Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pesto Presto!

It's that time of year again. The basil plants I have in my garden and in the pot that sits on my deck have reached their peak. Now beginning to flower, its time to harvest them before they turn bitter. For me that means making lots of pesto and freezing the leaves for use throughout the winter. These are good ways to make use of the plants abundant foliage, which always produces way more than any one cook could use. I always make multiple batches of the pesto and  freeze a dozen or more bags of the leaves, plenty to share with family and friends. The only thing I don't do is dry the basil as I simply don't like the taste of it in anything.

Making the pesto requires a good amount of time though the process is not at all difficult. The pesto making process itself is rather quick and easy. What takes the most time is harvesting the basil, picking the leaves off the stalks, and then cleaning the leaves to get them ready for freezing or pesto making. Once the leaves have been washed and dried, processing them should be done at once before the leaves begin to oxidize and turn brown. 

Regardless of recipe, pesto ingredients are pretty standard: large handfuls of clean, fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, very good extra virgin olive oil, butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Pesto nowadays can be made with just about any green veggie or herb with many not even containing basil. It's the process of preparing it that now defines the word. 

The recipe I typically follow is from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking cookbook. It's an excellent basic pesto recipe that I make with a few modifications. She recommends using a combination of both parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino-romano cheeses, while I simply use Grana Padano cheese. She uses a food processor for making a portion of the recipe, while I prefer a less complicated process and use it to make the entire recipe. Marcella also suggests that when freezing the pesto to leave out the cheese and butter. I do that for some batches which make them better additions to some dishes. I have found, however, that pesto with the cheese and butter included, freezes just as well.  I use pesto mostly as an easy and rich sauce to coat pasta, but I also like it as a spread in sandwiches or added to a soup or stew for a wonderful boost of flavor. 

For this blog I prepared 3 batches of pesto, 1 with cheese added and 2 without any cheese or butter. The recipe is written for a single complete batch which will produce about 2 cups of sauce, enough to coat up to 2 lbs. of cooked pasta.  While pesto is quite wonderful over pasta it certainly is not the only way to use it, so I have included a recipe for an easy, hot (or room temperature) potato salad side dish. 

Basic Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
3 T. pine nuts
2 cloves of garlic
pinch of salt 
pinch of black pepper
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. room temp. unsalted butter
1/3 c. freshly grated Grana Padano cheese

If preparing for freezer, do not use the cheese or butter. They can be stirred into the thawed pesto when ready to use. 

In a small skillet very lightly toast the pine nuts watching carefully as they can burn quite quickly. Remove and set aside.

Prepare the leaves by first shaking the stalks over a spread of newspaper and shake off any loose surface dirt and bugs.  Now pick off all the leaves discarding any yellowed or  badly bruised ones off the stalks. Wash the leaves in cold water, put in a lettuce spinner and spin dry. Then spread the leaves onto a clean kitchen towel and wring dry to remove as much moisture as possible from the leaves.

In a food processor add the garlic and pulse till finely minced. 

In this order add the packed basil leaves, pine nuts, salt and pepper, cheese (if using) and butter (if using). 
Pulse till mixture is very finely minced. 

Now with the food processor running, pour the olive oil in an even stream into the pesto till well incorporated. 

The sauce is now ready to use by simply adding to hot, just drained pasta. Add a tablespoon or two of the hot pasta water to loosen the sauce, if necessary. 

Freezing Basil Leaves

Follow the same procedure for preparing and washing the leaves for pesto as described above.  Then simply pack the leaves into quart size or snack size freezer bags that have been properly labeled. Squeeze out as much air as possible, seal and put into the freezer. When ready to use, simple remove what you need from the freezer in their frozen state, crush with your hands and add to recipes.  The flavor is very close to fresh. Please note that the leaves will blacken when thawed and cannot be used in fresh salads or cold dishes. 

Potato Salad with Pesto 

3 large potatoes
1 zucchini, chopped
2-3 green onions, chopped
1 c. frozen peas, thawed
salt & pepper to taste
3 T. prepared pesto (with cheese)
1-2 T. olive oil

Cut potatoes into medium large chunks. Steam for 10-15 minutes till fork tender.  

In a skillet, heat a very small amount of oil and add the zucchini, peas and onions (both white and green parts). Saute just until zucchini is tender, but not soft. 

Pour potatoes into a bowl. Add the pesto and mix together. 
Add the vegetable mixture. Stir and serve.  

1 comment:

  1. All those pesto dishes look inviting. My pesto did so poorly this year - just enough for tomato salads, bruschetta, etc. and not enough for making pesto for the freezer. will have to raid friend's gardens.