When I went off to college 20 years ago, my zio made me a few jars of pesto for the road. Yep, that’s right. Other kids got dorm essentials, such as a comforter or beanbag chair. I received jars of homemade sauce and lasagna for freezing. My zii, parents, and nonni would leave messages on my voicemail (that was a thing back then) asking whether I was eating enough. “Franci, you eat-a? You betta eat-a. Don’t come home skinny skinny, ok?”
I can’t deny that many of my new friends were downright jealous. So, I shared. Pesto was one of our favorites. Back then, we often ate it with angel hair spaghetti because that was the preferred pasta of a dorm mate. Just a couple weeks ago, I dreamed of Zio’s pesto. So, I made my own. But my husband always opts for thicker, long pasta, so we went with fettuccine as you can see above.
Many people think the keys to good pesto are lots of garlic and olive oil. Oh, how they are wrong. Pesto is all about the basilico, known to Napoletani as basinigol’ and to Americans as basil. Ours comes from from our garden in the backyard, but you can get the good stuff at the Farmer’s Market or even your local supermarket. The good news is that you can freeze pesto in ice cube trays and stock up for winter when basil isn’t as available.
Here’s how to make it:
3 to 4 cups Basil
2 to 3 Garlic cloves (peeled)
1/2 cup Extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup Pignoli (pine nuts)
Large pinch of salt
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Grab your food processor and dump all the ingredients, except the olive oil, inside it. If you want to unlock the flavor of the pine nuts, you can toast them first. Some people do. Some people don’t, but it does add a little something, something to your pesto. Then, start pulsing the ingredients to combine them and slowly add the olive oil as you continue pulsing. Some recipes have you stir in the cheese after the oil is added, but I’ve done it both ways and it doesn’t make a difference to me. Refrigerate for up to one week. Freeze for up to a year. Or you can use it immediately. I spread it on sandwiches that I pile high with either chicken and cheese or fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. I have also paired it with ricotta and used it to top pizza. Of course, Italians, who tend to be traditionalists, use it to top pasta cooked al dente (as you see in the photo above). But I’ve also heard of people taking those frozen cubes of pesto and using them to spruce up their Sunday sauce. You could easily substitute plain basil with one of those cubes in any recipe calling for it. Any Italian will tell you, pesto is easy and fresh and perfect for a summer meal. You can find all sorts of new takes on the classic pesto sauce in the July/August 2016 issue of Food Network Magazine. Most importantly, follow the example of Italians, and don’t forget to stop and smell the basil every once in a while. You won’t be disappointed.