Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pesto Perfected

One of our family's favorite meals is fresh pesto pasta using basil grown in our garden. For a few years now our basil has grown green and abundant, adding a fragrant presence to our back yard and our dining table. The first time I made pesto was in an Italian cooking class I took through the Palo Alto Adult Education program about fifteen years ago. We made it with mortar and pestle and I'm sure my pupils dilated when I took that first bite, a revelation to my naive taste buds.

My husband has learned over time how to carefully tend to the basil, and create the most delicious pesto using a recipe from The Silver Palate Cookbook. It's a simple process, and much faster with a Cuisinart. According to my husband's exacting standards you need to use the ingredients listed in the recipe below, which he shops for at Draeger's grocery store in Menlo Park.

The earthy flavor, savory aroma, velvety texture, and beautiful green color all add up to an extremely satisfying dish. It also tastes sublime spread on good bread, atop vegetable soup, on pizza, and in omelets. Of course pesto tastes best fresh, but it freezes well so you can enjoy it months after harvesting. If you like, you can make the recipe with everything but the cheeses before freezing. After thawing, just add in the cheeses right before eating. This year my husband managed to make and freeze twenty-four servings. The pesto waits safely in its frigid home, like gold bars in a bank vault.

Sadly, Silver Palate cookbook co-author Sheila Lukins passed away of cancer at age 66 last August. We owe her a debt of gratitude for all her fine culinary creations, but most of all for this pesto recipe, adapted to include the specific ingredients we prefer.

Adapted from The Silver Palate Cookbook. Makes 2 cups, enough to sauce 2 pounds of pasta.

2 cups fresh basil leaves, preferably home-grown, thoroughly washed and patted dry
4 good-size garlic cloves, peeled and chopped; the strong flavor can be mellowed by dipping the cloves in boiling water for 30 seconds
1 cup pine nuts or shelled walnuts
1 cup Olivas de Oro olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Stella Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated Stella Romano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the basil, garlic and walnuts in the bowl of a food processor. With the motor running, add the olive oil in a slow stream. Shut the motor off. Add the cheeses, a big pinch of salt and a grinding of pepper to taste. Process to combine, then scrape out to eat and enjoy.

For a richer sauce, add 1/4 cup heavy cream to 1 cup of pesto, and stir together with 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water.

Use fresh fettucine or pappardelle pasta, or dry fettucine cooked al dente.

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