One of my greatest pleasures during the summer months is buying a potted basil plant for our balcony. It invariably dies from a combination of bugs and dehydration, but during the weeks in which it lives, I eat basil on almost everything. Scrambled eggs, sandwiches, salads, and even burgers are all improved with a sprinkling of this refreshing green herb.
Perhaps my favorite way to enjoy basil is in pesto sauce. This simple sauce is made primarily from basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and a few other key ingredients. It’s fast and easy to make, with a bold flavor that tastes like summer on a plate. If you’ve never made pesto sauce before, now is your chance. All you need are the following ingredients and about 15 minutes, and you’ll have a knockout dinner in no time.
yield: about 1 cup pesto
- 4 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup pine nuts (pignolias)
- 2 garlic cloves
- juice of 1/2 lemon
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
Now, this first step is completely optional, and will entirely depend on your tolerance for very fierce fresh garlic breath. I think raw garlic can sometimes have too much of a “bite” and can completely overwhelm the more subtle basil and pine nut flavors, so I like to toast the garlic for a few minutes, just to soften it and take the harsh edge off.
If you feel similarly, place your garlic cloves, still in their papery skins, in a saucepan over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring them around occasionally so they don’t burn.
After 2-3 minutes, add the pine nuts to the skillet and continue toasting them. If you choose not to toast your garlic, you should still toast the pine nuts–it deepens their flavor and definitely improves the pesto in the end.
Watch the pine nuts carefully, as they have a tendency to easily burn. Take them off the heat when they become fragrant and start to turn a golden brown. Let the toasted pine nuts cool completely.
Peel the paper skins off the garlic cloves. They should slip right out if you’ve toasted them for a few minutes.
Now for the really difficult part of the recipe: blending everything together in the food processor. Don’t worry, I’ve taken lots of pictures to talk you through the hard parts.
Start by adding your basil to the bowl of a food processor. If you have a good, heavy-duty mixer you can try to use that, but I much prefer a food processor. The traditional way to make pesto is by hand, with a mortar and pestle, but I will leave those instructions to the Italian grandmothers in our midst and show you the quick and easy method instead.
This is also a good time to mention that you can add other herbs to your pesto as well. Try adding in some parsley, oregano, or cilantro. You could even experiment with adding kale or spinach to boost the nutrition profile!
Add your toasted pine nuts. Speaking of substitutions, you can replace the pine nuts with almonds (a common Sicilian variation) or even walnuts. I personally love the smooth, rich, buttery taste the pine nuts add, but if you find that you’re out, you can substitute other nuts with good results.
Now add those peeled garlic cloves…
…the olive oil…
…and the lemon juice–freshly squeezed, please! The beauty of pesto is that it is so simple, all of the flavors shine through, so you want to use the best and the freshest ingredients you can.
Now start blending the pesto together, pulsing it in 5- to 10-second bursts. At first it will be pretty chunky, with bits of unincorporated nuts and garlic, and stringy pieces of basil leaves.
Continue to pulse and blend, and you will see your texture growing less chunky and more smooth. If you are having trouble getting things to blend evenly, you can add a spoonful or two of water or oil to help smooth things out.
Stop when your pesto is your preferred texture. Some people like to leave it a little chunky, with discrete pieces of leaves, but I prefer a smoother texture, closer to a sauce.
Finally, add your grated Parmesan cheese, and pulse the processor again until the cheese is entirely mixed in.
Taste the pesto, and if you think it needs salt and pepper, add it a little bit at the time, to taste, until you’re happy with it. The Parmesan cheese adds quite a bit of salt, so you many not even need to add any to suit your taste.
Your pesto sauce is now finished! My favorite way to enjoy this is simply tossed with hot pasta–try sprinkling some extra Parmesan and pine nuts on top of the pasta for an extra flavor boost. This pesto sauce is also incredible as a dipping sauce, a sandwich spread, or a chicken marinade. You can use it anytime you want to add the fresh taste of summer to your meals.
All text and images copyright Elizabeth LaBau