Italian Flavors: Pesto and All It Entails

In honor of our trip to Italy this year, I have decided to re-discover the one of my favorite flavors: pesto. My taste for it comes and goes every few months, but every time I rediscover it, it’s bliss. And when it does come, it’s usually because I buy a fresh pot of basil and the smell forces me to buy fresh mozzarella and ripe tomatoes.

Since moving to our new flat in Acton, I have had fantastic luck with my window-sill garden. Okay, “fantastic” might be a strong word, but definitely better luck than our sub-ground flat in Ealing where the sun barely shined and my poor plants were starved of attention.

2015-08-04 16.39.52

So, for science (and summer), I have made three different types of pesto.  The differences will be in the nuts and greens I combine. I’ve never been a huge fan of the pine nut, but that doesn’t mean I am beholden to the little bugger and can use other nuts. A nut to try another day would be the pistachio. I’ve always thought it had a cheesy taste to it, so I bet it would pair nicely with Parmesan.

Alas, for this experiment, I have tried toasting the pine nut (maybe that gives it some flavor), the brazil nut, and the walnut.

* * * * *

But first, a quick history of pesto. It originated in family kitchens in Genoa, Italy–the north west region of the country, but it is not clear when. Because of the proximity to Provence, France, the French adapted it slightly by adding parsley and taking out the pine nuts making it a “pistou.” Don’t get confused.

In America, pesto did not become popular until the 1980s. My favorite movie of all time is When Harry Met Sally (1989). There is a scene when Harry and Sally try to set their friends up on a sort of blind double date. In a twist of fate and a line of witty dialogue, the tables turn making the friends fall for each other rather than either Harry or Sally.

Marie quotes something she’s read in New York Magazine. Jess, revealing he was the one to write it, said he also wrote the line, “Pesto is quiche for the 80s.” When I was younger, I never realized why this was a bad thing. Pesto is great! And shouldn’t have a decade of regret. But now, after seeing the complete over-saturation of pesto in the culinary world at that time, I can see how it could have gotten old quickly.

There is a sequence in a Seinfeld episode where George talks about the pesto phenomenon.

Everybody likes pesto. You walk into a restaurant,
and that’s all you hear. Pesto, pesto, pesto.

I don’t like pesto.

Where was pesto 10 years ago?

Exactly! Where was pesto before the 1980s/1990s? There actually isn’t much documentation about it. But in 1944, The New York Times gave the sauce a mere mention, but it was in 1946 that Sunset Magazine published the first recipe. It wasn’t until much later the green sauce took the rest of the nation by storm.

* * * * *

Traditional Pesto with Basil and Toasted Pine Nuts2015-08-04 14.49.50

1 cup chopped basil
2 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
2 tbsp Parmesan cheese
1 clove of garlic
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Grab a skillet and put the pine nuts over a low heat with no oil. When you can smell the nuts warming, they are ready to come off.
2) Put all of the ingredients except the oil in a food processor or blender.
3) Slowly pour the oil over the ingredients while the ingredients start to blend. Once it comes together, pulse a couple more times.

Spinach Pesto with Brazil Nuts2015-08-04 14.02.51

2 cups of spinach
1/4 cup of Brazil nuts, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup chopped basil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions are the same as above except for toasting the nuts. If you prefer to try toasting the brazil nuts for this recipe, the method is the same.

Kale Pesto with Walnuts2015-08-04 14.20.30

1 1/2 cup of kale
1/4 cup walnuts
1/2 cup, 2 tbsp olive oil*
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup basil
1-2 garlic cloves
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions for this one are a little different since kale is a rough leaf.
1) Bring out a sautee pan and lightly wilt the kale leaves. This will help soften the green and make it easier to blend.
2) Combine the ingredients in a blender or food processor and follow the same directions as the other recipes.

Depending on how bitter the greens are, you’ll need more or less garlic and more or less salt. Taste as you go along.

* * * * *

My personal favorite is the spinach version. I get more volume for what I put in it because the spinach has little to no flavor, accentuating the basil and Parmesan tastes. The walnut brings a bitter but not off-putting taste that even toasting didn’t help with the pine nut.

The kale version, while hearty and better to use in soups rather than a sautee, is a little rough for my taste. Kale is just so bitter and hearty that it doesn’t lend very well to the smooth pesto sauce the 1980s came to love and loathe.

* * * * *

Bonus Recipe: With the pesto perfuming my kitchen, I have made a “Pasta” Primavera with Tofu. I used riced cauliflower, garden peas, carrots and courgettes to make a delicious vegetarian dish. This is a great way to showcase what you’ve made, and maybe use one of the sauces you didn’t care for too much.

2015-07-23 18.34.58

“Pasta” Primavera
makes 3-4 servings

1 cauliflower head
400g firm tofu, drained and diced
50g carrots, julienned
50g cougettes, julienned
25g garden fresh peas
2 tbsp pesto
25g diced onion

1) Prepare your tofu. Make sure it is as drained as possible and dice it into small squares. Set aside.
2) Rice the cauliflower head with a cheese grater.
3) In a large skillet, add the pesto and onion. There is enough oil in the pesto, so you don’t need to have any more.
4) Once the onion starts to soften, add the cauliflower. Stir fry quickly to spread it out and coat with the pesto.
5) After a couple minutes, add the carrots, courgettes, and peas. Make sure everything gets coated with the pesto. If there isn’t enough to go around, add a little more to the skillet.
6) Add the tofu. Stir completely and cook for 10-15 minutes until everything is tender.

Serve with a light and crisp bottle of chilled white wine, and you can transport yourself to the shores of Genoa or New York City in the 1980s.

Tell me what you think of these recipes and which version you like best!



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