Pounding Out The Pestobilities

A garden full of glorious greens inspires many delectable thoughts during summer months. Scallions and scapes sautéed as a savory bed for fried eggs; zucchini grated into summer’s favorite bread, spicy green chilies adding heat to a plate of pasta; and fragrant basil leaves pounded into pesto.  The recent bounty from our backyard garden prompted thoughts (and recipes) in fifty shades of green.

Glimmering emerald jars (well technically, plastic recycled ricotta containers, but that doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous) are among the most used in my kitchen, in fact pesto is a staple similar to the homemade sugo and seasoned breadcrumbs.  Somehow, someway, its aromatic goodness makes its way into a myriad of meals.

The word pesto comes from the Italian pestare meaning to pound or crush, referring to the original method of preparation, with mortar and pestle.   While most credit this sauce to the Genovese of the northern Italian region of Liguria, it actually dates back to the ancient Romans.  Moretum, a mixture of herbs and cheese (ground with a circular motion of the pestle in the mortar) combined with oil and vinegar, was a common spread that was eaten with bread.  It is believed the main ingredient, basil, was introduced in India where the herb was first domesticated.  The Ligurians adapted the recipe using a combination of basil, crushed garlic, grated Parmigiano or pecorino, pine nuts and olive oil, turning it into the classic Pesto Genovese.

While the word pesto conjures up images of the brilliant green and perfumed paste, it is actually more of a generic term for sauce that is made by pounding.  Variations, including ones in other shades, and loaded with local flavors, exist across the peninsula.  Other adaptations in verde include broccoli, mint, parsley and arugula and swap out the pine nuts with walnuts, almonds and even pistachios; the ingredients can change from region to region. Other popular pestos that hold their own alongside their green counterparts include the red pesto of Cinque Terre with its addition of sundried tomatoes to the classic basil recipe; Pesto Trapanese (also known as Pesto Siciliano) which is made with fresh tomatoes, blanched almonds and mint; and Pesto Calabrese which is made using peppers, chilies, tomato and ricotta.  Another southern Italian variation is artichoke pesto made with artichokes and lemons.

The ingredients may be up for discussion, however the method is not.  A true pesto purist would never use a chef’s knife to cut the basil or a food processor to blend the raw sauce, rather it must be prepared using the standard marble mortar and a wooden pestle that mashes the plant fibers into a paste, releasing the aroma and essential oils to get the true flavor.

Aside from its obvious use as a pasta sauce its versatility is incredible.  It often gets tossed with spaghetti or penne but it makes a lovely layer in lasagne and adds a nice dimension to risotto. Because I make my pesto with basil and parsley it is the perfect flavoring agent for my Sunday sauce (everything that normally goes into a sauce is found in a couple of tablespoons of pesto) and even a minestrone.  Adding a spoonful to bruschetta makes the diced tomatoes just sing, and it’s a dynamite dip when combined with cream cheese, Italian seasoning and chopped sundried tomatoes.  It completely elevates pizza when used as the base sauce and topped with sundried tomatoes, marinated artichokes, roasted peppers, black olives and Parmigiano.

Forget the mayo (or maybe add it to the mayo) I often add it as a spread when making a sandwich or pressed panino (just fantastic with prosciutto, tomato, fresh mozzarella and spinach); and it makes a sensational stuffing (I have used it with fior di latte for a lovely stuffed chicken, layered it with prosciutto over a butterflied leg of lamb, and spooned into halved peppers).  If it’s not filling my protein it’s topping it, such as my salmon before it gets baked or on my steak when it comes off the grill.  It can also make sides simply shine, imparting its incredible flavors onto roast potatoes or mixed into a salad dressing.  The only course it hasn’t yet found its way into, is dessert (unless of course you count my savory pesto biscotti).

As you can see, when it comes to making use of this gloriously scented sauce, the pestobilities are endless. Buon Appetito!

Pesto Genovese

Ingredients

  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese or Pecorino cheese
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt

Preparation

Peel and chop the garlic.  Pick and roughly tear the basil leaves, discarding the stalks. Finely grate the cheese.

Place the garlic, a pinch of salt and the basil leaves in a pestle and mortar (you may need to add the basil leaves in batches depending on the size of your mortar).  Using the pestle begin to pound out the mixture.  Add in the pine nuts and pound again.  Add the grated cheese and slowly stream in the olive oil, stirring in a circular motion with the pestle until the sauce begins to bind.  Continue to add oil until you achieve the desired consistency.  Season with salt and pepper and enjoy.

If you do not have a mortar and pestle place all of the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse until the pesto sauce comes together.

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