In the heat of high summer, basil is enjoying a great boom where I live. If you’ve grown basil before, you’ve seen how fast they grow in a day in hot sunny weather. With abundant supply, I always try to come up with more ways to enjoy basil. I love to toss them in salads, on pizza, or to dress up those beautiful heirloom tomatoes that are also in season. I must say, though, I love making a sauce (or do you call it a dressing, a condiment?) out of basil - a sauce that is versatile enough to match up with a variety of food and cooking – Pesto.
Traditional pesto alla Genovese is made of basil, garlic, salt, olive oil and pine nuts. The solid ingredients are placed in a mortar and pound with the pestle until they form a paste. Olive oil is then drizzled on and beat into the mixture to make a pesto, which is often used to dress pasta or potatoes, making for an easy quick meal.
Then there is pistou, a popular condiment used in Provencal cooking. It’s essentially the same ingredients as pesto alla Genovese but without the pine nuts. Pistou is served with soupe au pistou, a summer vegetable soup. Next time you make a vegetable soup such as minestrone, try some pistou with it; you’d be delighted with the extra freshness and depth it adds.
Simply put, a pesto or pistou is a few basic ingredients: herbs, garlic and oil, with or without nuts, pulverized together. It’s pretty easy to make substitutions and be creative with this herb sauce. If you are not a big fan of nuts skip them and make a pistou. Otherwise, try walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds. And toast them beforehand on low heat if you like a more intense nutty flavor. When it comes to herbs, there are plenty of choices. Parsley is very popular for pesto. You can also add mint, cilantro or thyme to create your own version. And why stop there; why not go a step further by introducing more flavors to your basic pesto.
For example, you can mix in some grated hard cheese, such as parmigiano-reggiano or pecorino. It adds a touch of creaminess and saltiness to the herb sauce. If you like anchovies like I do, mash some in; you’d enjoy that added depth of savoriness to your dishes. On the other hand, include some arugula if a peppery finish is what you are going for. Another great option is sun-dried tomatoes; the sweetness and tartness give the sauce a little tang. However you like to call your concoction, you now have a delicious dressing or condiment to serve along your grilled meats, vegetables, or soups.
Now I couldn’t possibly talk about pesto and pistou without mentioning another popular herb-based sauce – Argentineans’ chimichurri. If you add a few splashes of vinegar and some mild red chili flakes to parsley, oregano, garlic and olive oil, you get chimichurri. Chimichurri is used as both a marinade and a condiment for grilled meats. Two birds in one stone, don’t you love that? And you can always substitute or add ingredients such as thyme, lemon zest or juice, onion, or shallots, to match your palette. Make a large enough quantity of chimichurri. Reserve some for serving later; pour the rest over pieces of steak or chicken. Let them marinate in refrigerator overnight. Grill the meat up the next day and don’t forget to serve with the reserved chimichurri.
By now, I hope you’ve gotten excited about making your own herb sauce, be it a pesto or chimichurri. By the way, these types of sauces freeze very well. I’d say you make a big batch for later use. Use an air-tight container to store the sauce and make sure you seal the surface with a thin layer of olive oil on top when storing. Remember, recipes for pesto or chimichurri style sauces are incredibly forgiving. My advice to you is: Taste as you go along and make sure it’s well-seasoned.
If you have ten minutes, you can make a pesto. So, go ahead and use your taste buds as your guide to create your own version. To get you started, I’m happy to share with you my basic pesto recipe.
Shirl’s Quick Pasta with Pesto
Fresh Herbs such as basil and parsley, about 1 1/2 cups
Garlic, 2-3 cloves
Salt, start with a big pinch
Nuts, optional, toasted if desired, up to ¼ cup.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil, start with ¼ cup
1. Add all ingredients except oil to a food processor and process until they are finely ground. Stream in olive oil while the food processor is running. If the mixture seems dry, add more oil. Taste and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper if desired.
2. Cook pasta of your choice. I like fusilli or trofie. Remember to salt your boiling water.
3. To serve, use about ¼ cup of pesto to dress 1 pound (450g) of freshly-cooked pasta. Taste and add more pesto if desired.