The basil harvest has started, the yearly race to process all my summer produce before the first frost is on, and my compulsive need to stock pile enough pesto to get me through the long Vermont winter has me blending away.
Pesto is one of those things that is really easy to make – combine of a few simple ingredients, put it all in a blender, press a button, and you are good to go. Despite the seemingly easy process, I have been on the receiving end of a number of pesto horror stories. I think the key to making a good pesto is not necessarily to only follow a good recipe, but to also be aware of the consistency of your ingredients and their impact on taste. Pesto is also very versatile. You can add and switch out a number of the ingredients and still obtain some tasty results.
- Basil – 1 cup
- Garlic – 3 cloves – Raw garlic has a very strong taste, which I love when it comes to pesto, but if you are not a big garlic person you can tone down the overall effect by using roasted garlic or opting out for some other bold spicy flavors such as a jalapeño pepper or some cracked black pepper.
- Nuts – 1/4 cup pine nuts – Pine nuts are traditionally used for pesto, but I sometimes substitute them out for other types of nuts such as walnuts. Walnuts tend to be less dense, bigger, and softer then pine nuts so when substituing them in I usually use about 1/2 a cup.
- Olive Oil – 1/8 cup to 1/2 cup – You want to use the least amount of olive oil possible in order to retain the bold flavors of the basil and garlic, but at the same time you want obtain a nice smooth texture for your pesto. Adding the olive oil is a balancing act – start with a little and continue to pour as you blend until you have achieved the desired consistency. At one point I was trying to lower the amount of fat that went into each batch of pesto by substituting some of the olive oil for a light white wine. This worked out pretty well, but keep in mind that your not cooking off the alcohol content and the wine can really change the overall taste of the pesto.
- Cheese – 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese – You can blend the cheese in with the other ingredients in the blender or you can wait until your incorporating your pesto into pasta or some other medium to add the cheese. If you add the cheese in the blender you will end up with a creamier pesto, you will also have to add a little bit more olive oil to counteract the dryness of the cheese, and it might take a little more work to incorporate your pesto into your final product. If you wait to add the cheese you will have a looser pesto paste, but the pesto will not be as creamy and rich in taste.
Place the above ingredients in a blender and blend until you have obtain the desired consistency. Ideally your pesto should have the consistency of a slightly runny paste. If it is to dry it will not spread well and if it is to wet you have likely used to much olive oil compromising on overall taste.
In order to stock up on pesto for the winter months, I blend large batches of it and then freeze it in about 1/2 – 3/4 cup servings in sandwich sized zip-locks. Pesto tends to loose its bright green color the longer it sits out, so by freezing it in individual portions I can retain some of that freshness throughout the winter months. This is also part of the reason for why I prefer freezing over canning my pesto. 1/2 – 3/4 cups of pesto is usually enough pesto for one box of pasta or enough to cover one pesto pizza (my latest pesto obsession).
- Kale Pesto – The slight bitterness of kale is a nice complement to the smoothness of the basil and the bite of the garlic. Add 1 – 2 cups of fresh kale to your basic pesto. Finish with squeeze of lemon juice.
- Spicy Pesto – Add a jalapeño pepper (seeds removed) to your basic pesto.
- Beet Pesto – I used to always be stumped when it came to using purple basil in pesto. The color just does not lend itself to visually appetizing results. So I improvised by adding a roasted beet to my pesto, and the result was a delicate and slightly sweeter tasting pesto in a stunning velvety fuchsia.