Friday, September 19, 2014

SEASONAL INGREDIENTS: Basil... + Pesto alla Genovese

Quick, hurry! Before summer is officially over in a few (not-really-that-short) days! For anyone who has grown her own basil this summer, whether in the back yard or on a windowsill or -- if she's lucky enough -- in her own lush, expansive, dedicated herb garden: it's pesto time.
Pesto, as a sauce, originates from the Italian verb pestare (to pound or crush), which gave rise to the word pestle, as in mortar-and-pestle -- the instruments originally used to make the sauce. In Italian cuisine, pesto refers to any sauce made with a mortar and pestle, and has myriad iterations. From the northwest coast of Liguria, and the city of Genova, where pesto alla Genovese originates, to the island of Sicily, where the local pesto is most often red (from tomatoes)...a pesto sauce can mean many things to many different people. Today we're focusing on the world's most famous pesto. Made with only a few top-quality ingredients, at their seasonal peak, pesto alla Genovese is the essence of Italian cooking in a simple condiment. 

The basil pesto made famous by the Genovese uses the local ingredient par excellence: basilico genovese, a DOP item (denominazione origine protetta -- meaning the origin and varietal of the basil is protected under Italian law. Meaning it's the good stuff, the real thing). This is crushed with garlic and European pine nuts, plus a little salt. This paste is made into a sauce with the addition of olive oil -- in Liguria, it's the golden, relatively mild and fruity variety made from local taggiasca olives. A grated cheese is added at the end, either parmigiano-reggiano or a pecorino or both.
The cheese you use will determine how salty the end result is, so waiting to add most of the salt until the end is advised. In Genova, this sauce is most commonly served with a local pasta called trofie, a twisted short pasta, and often tossed with boiled potatoes and green beans as well. Of course, the traditional way of making it with a mortar and pestle is the best way to appreciate the process -- but it's the modern day food processor that allows you to make the sauce in a snap.

With the abundant crops of basil throughout the late summer, now is the time to turn the beautiful anise-scented leaves into a perfectly summery sauce that freezes well and lasts for a month or two even in the fridge, as long as it's covered with a layer of olive oil to seal it off from the air. Spread on late summer heirloom tomatoes, this pesto adds the perfect touch to a light September lunch. You can toss it with pasta, serve it with grilled meats, spread it on tomatoes or drizzle it on top and bake the tomatoes. You can use it alone or mix it with mayonnaise for a great sandwich spread or dip. And you can even stir it into vegetable soups as the French in Provence do with their soupe au pistou. Any way you use it, pesto alla Genovese is a great way to use your late summer basil, and to keep enjoying it for months after summer officially ends.

Arrivederci, estate! (Farewell, summer!)

PESTO ALLA GENOVESE 

(8+ servings)

8 cups basil leaves, washed and dried
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 cup toasted pine nuts
Approximately 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, very good quality (from Liguria if possible)
½ cup grated parmigiano or pecorino cheese, or a mix of both
salt to taste

- In a food processor or blender, turn the switch to on and drop in the garlic clove so it is finely minced.


- Turn off the blender and remove the top, and add about half of the basil leaves. Return top and blend, adding about half of the olive oil. Now add half of the pine nuts. Add salt to taste.


- Continue this process, balancing the flavors until you reach the proper flavor and consistency you’d like. It can be a bit more liquid rather than thick, because you’ll be adding the parmigiano cheese which will thicken it a bit.


- Remove from food processor/blender and pour into a bowl. Stir in the parmigiano cheese.


- When adding to cooked pasta, mix the pesto with some of the pasta’s cooking water to thin. Use also as a sandwich spread. Keeps in the refrigerator for weeks: cover the sauce with a film of olive oil to seal it from air (this way, it won’t turn black). Wrap/cover tightly.