Thursday, August 22, 2013

Produce a Pound of Perfect Pesto Paste and Prepare your Palate for Pure Pleasure!

Pesto is a basil paste originating in Genoa Italy.  It is an ancient blend of taste and textures offering the complex, heady, and powerful flavor of crushed garlic and raw basil, only just tamed by the nuts, cheese, and olive oil.   Pesto is an exquisite companion to pasta, scrambled eggs, broiled salmon, grilled steak, or simply dolloped on a square of toasted whole grain bread topped with fresh cucumber and vine-ripened tomato.  It is heavenly eaten fresh, but it freezes well so make a big batch in the summer while the basil is plentiful and enjoy it all year long!

The ancient Romans ate a paste called "moretum", which was made by crushing cheese, garlic and herbs together.  In the 1800s the Ligurians around Genoa took the dish and adapted it, using a combination of basil (which likely originated in India but took the firmest hold in northern Italy and southern France), crushed garlic, grated hard cheese (a mix of parmigiano-reggiano and pecorino or just one of the two), and pine nuts with a little olive oil to form something new they called pesto.

The name is the contracted past participle of the Genoese word "pestâ" (Italian: "pestare"), which means to pound, to crush, in reference to the original method of preparation, with marble mortar and wooden pestle. This same Latin root through Old French also gave rise to the English word pestle.   Pesto was first introduced to the United States in the 1940s but did not become popular until the 1980s and 1990s.

Pesto is a healthy addition to any diet because, while it is high in calories and fat (to be enjoyed in moderation as a condiment not eaten directly from the jar with a spoon), pesto offers a wealth of nutrients and a punch of flavor that many other sauces lack. When enjoyed in moderation, pesto can enhance your health and nutrient intake.  For example a 1/4-cup serving of pesto contains 15 percent of the daily value for vitamin A, 6 percent for vitamin C, 20 percent for calcium and 4 percent for iron, based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Vitamin A supports vision health, vitamin C acts as an antioxidant and tissue builder, iron supports healthy red blood cells and calcium is essential to strong bones. You also get about 6 g of protein per serving of pesto. A basil-based pesto also contains a number of flavonoids, compounds that support cell structure and help fight disease-causing free radicals.

My version of pesto replaces the traditional pine nuts with walnuts (they're not only very good for you and delicious, but we have a walnut tree and so I get them FREE) and I use a food processor rather than a mortar and pestle but it is delicious--it approaches culinary perfection!

Here is how to prepare a pound of perfect pesto paste

  • 2 cups Fresh Basil Leaves
  • 4 Tbsp Garlic - peeled and minced (I like to use the jars of minced garlic from the store because it is relatively inexpensive)
  • 1 cup Shelled Walnuts (you can substitute with pine nuts if you prefer)
  • 1 1/4 cups Parmesan Cheese (don't use the stuff in the tall green can sold by Kraft for sprinkling on spaghetti - grate your own from a block or buy long-grated parmesan--it's relatively inexpensive by the bag at Costco)
  • 1 cup Good Quality Olive Oil
  • Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper to taste
Pick the lower leaves of the pesto plant leaving the budding end of the branches to keep producing more (BTW if your pesto starts to bolt pick off the seed stalks, harvest the largest lower leaves, and start making pesto quickly).  Wash the leaves well and then dry them with a "salad spinner" or by patting them dry with a paper towel.  Combine the walnuts, basil, and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and chop.  With the motor running drizzle the olive oil in a slow steady stream.  Transfer to a bowl and add a big pinch of salt and a liberal grinding of pepper as well as the cheese and stir it well.  This results in two cups of pesto (roughly a pound).  This will keep for weeks in the fridge or months in the freezer. 

It's not hard to find many delicious uses for your pesto but start by boiling up a pound of fettucine noodles, drain, and then stir in a cup of pesto with a 1/4 cup of cream and serve immediately with fresh tomatoes...MMMM!  Another favorite is to broil salmon (about 6 minutes on each side) and then top with a mixture of half pesto and half mayonnaise and broil for another 4 minutes.  Serve with a side of steamed vegetables and fresh!


  1. In the directions, you say to drizzle in olive oil ..... there's no mention of olive oil in the ingredients. How much?

    1. Wow! How did I miss the olive oil?! Thanks for catching that (I've fixed it now). It's 1 cup of good quality olive oil. I appreciate you keeping me on honest ;-)