Is there anything more delightful than a bouquet of basil? Gather it in your hands, bring your face close, breathe deeply and just bliss out. More precious than the most gorgeous of flowers, summer brings an abundance of aromatics into our homes, for which I offer deep, deep thanks. To borrow from an E.E. Cummings poem: i thank You God for most this amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of basil, cilantro, mint, tarragon, chives, and all the delicious things of this earth that woke up one day and thought to themselves: You know what? When I grow up, I want to be fragrant and flavorful. And you know what? Something tells me that wouldn’t be such a bad life choice. Maybe I should work on that.
Little did this spirited greenly thing know, though, that making pesto is also a superb life choice, though a bit of a commitment. Depending on how you do it, it involves mashing said green things into a pulp with a) a mortar and pestle, b) food processor, or c) blender, turning the green, delicate, organic bouquet into an equally green, pungent, delicious sauce, while turning your blissed out, herb-hippie, fresh-from-the-market moment into an hour or so of oil, garlic, sharp blades, and inevitable kitchen madness. Which is to say, bring it on…
But not as much as America’s Test Kitchen tells you to.
While I love Cook’s Illustrated with all its neurotic, scientific, anal retentiveness (God bless ’em!), at a certain point, dear readers, the show must go on! For you it may be toasting the nuts, toasting the garlic, or stirring the Parmesan in at the end; for me, it was banging on the basil with a rolling pin while mournfully wondering what other Interesting Life Choices I could be making. So I’ll tell you what I did do in this recipe, which I assure you turned out very well:
Classic Pesto (adapted from The New Best Recipe, from the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated and America’s Test Kitchen, 2004)
While I love making pesto, I always triple the recipe, because if one batch is already quite an effort, why not go all out? Pesto stores well (see below), is infinitely usable and variable (also see below), and is just so damn tasty that you’ll be right glad you did.
1/4 cup pine nuts, almonds, or walnuts
3 medium garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 T (I used more, like between 3-4 T) fresh parsley leaves
5-7 T olive oil (they called for 7; I rather liked 5)
Salt (they called for 1/2 tsp, which was overwhelming. I’d start with 1/4 tsp and adjust to taste)
1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan
Toast nuts in skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just golden and fragrant. Nota bene: pine nuts burn quite easily. Constant vigilance!
Add garlic to the empty skillet, and toast, shaking occasionally, until fragrant and the color of the cloves deepens slightly, about 7 minutes. Let cool, then peel and chop. (Okay….whaaa? I like the theory behind this, which is to mellow the garlic flavor, so I did do a little roasting, but not 7 minutes worth. Actually, I just turned off the heat and put the garlic on the pan while I washed and dried the herbs. By the time I was ready for it, it had warmed up nicely and the skins slipped right off.)
And this is where I draw my line. They want you to put the herbs in a plastic bag (ziplock, heavy duty) and pound with a meat pounder or rolling pin until the leaves are bruised. I dunno. Sounded a little too abusive for my taste, not to mention time and bag-consuming. I just say wash, dry, and pull the leaves off your herbs. (Done. Ta-frickin’-da, my friends.)
Place nuts, garlic, herbs, oil (5 T!) and salt (1/4 tsp!) and cheese in a food processor or blender. Process until smooth, stopping to scrape the bowl down when needed. (They tell you to put the pesto in a separate bowl and stir in the Parmesan; as you see, I just added the cheese to the food processor with the rest of the ingredients.)
And you’re done! Just a few more notes:
1) One great way to store pesto is to freeze it in an ice cube tray, which gives you very handy single servings that you can defrost in the microwave or stovetop. Delightful.
2) Variations on a theme? They suggest a mint pesto, swapping the parsley out for mint; a creamy pesto with 1/4 cup ricotta added with the parmesan; and an arugula pesto, replacing a cup of basil with a cup arugula, increasing the parsley to 1 cup packed, reducing the parm to 2 T while adding 1/3 cup ricotta.
And as you do a thorough wipe-down of your kitchen, you’ll probably never want to see, eat, or think about basil again, which for me is why pesto should always be a do-ahead, triple-the-recipe kind of project. But don’t worry. As you shower the lingering garlic smell from your hair, I promise you you’ll already be pesto-dreaming. Tomatoes. Mozzarella. Balsamic vinegar. Minestrone. Tortellini. Eggplant sandwiches. Lentil salads with goat cheese. And then maybe, just maybe–once your countertop has lost that final sheen of oil–you’ll return to your picturesque vision of pure, perfect, unproblematic basil, simple and sun-warmed as it nestles in the crook of your arm.
And this time around, you’ll probably find ways to eat it raw.