Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fresh Summer Pesto By Chef Elizabeth Buckingham

Basil Photo by Elizabeth Buckingham

The current abundance of basil (even in our painfully dry climate!) makes fresh pesto a quintessential summer staple. Most recipes utilize the basics: basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper, with cheese as an additional option. This delicious combo is classic for a reason, but is more of a loose concept rather than a precise recipe. The idea is simple: pulverize fresh herbs or greens (pesto refers to the pestle traditionally used to prepare it) and using the basic formula of nuts, seasoning and a little oil, adjust the recipe to suit your tastes and whatever might currently be in season in your own garden.

Genovese basil is named for the Italian port town of Genoa, in Italy’s Liguria region, and the fresh, light cuisine found here allows pesto to really shine - especially when combined with handmade pasta and incredible summer tomatoes. You can make vegan pesto by omitting the cheese, but if you do add cheese please avoid the horrifying green can of processed sawdust at all costs. True Parmigiano costs a fortune, but you’ll only use a bit and the flavor will shine through. Pecorino-Romano, an aged sheep’s-milk cheese, may also be used. Your final dish will only be as good as the ingredients you put in, and since pesto is so utterly simple it is absolutely worth your time and money to seek out the best.

Garlic Scapes photo by
To expand your pesto repertoire beyond basil, look around your garden to see what might suit. How about parsley, which grows like a weed in most gardens? Or spinach? Arugula works beautifully, but if you’re not a massive fan of its bitterness, try tempering it with less-assertive greens. Garlic scapes make amazing pesto, especially with pistachios. Try chard, kale, collard, beet greens or carrot tops; essentially, any sturdy green will work. Mix and match to see what flavor combination you prefer, and unless you plan on freezing your pesto you’ll want to make small batches anyway in order to appreciate its wonderfully fresh flavors.

Nuts contribute delicious flavor as well as body and stability. Pine nuts are traditional, but cost about $30 a pound and are usually imported from China, where food safety regulations are questionable at best. Any nut will work – experiment with your favorites in small batches to determine your favorites. Garlic is just about mandatory, although since it remains raw you should add sparingly and adjust to suit your own tastes. Good-quality olive oil, kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper are really the only other ingredients you need to create an amazing seasonal condiment that simply screams “Welcome, summer!”

Pesto may be spread on crostini with a sprinkling of diced tomatoes and a little goat cheese; whisked into cooked pasta just before serving; served as a condiment to grilled chicken or fish; or tossed with tomatoes, cucumber, red onion and stale bread cubes for a classic Tuscan panzanella. Remember that pesto, regardless of which herbs or greens you use as its base, is not a cooked sauce. The true, bright flavors of this delicious sauce should be served perfectly raw, or, if heat is applied, it should be done with a light touch.

The inherent delicacy of the herb base means pesto doesn’t keep particularly well. Remaining pesto should be refrigerated, with a thin layer of olive oil drizzled over the top to protect the bright green color, and should generally be used within two to three days. The exception is freezing pesto: although you will endure a slight loss of color and flavor, it is well worth this sacrifice to prepare a bright meal of linguine with pesto and canned summer tomatoes in the bleakest days of winter.

To freeze pesto, make as large a batch as your garden and your food processor will allow. Divide the pesto into ice-cube trays; these can be found at thrift stores or garage sales for virtually nothing because most modern refrigerators have built-in icemakers.  Tap trays sharply in order to remove any air bubbles, top each compartment with a thin layer of olive oil to seal in color and flavor and freeze immediately. Once frozen, remove pesto cubes to zip-top plastic bags and return to freezer. (Be sure to identify these trays as “Not Suitable For Ice”; the pungent garlic flavor will be absorbed by the plastic and ice made in the trays will taste definitively off.) Again, while frozen pesto pales in comparison to fresh, a wintry night can be much improved with a little pesto kick. Fresh basil costs an absolute fortune in winter; as with so many foods, making your own when fresh ingredients are in season results in dramatically better results every single time.

Photo by
Classic Basil Pesto

Ingredients and quantities listed here are merely suggestions; adapt to suit your garden and your tastes.

2 cups (packed) fresh basil or other greens, washed and dried
2 cloves garlic, or to taste
¼ cup pine nuts or other nuts, toasted
¼ cup Parmigiano or Pecorino cheese, freshly grated
Olive oil, as needed
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Combine basil, garlic and nuts in food processor and process gently until blended but not thoroughly emulsified. Add olive oil as needed to thin to appropriate consistency. Fold in cheese, taste for seasoning and adjust with additional garlic, salt and pepper. Serve immediately or freeze in ice-cube trays. If freezing, omit cheese initially and add once thawed.