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Friday — April 30, 2004


The pleasures of pesto

Food for Thought

With the onset of warmer weather, many cooks start thinking about taking advantage of the bounty of fresh herbs available in summer.

Basil, the green, leafy herb that for centuries has been a key component of Italian cuisine, has a seemingly endless list of applications in light, summer dishes.

Fresh basil marries perfectly with platters of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. It is a key component of Italian fettuccine Alfredo, a dish that can be served year round.

One of my favorite summer appetizer recipes calls for grilling jumbo shrimp wrapped with giant basil leaves and prosciutto.

Fresh basil truly takes center stage in classic Genovese pesto, a delectable paste that can be used in a wide variety of lighter dishes.

Typically, a blend of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and salt, basil pesto is a simple food that can be made in mere minutes.

Pesto is not only ideal as a light complement to pastas, but can also be applied as a basic sauce for pizzas, a spread for sandwiches or a marinade for grilled fish and poultry. Increasingly, it is used as a dip or a flavor concentrate that can be added like a demi-glace to soups or sauces.

Pesto is a derivation of the Italian verb "pestare," which means to pound or to crush. Although the word generally refers to simple basil pesto, it is also used in reference to a growing variety of pastes made from diverse herbs, greens, beans, nuts and vegetables.

The use of the word comes from the traditional—and still the best—method for preparing pesto. The relatively easy process involves pounding with a mortar and pestle a few toasted pine nuts, some chopped garlic and generous amounts of fresh basil. After a rough paste is formed, extra-virgin olive oil is whisked in.

Most recipes call for salt and freshly ground pepper. Many also include grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

For many cooks, it is preferable to make pesto in a food processor or blender. The machine method is certainly more efficient, particularly for producing large amounts of pesto.

Still, many traditionalists hold that the fast-spinning blades of the machines can over-process the soft basil leaves.

While basil remains the most popular base ingredient, cilantro, mint, olives, roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes are among the many other ingredients common to modern pestos.

Best served fresh, basil pesto can be refrigerated or frozen for future use.


Classic basil pesto

2 Tbsp. toasted pine nuts
3 large garlic cloves
2 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a food processor, pulse the pine nuts until ground. Add the garlic, basil and salt. With the blades spinning, purée while drizzling in the olive oil.

When a consistent paste is formed, add freshly ground pepper to taste.

Serve immediately or transfer to a non-reactive bowl and store covered in the refrigerator for up to three days.


Gregory Foley is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express. He is a former restaurant sous-chef and a former France-based travel guide. His first novel, The Clarity of Light, was released in March.


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