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Pesto: Give it a whir

Sharon Thompso, Connecticut Post
Published 4:36 am, Tuesday, September 1, 2009
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In summer, basil grows almost as fast as the spinning blades of a blender on full speed. And when you have a garden full of basil, it's time to make pesto.

Last week, I introduced my new "Flavors of Kentucky Cooking School" cookbook at the grand-opening celebration of a Kroger Marketplace in Lexington, Ky. I made sun-dried tomato pesto for shoppers to sample. The smell of the fresh basil in the recipe had customers flocking to my table.

Several people asked where they could buy a jar of the tomato pesto. But putting that great summer flavor in a bottle just wouldn't be right.

The basil and parsley -- fresh from the produce department -- were blended with sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, pine nuts, balsamic vinegar, garlic and olive oil. It was so good that many shoppers came back for seconds. I'm sure if we had made it with back-yard basil, it would have impressed them even more.

There are plenty of jarred pestos around, but it's pretty easy to make with the right equipment -- namely a food processor or blender.

Pesto comes from the Italian term that means pounded, and pesto can refer to any blend of raw herbs or greens pounded in a mortar. Purists prefer the mortar and pestle to bring out the fragrant ester compounds.

The basic recipe combines 2 cups fresh minced herbs or greens, ¼ to 1„3 cup olive oil, ½ cup nuts or seeds, and ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese. Like all great recipes, the freshest and best ingredients are necessary.

A quality Parmesan cheese can range from $12 to $33 a pound. The test kitchens at Cook's Illustrated rated several supermarket brands and recommend Boar's Head Parmigiano-Reggiano for its "very good balance of complementing flavors and textures."

Pine nuts are the most common nuts to use in pesto. They are seeds from the pine cone, and the variety most familiar to Americans is the delicate, sweet, almost buttery Mediterranean pine nut, also called pignoli. Cream colored and a mere half-inch long, the torpedo-shaped pignoli are often toasted before being added to pesto. Toasting pine nuts maximizes their nutty flavor, but they burn easily, so shake the pan often to avoid scorching.

Many recipes call for adding acids such as lemon juice and vinegar, which will enhance the taste but turn the bright-green basil an olive drab.

Before beginning any pesto recipe, Cooking Light magazine recommends blanching the basil, spinach or cilantro. Blanch for about five seconds in salted boiling water. Shock it in ice water for about 30 seconds. Squeeze it dry and continue with the recipe. This process intensifies and then sets the color. The pesto will stay bright green considerably longer than an unblanched version.

When you make a batch of pesto, you'll want to store it properly. Don't just seal it with plastic wrap or a lid. Place it in a storage container and press plastic wrap down onto the surface of the pesto, and smooth out any air bubbles. Then seal the container with a lid or plastic wrap. The wrap on the pesto's surface will help keep it from oxidizing and turning brown.

The best way to serve homemade pesto is on toasted baguette slices or stirred into cooked pasta. When adding pesto to pasta, it's important to include three or four tablespoons of the cooked pasta water for proper consistency and even distribution.

You also can use pesto to replace tomato sauce on pizza, stir it into meatloaf mix, or add it to homemade oil and vinegar dressing.

SUN-DRIED TOMATO PESTO

4 ounces sun-dried tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

¼ cup chopped pine nuts

3 tablespoons chopped onion

¼ cup balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1„3 cup crushed tomatoes

½ cup olive oil

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Salt to taste

Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl and cover with warm water for five minutes, or until tender. In a food processor or blender, combine sun-dried tomatoes, basil, parsley, garlic, pine nuts and onion; process until well blended. Add vinegar, tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, and process. Stir in olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Season with salt to taste. Serve on toasted baguette slices.

­-- From Allrecipes.com

OLIVE PESTO AND PASTA

3 medium cloves garlic, unpeeled

1½ cups kalamata olives, pitted

1 medium shallot, chopped coarse

8 fresh basil leaves (large)

¼ cup packed fresh parsley leaves

1 anchovy fillet, rinsed (optional)

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, grated (about ½ cup), plus extra for the table

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon lemon juice from 1 lemon

Table salt and ground black pepper

1 pound pasta

Lemon wedges

Toast garlic in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, shaking pan occasionally, until garlic is softened and spotty brown, about eight minutes; when cool, remove and discard skins.

In a food processor, pulse toasted garlic, olives, shallot, basil, parsley, anchovy, Parmesan, olive oil and lemon juice, stopping as necessary to scrape down sides of work bowl. Transfer mixture to a small bowl, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Bring four quarts water to rolling boil in stock pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta, stir to separate, and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving ½ cup cooking water, and return pasta to stock pot. Stir ¼ cup pasta cooking water into pesto, then stir pesto into pasta. Toss, adding more pasta cooking water as needed. Serve immediately, passing lemon wedges and extra Parmesan at the table.

­-- From Cook's Illustrated