Make the most of culinary herbs and spices.
by Sandra Bowens
Here's one that's full of our favorite recipes because we wrote the book! It is also full of information, helpful hints and ideas for using herbs and spices in your kitchen.
While working as a waitress at a fine dining establishment, one of my dinner guests asked what pesto was. I recited the ingredient list for her and said, "Then they whip it all up in a food processor and it's pesto."
Her dining partner looked at me with narrowed eyes. "You just took every bit of romance out of a traditional preparation."
He was right, I had.
Pesto should really be made by the painstaking process of pounding all the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle. At cooking school in Italy, we started by chopping the herbs, nuts and cheese with a mezzaluna, a large curved knife with handles on each end. Even there we threw it all in the food processor at the end!
First the basics
The traditional pesto, originating in Genoa, Italy, is composed of basil, pine nuts, garlic, cheese and olive oil pounded into a paste. The word pesto means “pestle” so it can apply to any sort of ingredients transformed into a paste through using a mortar and pestle or even a food processor.
Similar to pesto, the French prepare a “pistou.” This version may have tomatoes added but never pine nuts or parsley, according to James Peterson in his book Sauces. Pistou is often added to soups and used with potato dishes.
Pesto (and pistou) are not cooked in any way so fresh, high quality ingredients are a must. An extra virgin olive oil is essential for the best flavor.
It is easy, and tempting, to expand on the basic five ingredients to create your own pestos. Consider the Genoese version a formula: Herb, nut, garlic, cheese and oil.
Many recipes combine basil and parsley for the herb. I’ve seen sun-dried tomatoes used. Just bear in mind, the herb will be your main flavor. Parsley is an excellent extender if you think the herb you have chosen might be too intense on its own.
Pine nuts have a somewhat oily texture that suits pesto but other nuts can compliment other herbs. Walnuts and almonds are used in the recipes below with excellent results.
Garlic seems almost necessary to pesto but here again, you can vary the amounts used to net different flavors. Although I have not tried it, shallots might provide an interesting alternative.
Most pesto recipes will call for Parmesan cheese. Look for the more costly (but definitely worth it) Parmesans imported from Italy. Other hard cheeses will work as well. Romano is a natural substitute. Asiago would complement the nuts in pesto.
Now I contradict myself about the extra virgin olive oil being a must. High quality is the only absolute. Think about some of the flavored oils such as walnut or raspberry that might highlight the other tastes you have chosen.
Uses for pesto
A pasta sauce is the most obvious and traditional way to use pesto but you will find many other tasty ways to put it on the menu.
For pasta, toss a few tablespoons of pesto with hot pasta and a bit of the cooking water until well coated. Toss in a few raw or blanched vegetables like tomatoes, broccoli or artichokes if desired. This is good served hot or at room temperature.
Stir a teaspoon of pesto into a bowl of piping hot soup just before serving as a colorful and tasty garnish. Allow a bit of pesto to melt over the top of broiled fish or steamed veggies.
To make a terrific appetizer, lightly toast slices of French bread, spread on a thin layer of pesto and pass under a broiler until it is hot and bubbly.
You might also spread a layer of pesto over your pork chops just before you finish broiling them.
Or make your favorite bread recipe. Roll it out like pizza dough, spread on pesto and roll it up as if you were making cinnamon rolls. Or use it as a pizza topping.
You get the idea!
Saving the rest for later
Because a little pesto goes a long way, you will almost always have some leftovers. Not a problem. It keeps for weeks in the refrigerator and freezes nicely. A thin layer of oil over the top will keep it from discoloring. Just recently, I discovered a great way to do this is to use the non-stick spray oil. To freeze, consider using ice cube trays so that you can take just as much as you need from the freezer each time. Simply freeze in the trays and then pop the “cubes” into a freezer bag.
Recipes to get you started
2 cups (packed) fresh spinach leaves, well-washed and stemmed
1/2 cup (packed) fresh parsley, preferably Italian flat leaf
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place all ingredients into the workbowl of a food processor with the steel blade. Process to a fine paste, scraping down sides of bowl 2 or 3 times, as necessary. Taste and adjust seasonings. Transfer to a glass container and store in refrigerator.
This pesto will keep for weeks in the refrigerator but the top will harmlessly discolor. A thin coat of olive oil prevents this.
Makes about 1 cup
Cooking School Pesto
These are the ingredients we used at Casa Caponetti cooking classes. Laura Caponetti didn’t have specific measurements but this is what works in my American kitchen.
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves, about 3/4 ounce
1 small clove garlic, peeled and quartered
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup sliced almonds
4 small cherry tomatoes
a few pinches of Kosher salt
1/3 cup packed freshly grated Parmesan cheese (a scant ounce)
Place all ingredients into the workbowl of a food processor with the steel blade. Process to a fine paste, scraping down sides of bowl 2 or 3 times, as necessary. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
Makes about 3/4 cup
Be sure to see All About Basil for another basil pesto recipe.
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