basil pesto: summer fest 2010

My appreciation for pesto developed in my early twenties. While my aunt's gravy was killer—I still haven't figured out her secret, her pesto was always a bit bracing and more reminiscent of a garlic fest. Then one day I went to a friend's house to visit her newborn daughter.

Parents know enjoying a homecooked meal seems more like a treat in those early days. Personally, we ate take-out for the first month after Isabella was born. It was all the Mr. and I could do to keep our heads above water. Lack of sleep for weeks on end will do that to you.

Diego being from Northern Italy had a different connection to food. They rarely ever ordered in. Sleep deprivation seemed to bring out the best in his cooking. He also had a simple approach to preparation, and knew just a few fresh, good-quality ingredients were really all you needed to
delight your tastebuds and leave a comforting feeling in your belly.

On first glance, pesto may seem a humble, peasant-like dish. That pretty much ends with the main ingredient, basil. The other defining ingredients are pignoli nuts, also called pine nuts, and extra virgin olive oil—both carry a hefty price tag.

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The ease of preparation fits the bill for every busy person who craves home cooking with minimal time investment. You simply add a handful of ingredients to a food processor and bring a pot of water to a rolling boil for the pasta. Dinner is done in less than 20 minutes. The traditional way to make pesto is with a mortar and pestle, but I'm all for modern intervention here. Those few minutes it saves is crucial when balancing cooking with a two and seven year old underfoot.

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So what was it about Diego's pesto that made me a convert? Unlike my aunt's and many other versions, his wasn't an oil slick over pasta. It was thick and creamy, and a light hand with the ladle ensured it gently coated each strand of spaghetti.

It never occurred to me to ask for the recipe. Silly, I know.

Luckily, a few months later I stumbled upon a used bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach area. I love collecting old cookbooks, and couldn't resist the no-nonsense look and recipes in Northern Italian Cooking by Francesco Ghedini.

Tucked away on page 14 was a recipe for Pasta Alla Genovese. It included butter. Forget about bacon, butter is really what makes everything better—except for the numbers on the scale if you overindulge.

Over the years I've tweaked it based on preference and subbing ingredients when in a pinch. My current recipe strays far from Ghedini's, but it holds true to two main techniques.

The butter has stayed, just scaled back a bit.

Instead of spinach I use parsley to help maintain the vibrant green color.

The pignoli nuts are optional. Now, I know some of you foodies and fellow Italians are rolling your eyes, but this is a practical necessity. If you have everything you need, except the nuts, then this is a great go-to recipe. It will still taste delicious—I promise. And if you're allergic to nuts, then take comfort in knowing you can enjoy pesto too.

You should also know the Mr. is not a pesto fan, and Isabella shies away from garlic.

They both devoured the pasta. I rest my case.

Basil Pesto

Makes 2/3 cup (enough for two adults and two kids)

This classic Italian sauce is delicious served over pasta or drizzled over fresh mozzarella cheese and sliced tomatoes. Serve it slightly heated or at room temperature. I find adding the garlic in slices, rather than the whole cloves, ensures it blends into the final sauce better.

¾ cup packed fresh basil leaves
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 clove garlic, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons butter, softened
¼ cup pignoli nuts (also called pine nuts), optional
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Add the basil and parsley to the workbowl of a food processor. Pulse until roughly chopped. Add the garlic, butter, nuts (if using), cheese and salt an pepper. Process until it forms a paste, then slowly drizzle olive oil in through feed tube, continuing to process the mixture until it begins to emulsify and becomes a creamy sauce-like consistency.

TIP: At the end of summer, I make a batch of pesto using any surplus basil and freeze it in ice cube trays. This way I have "fresh" basil to add to my marinara sauce throughout the long, sometimes cold, winters here in NYC. You can leave out the pignoli nuts, as I do, for this purpose.


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HOW YOU CAN JOIN IN SUMMER FEST:
So now it’s your turn: Have a recipe or tip that fits any of our weekly themes? Starting yesterday, for the next five Wednesdays,  you can contribute in various ways, big or small.

Simply leave your tip or recipe or favorite links in the comments below a Summer Fest post on my blog, and then go visit my collaborators and do the same.

The cross-blog event idea works best when you leave your recipe or favorite links (whether to your own blog or someone else’s) at all the host blogs. That way, they are likely to be seen by the widest audience. Everyone benefits, and some pretty great dialog starts simmering.

Or think bigger: Publish entire posts of your own, if you wish, and grab the juicy Summer Fest 2010 tomato badge (illustrated by Matt of Mattbites).



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