Pesto 101

It is summer. The fruit and vegetable crops are coming into the season in our gardens and farmers markets. This past weekend at the trailer in a torrential rain storm with limited TV choices, I watched a cooking show where the chef blanched the basil before making her pesto. Intrigued, I called on my Mom and Dad’s abundant basil crop to try it myself.

This potent sauce is versatile—on pasta, in an omelet, and paired with chicken—and because I can freeze it, I can make pesto when basil is at its best and then continue to enjoy it through the fall. Bonus!

Pesto 101

Yields 2-250 ml Mason Jars
Whole Wheat Flatbread Pizza with BBQ Chicken, Brie and Pesto Sauce

Whole Wheat Flatbread Pizza with BBQ Chicken, Brie and Pesto Sauce

Mise En Place

  • 1+ cups extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
  • ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 3 whole garlic cloves, blanched, peeled, sliced*
  • Large bunch Genovese basil, approx. 3 cups, picked and blanched
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • ¼ tsp. ground white pepper
  • 4 tsp. blanching water**

Bring heavily salted water to boil in a saucepan.***

Prepare a bowl of ice water ready.

Reduce heat to low and simmer; place the garlic cloves in the simmering water. *I don’t enjoy the after taste or ‘garlic breath’ from a pungent garlic flavour in any sauce, poaching the garlic helps to reduce this.

Also add the leaves and smaller stems of the Genovese basil in the water. Do not overload the pot, if necessary blanch in 2 stages.

The basil will turn bright green and it really only needs a few seconds (about 15 secs) in the simmering water. Remove the blanched basil and immediately place in bowl of ice water. Drain immediately, squeeze out excess water.

Once the garlic has softened, remove from the simmering water, peel and slice.

Reserve approx. ¼ cup of the blanching liquid.

What I discovered from a quick blanch before blending softens the basil, and this helps it emulsify more easily to produce a smoother yet full-bodied sauce. Another great reason to blanch purely cosmetic a brighter green color that holds for several days. 

Making the Pesto:

A traditional pesto is about the ingredients that go into it. Use the best quality ingredients you can find and afford.

Basil, pine nuts, cheese, and extra virgin olive oil.

The manner in which these ingredients are combined tends to differ from chef to chef. As its name implies, pesto, it comes from the Italian verb pestare, which means to crush or mash that is why it is traditionally made using a-mortar and pestle.

I’ve never attempted to make pesto with that much elbow grease or time, although some swear that pounding gives you the best flavour.

I prefer to use a blender. I think the blender’s tapered shape help the ingredients get puréed more evenly as they are drawn into the blade. You’ll have to help the puréeing along by periodically stopping the motor and moving the ingredients around with a spatula or a spoon.You don’t want to just let the blender run and heat up the components of the sauce.

Another preferred method is using a food processor. I think the ingredients tend to bounce around and fly onto the sides of the bowl, resulting in an inconsistent texture.

Whatever method use choose, the result will be a great sauce.

  1. Start by pulverizing the garlic and pine nuts together.
  2. Remove excess water from blanched basil leaves.
  3. Then add the basil and pulsed it until finely minced.
  4. Add the 4 tsp. of reserved blanching liquid.
  5. When well blended, add grated cheese, salt, and pepper and whirl until just blended.
  6. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  7. Add as much extra virgin olive oil in a thin stream, stirring it in until desired consistency is achieved. Make sure to stir the olive oil in at the end, since blending olive oil at high speeds can give it bitter flavours.

Pesto can brighten your menu in many ways:
• Swirl a dollop into a potato, tomato, or white bean soup.
• Add a tablespoon to a simple vinaigrette for drizzling on grilled vegetables.
• Spread some on pizza dough as a base, in place of or in addition to tomato sauce. See dinner pic below.

Whole Wheat Flatbread Pizza with BBQ Chicken, Brie and Pesto Sauce

Whole Wheat Flatbread Pizza with BBQ Chicken, Brie and Pesto Sauce

Take advantage of this peak season for basil—you’ll get the best quality at the best price—by preparing several batches of pesto.

Refrigerate it in an airtight container, you plan to use it within a week.

Tip: Pour the pesto into ice-cube trays, freeze, and then put the cubes in a freezer bag for storage for up to three months. You can also freeze small amounts of pesto in little plastic snack bags (and then stack those in a bigger freezer bag) for when you want enough for just one portion of pasta or for a dollop in a soup or stew. If you flatten the pesto in the bag, the thin amount can be quickly defrosted by soaking the bag in tepid water.

**There was soooo much flavour in the blanching liquid and the consistency wasn’t what I was hoping for, so I decided to add it to my final sauce. You can definitely eliminate this step.

***Whenever I’m seasoning cooking water for blanching or cooking pasta, I use a ‘heavy’ hand with how much kosher salt I add. The water should have ‘the taste of the sea’. It imparts a lot of flavour.

More the 5 o’clock rush dinner dishes in the future will definitely incorporate my pesto 😀

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