It is Italy on a plate!
I’m not sure when I first tasted pesto…. all I know is that it was one of those memorable food moments. It must have been in the 1980’s when the South African palates underwent a ‘renaissance’ and Italian cuisine suddenly extended beyond stodgy mac & cheese, lasagne and spaghetti bolognaise! Fresh basil was available in garden centres and anyone who anything about food planted it.
It was also at this stage, when I was employed as a product developer at Woolies, when one of my managers (usually men with a commercial background who had an ‘opinionated’ interest in food!) returned to the office from a business trip and insisted that we develop this new Italian product called “festo”!
Well, for weeks we scratched our heads and tried to research “festo”. One day I asked my Mom, and she laughed ….. “he probably means pesto”….. I made a batch and took it to him for approval and ‘hey presto, it was pesto’! Today when ex colleagues get together, we still have a giggle about that!
Every spring I cannot wait to plant basil.
I have a south-facing vegetable garden that becomes too cold and wet in winter, so my plants die. I know that if they are in a warmer place they can survive our mild winters. (“note to self: plant a few basil plants in the flower garden next year….. if there is water!!”)
The trick to get lovely bushy plants is to regularly nip out any flower buds that appear. In autumn the plants start to get leggy and the stems woody and the flowers appear in profusion. It’s a warning that it is time to make the last batch of pesto for the season.
I so feel indulgent picking huge bunches of basil. I love the heady fragrance while I pick the leaves from the stems. I always remove the stems and flowers. If you are making salad toss the flowers in. Keep the rinsing water and cut up the stems and flowers into the water and toss that basil scented water into the garden. Basil keeps most bugs away. I notice that if I have a few branches of basil in water in the kitchen, there are no flies!
I’m not too phased about not having basil in winter as I really associate it with sun ripened tomatoes and alfresco dining.
Ingredients and variations
Traditionally pesto is made from fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese, but commercially one finds many interesting variations. In France a variation, pistou, is made without nuts and cheese.
I vary mine by replacing the very expensive pine nuts with other nuts. I rather like using roasted cashews, macadamias or hazelnuts. This week I had a huge packet of almonds at home, so I used them. If you have pine nuts use them, the authentic flavour is sublime.
Try to use real Parmesan, it does make a difference, especially if you are serving pesto tossed with warm pasta or roasted vegetables, two of my favourite uses! If you don’t have parmesan, pecorino also works well. I have also used an extra mature cheddar, when the texture becomes parmesan-like.
The olive oil must be good quality extra virgin.
You can use rocket or coriander instead of basil, but somehow these flavours do not have the punch that basil pesto has. Be aware of some cheaper shop bought varieties where spinach replaces some of the basil! If you do not have a garden buy basil plants and leave the pots on your kitchen window sill. They need light and plenty of water. This year, with very little water for my veggie garden, I had two pots of basil that thrived on my patio.
You can mill the pesto to a fairly smooth paste, but I prefer it to be coarser, especially the nuts, which I add later.
Keep pesto in the fridge with a thin topping of olive oil to maintain the colour and freshness. It keeps for a few weeks, but is best eaten within about 7 days. It can be successfully frozen but is does discolour.
The uses for pesto are endless.
If desired it can be diluted to a dressing or thinned down by adding more olive oil or even add melted butter for a hot dish. A splash of lemon juice or wine vinegar will add tartness, but this is not traditional. The addition of acid also browns the pesto, so add it just before using. This works well with seafood or cuts the richness when served with lamb.
Some uses for pesto:
Salads: dilute with olive oil to form a thinner dressing to toss with baby potatoes; halved baby tomatoes; green beans; add cubes of feta or mozzarella
Vegetables: Toss over hot cooked vegetables e.g. green beans; cauliflower; mixed roast vegetables; baby potatoes; courgettes
Delicious served with grilled or roast fish, chicken, pork or lamb. Replace the traditional mint sauce with lamb with pesto!
Pasta with pesto: Add spoonfuls to hot, drained pasta. Toss and serve. Add extra olive oil and grated parmesan if desired.
Pesto Mayo is delicious, just blend a few teaspoons of pesto with the mayonnaise.
Add it to sandwiches with other fillings.