23 August 2009

Pesto Fest

Our CSA shares have included arugula and basil for weeks now. Back in July, we were buying giant bunches of basil at the green market every week. These tasty little leaves are delicate, so they need to be used quickly once they're brought home. Our strategy for long-term preservation? Pesto.

I'm no pesto expert, but I know what I like and I know how to make it. Pesto, to me, is a combination of a tasty leaf (basil, spinach, arugula, parsley) with a tasty nut (pine nut, almond, pecan, pistachio) and some garlic, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil. I take a mix-and-match approach to pesto, using what I have and what I like and trying new combinations of flavors to see what works.

Some of my favorite pesto combinations are basil & almond, arugula & pecan, and spinach & parsley & pistachio. Pine nuts make me itchy, so I try to avoid them, but they are the classic pesto nut.

You can leave out the nuts and cheese altogether and make a pistou - a French sauce made with basil, garlic, and olive oil. (Hey, Lisa M., that would be vegan!) Modern pistou makers like to add cheese (Parmesan, Pecorino). This would also be great if someone has a nut allergy.

The teacher in me is dying for a mini-lesson. Indulge me, and let me walk you through how I make pesto.

These are the basic ingredients for a small batch of arugula pesto:

I had about a third-pound of arugula from my CSA, seven garlic cloves, two handfuls of pecans (I love pecans with arugula - peppery and earthy are a tasty combo), a one-inch by three-inch by half-inch chunk of Parmesan cheese, cut into smaller chunks, some kosher salt, and my favorite go-to olive oil.

I've worked out a technique to keep me from having to fuss with the food processor when I make pesto: I layer in the ingredients - garlic, nuts, and cheese chunks on the bottom with some salt and leaves on top.

With everything but the oil in the food processor, I pulse about 13 times (I told you I had issues with prime numbers), until everything has been pulled into the blades and chopped finely. I then let the food processor run while I squeeze in the olive oil (I love my squeezy bottles of olive oil!) until everything combines into a thick paste.

Some people like their pesto to be thinner - more oil or some water will give you that texture. I leave the pesto thick because I thin it down with pasta water when I'm making pasta and I like it thick as a spread.

The photo below is NOT the arugula pesto I made yesterday. It is a garlic scape pesto I made in June. I was so into my rhythm of make pesto, jar it up, and freeze it yesterday that I simply forgot to take a picture. Sigh. This photo shows you how thick I like my pesto, though.

Pesto freezes well and keeps in the refrigerator for a few days (if you can keep people from eating it). It should be stored with a layer of olive oil over the top so that it does not oxidize and turn black. It's still tasty and edible after it oxidizes; it's just ugly, so use the oil trick.

So, what do we do with all of this stuff? J loves pasta with pesto. Just toss the sauce with some hot pasta (thin it down with some of the pasta water if necessary). I like a cold pesto pasta salad with some peas, carrots, roasted red peppers, and a little extra olive oil. We spread pesto onto pizza dough instead of tomato sauce and melt mozzarella cheese over it. Pesto on a baguette makes for the beginning of a tasty garlic bread. We slather pesto onto our tomato and mozzarella sandwiches instead of using basil leaves. It's also good inside a mozzarella panini. We enjoy pesto as a sauce for steamed, fried, or oven fried veggies. It was really good with our oven fried eggplant last week.

At last count, I had over a gallon of pesto in the freezer (in small half-pint jars). As long as the CSA keeps sending home basil and arugula and the green market tempts me with big fragrant bunches of basil for a song, I'll keep making pesto. It's so simple and tasty and fun.

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