Pesto Decoded: Basil 101 and The Miracle of Life

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


We all have it growing in our gardens like an unstoppable rebel force. We eat it every single time we go out for Italian food or Vietnamese. We see it sold in bulk at the market and we buy it because it's only $2 more than the considerably smaller package and so we figure we're actually saving money by getting the larger one only to find we come home and 2 days later it's all gone brown.

But what do we do with it? We make pesto.

Pesto is an Italian concoction of pureed basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, garlic, and olive oil that forms a paste capable of being spread on a sandwich or tossed with cooked pasta. It's green, extremely flavorful, and stupidly easy to make. I'm serious here. If you have a food processor, there is no reason why you should be spending $4 at the store to buy store-bought pesto. Sorry - no excuses will be had here.

Pesto is actually a lot older than we thought. Basil originated in Northern Africa and then was cultivated in India. It made it's way in ancient times to Rome, where it found a home as a staple ingredient in Liguria (modern day Genoa) and Provence (in France). The Romans made it by grinding up basil, garlic, hard cheese similar to parmesan or romano, pine nuts, course salt, vinegar and olive oil in a morter. They called the spreadable paste moretum. This basil-nut-cheese concoction stayed very popular throughout Roman times and into modern day, gaining popularity outside of Europe only in the 1980's believe it or not. In France, a similar combination called pistou involves grinding basil and parsley, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and oil to make a chunkier consistency that is often used as a finisher in soups and stews. Other cultural "pestos" include chimichurri and gremolata, using the same basic principle of ground leavage, a lot of garlic, acid (by way of vinegar or citrus), and oil.

Green isn't the only color either. Sicilian style pesto involves using tomatoes and almonds instead of basil and pine nuts. Other variations include sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red bell peppers, and even cooked artichoke hearts. But if green is your thing and you don't have basil on hand, then just use watercress, spinach, parsley, cilantro, or even mint in combination with almonds or walnuts for a Mediterranean twist on the Roman classic. Want it spicy? Add red pepper flakes like the Sicilians or fire-roasted jalapenos like the Argentinians.

Pesto can be made with a variety of nuts. Most authentic, of course, is using pine nuts. But given how expensive they are, other nuts can be substituted in these economic times to achieve the same goal. Walnuts work extremely well as a substitute. Considerably cheaper, they offer the same earthy background flavor as pine nuts but at well under half the price. So given these economic times and all of us on The Budge, I thought I'd post a recipe here using walnuts. Go ahead and substitute the pine nuts if you want to make the authentic classic version. I do!

I call pesto "Miracle of Life" because it's so versatile. If kept properly, you can freeze it and have an instant sauce for pasta in an emergency lunch or dinner. It's low calorie and very little fat. It can top grilled anything from chicken to fish to even steak. It can spread on a sandwich for an amped up turkey on sourdough. It can be spread on grilled bread and topped with cheese and prosciutto for a super quick appetizer. And it can even be a dip for veggies for a party. It is dependable, always available, and like a good friend, will bail you out of everything without judging your laziness and poor decision making. It is the Giver of All Things, and the Miracle of Life.

Basic Yes Even YOU Can Make This Pesto For Everything Miracle of Life
1 cup of walnuts
4-6 cloves of garlic (to taste), peeled
about 4 cups of fresh basil (3/4 of the large package or approx 2 bunches)
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon
extra virgin olive oil

Place the walnuts and garlic in your food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Next add the basil, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Just top it high like this:  

Pulse until finely chopped. Next, remove the cover to your processor's feeder tube. This is the very top part that can be removed so you can add liquid while the processor is still running without making an epic mess in your kitchen:

With the processor "on", pour in enough oil until a paste consistency is formed:

You want the end product to be thick enough to be able to spread on bread easily, but not too thin so it falls apart. It should look something like this:

 Your pesto is now ready. If using immediately, go ahead and toss it with cooked pasta or use on sandwich or transfer to another dish. If planning to use later, simply place pesto in an air-tight container. Top the pesto with a layer of olive oil like this:

This will help prevent the pesto from turning brown on top (which happens when it comes into contact with air for too long -- the basil oxidizes). At this point you can store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer until ready to use. To defrost, simply leave out for an hour or two or submerge in warm water halfway up the container for 40 min.


Lisa Ruminski said...

Great tip on topping with oil...I've found my frozen pesto gone brown on top.

Lisa Ruminski said...

Great tip on topping with oil...I've found my frozen pesto gone brown on top. Thanks!