Fun with Pesto

delicious pea pesto topped with sugar snap peas

delicious pea pesto topped with sugar snap peas

Hi friends! I hope you’re all having a good summer. I can’t believe we’re halfway through August. On one hand, I’m thrilled we’re that much closer to autumn, my favorite season and a superb time for cooking and baking. On the other hand, I’m not super comfortable with this whole time-is-flying thing!

Though we haven’t had a particularly hot summer here in Western Massachusetts, our little fan-cooled apartment warms up quite quickly which means we’ve been opting for fast, cool, and oven-free meals when we can. Pasta with pesto is one of my go-to recipes in the summertime (and in all seasons!) because the only “cooking” required is boiling some water for pasta.  Also, basil and other greens are readily available, ensuring a very fresh pesto. Pesto can be used for a lot more than pasta and works especially well in salads, soups, and on sandwiches.

My recipe for pesto is hardly a recipe at all, more a simple formula. I’ve always enjoyed pesto genovese (the green basil pesto we’re all used to) but a few years ago I started making my own pesto (cheap! easy! fresh! satisfying!) and I began to experiment with various kinds. My favorites are pea pesto and kale pesto. I’ve been wanting to make pesto trapanese (a Sicilian pesto with tomatoes and almonds) for ages, and I’m sure that’ll join my favorites list too.

Pesto is very easy and can be made by hand with a mortar and pestle or, if you’re looking for speed and efficiency, with a food processor. I’ve made it both ways but tend to prefer a food processor to make my job easier and to achieve a finer, creamier texture.

For ingredients you need the following: greens (basil, mint, kale, spinach, peas etc.), a nut (pine, almond, walnut), cheese (hard cheeses like parmesan, pecorino, and asiago work best), garlic, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Here are the typical ingredient amounts I use, though they are not hard and fast by any means:

GREENS: 1 1/2 to 2 cups; I like to reserve some of whatever I’m using to garnish the pasta –for example, when I make pea pesto I use a total of 1 1/2 cups defrosted frozen peas and reserve 1/2 cup to serve atop the pasta.
NUTS: 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup; I usually use raw pine nuts – occasionally I’ll toast them in a pan on the stove top first.
CHEESE: 1/2 to 1 cup cheese; my favorite is parmesan
GARLIC: 1 to 2 cloves, minced
OLIVE OIL: 1/3 to 2/3 cup
SALT, PEPPER, & ADDITIONAL SEASONINGS (ex: red pepper flakes, lemon zest): to taste

Pesto is perfect to experiment with, so get creative!

Mortar and pestle:  start by making a paste with the garlic. Slowly add nuts and cheese and continue grinding with the pestle until you achieve a creamy consistency. Add your greens, followed by olive oil, salt, and pepper, and and continue blending with the pestle. Keep tasting throughout to check for texture (not too coarse) and seasoning.

Food processor: combine all of the ingredients except for the olive oil and pulse until coarsely chopped. Drizzle in half of the oil while still pulsing. Stop and check for flavor and texture; drizzle in the remaining oil and pulse until creamy.

If you’re serving your pesto with pasta, be sure to save some of the cooking water after you’ve drained your pasta. The water has starch (and flavor!) that helps to bind the pesto to the pasta and thin out the sauce.  Splash the water into the mixing bowl a tablespoon at a time with the pasta and pesto until you reach the right consistency. I’ve used various pasta types with pesto (spaghetti, rotini, even gnocchi) and they all work well, though in my experience hard, store-bought pasta (not soft, often homemade egg pasta) works best – especially those types of pasta with nooks and crannies for the pesto to cling to. I usually serve the dish warm but pesto would make a great addition to a cold pasta salad too!

Store unused pesto in a jar topped with a little more olive oil in the fridge. It will keep 4-5 days in the refrigerator if properly stored. If you have a bounty of summer greens and want to make some pesto to freeze, make it without cheese, top with olive oil in a thin layer and freeze for up to 2 months (some people say to 6 months). When you want to eat it, defrost and add cheese.

beautiful, creamy pea pesto!

beautiful, creamy pea pesto!

*I don’t know the exact yield for my pesto recipe but I would say approximately 1-2 cups depending upon how much of each ingredient is used. I always make enough to mix with 12-16 ounces of pasta or roughly 4-5 servings.


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