is traditional (NOT that shit in the green can). Romano, Peccorino and Feta make interesting substitutes. Experiment as you like, but I recommend something salty and dry. If you are a vegan, just opt out.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil - As with most things, a high quality virgin is great, but not essential. What you have in the cabinet to saute is fine. It’s not about the oil.
It’s all about technique. You’ll need a food processor, that’s essential. Here are my other suggestions:
- Don’t blanch the basil or herbs
- Wash it thoroughly and let it air dry
- When combining in your food processor, use the pulse button and pause repeatedly to scrape down the sides.
- Pesto is best served instantly. If you make a huge batch and you want to preserve, freeze don’t can. Use freezer zip bags and freeze flat on a cookie sheet. After its frozen I line them up, upright, like magazines.
- If you do freeze as above, just break enough off the thin frozen ‘pesto wafer’ and toss it in with lightly oiled, warm, cooked pasta. You don’t need to thaw the pesto on the stove or in the microwave. The warm pasta does it for you. Then it tastes just like summer in February!
Here is the closest thing I have to a recipe, and it goes like this……..
- Food processor bowl filled with dry basil (or other herb) leaves
- 2 cloves good garlic, coarsely chopped
- Small handful of pine nuts, toasted (or 7-10 almonds)
- Small handful of shredded cheese
- Freshly ground black pepper
- About 1/8 cup of olive oil
- Sea salt
Combine first six ingredients in the food processor using the pause button, and scraping sides frequently. Add additional olive oil if necessary to achieve a consistency that you like. Taste and add sea salt and adjust pepper. Done!
See, that wasn’t hard.