Perfect pesto: Make your own fresh-from-the-garden sauce

August 15, 2012 

Pesto, the basil-based sauce from the city of Genoa, Italy, also has deep roots in the Mediterranean. The Romans ate something similar, and so the pesto of today is most likely an adaptation of their recipe.

Pesto was well-established in Italy by the middle of the 19th century, but it didn't reach America until after World War II. But in that marvelous French-Italian culinary contest that has been going on for centuries, the French also claim a similar recipe called pistou. The French recipe calls for basil, parsley, garlic and grated cheese but no pine nuts.

Classically pesto was made with Fiore Sardo, a sheep's milk cheese from Sardinia, which is also sometimes known as Pecorino Sardo. Pecorino is the generic name given to all Italian sheep's milk cheeses. You can find Pecorino cheese that is not made in Italy, but most lack the quality of the Italian cheese and should be avoided. That being said, Argentina makes a pretty good Pecorino that can be substituted.

Basil has an interesting history of its own. Its origins are either Indian or North Africa, but it was first domesticated in India. Its name comes from the Greek word for king, a reference to the belief that it grew on the spot where St. Constantine and his mother, St. Helen, discovered the Holy Cross. Constantine was a Roman Emperor who in 313 issued the Edict of

Milan, which legalized Christian worship.

There is a large variety of basil, and for the purpose of pesto, sweet basil is used.

The basic pesto recipe calls for crushed garlic, basil and pine nuts, which are blended with olive oil and a sheep's milk cheese. But as with most recipes there is some serious disagreement on exactly what is the best combination of ingredients. "The Silver Spoon," one of the most important Italian cookbooks, offers a recipe for Genoese pesto without pine nuts. The recipe below suggests using Pecorino Romano cheese, also a "Silver Spoon" suggestion, but mixed with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

There are some chefs who are horrified at mixing two of Italy's great cheeses and insist that one or the other should be used -- but not both. Pine nuts do seem optional, but the choice of which cheese to use has got to be a personal one based on your tastes and the availability of cheese.

To muddle the issue just a bit more, pesto can be made with several other herbs and vegetables as well. I found several creditable recipes calling for the use of cilantro and parsley and super Chef Mario Batali makes a pesto with jalapenos at his famous restaurant Babbo. Spinach is also a good option.

Pesto has an extended life if kept in a sealed container and in the refrigerator, but if frozen it keeps almost indefinitely.

Pesto can be used as versatile condiment and to prove it here are 10 ways you might give it a try:

n Add it to your cornbread mix (similar to Mexican cornbread).

n Blend it with mayonnaise and serve it with sweet potato fries.

n Mix it into your tuna fish salad.

n Add it to beans.

n Mix some in with mashed potatoes, but be careful and don't overdo it.

n Add a little to oysters on the half shell and bake.

n Add pesto to fresh corn to make a salsa.

n Use pesto on grilled cheese sandwiches instead of mayonnaise.

n Use it as a topping for an omelet.

n Or, my favorite toss chicken wings in pesto and bake.

BASIC GENOESE PESTO

25 fresh basil leaves

2 garlic cloves

5 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup pine nuts

1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1 pinch salt

Add the basil, garlic, pine nuts and salt to a food processor and blend at medium speed. Add the cheeses and process again until smooth. Store in an air tight container.

GRILLED SHRIMP WITH PESTO

A hardwood charcoal fire is the best way to cook this dish, regular charcoal will work with less success and lastly it can be prepared under your broiler.

1 pound large shrimp, shelled

1/4 cup pesto

2-3 pinches red pepper flakes

Wooden skewers

Hardwood charcoal fire

Skewers

Toss the shrimp in the pesto until evenly coated and then refrigerate for a few hours in an air-tight container. If the skewers are wooden soak them in water for at least 20 minutes. Build the fire and allow the charcoal to be burning evenly. Skewer the shrimp and season to your taste with the red pepper flakes. Grill quickly, 1-2 minutes on a side and serve immediately. This is one of those dishes that is at its peak when just removed from the fire and it diminishes in flavor very quickly. Serve the shrimp with good crusty bread, a little butter and a cold bottle of viognier.

PASTA WITH PESTO IN A CREAM SAUCE

This recipe was inspired by the web site The Pioneer Woman Cooks

1 pound penne pasta

1/3 cup diced ham

1 recipe pesto

1 cup cream

1/2 cup chopped tomatoes

Cook the pasta according to package directions and set aside. Sauté the ham in a little oil until it starts to take on color. Add all of the cream and slowly add the pesto, tasting as you go until you have the flavor you are looking for. This can be quite strong if you use too much. Toss the pasta and pesto sauce until well blended. Plate and garnish with the chopped tomatoes. Serve this dish with a Sauvignon Blanc or a Gruner Veltliner.

This recipe is also very good served with leftover chicken.

Julian Glenn Brunt's, column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at living@sunherald.com.

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