Fresh Basil in the Market Means Pesto Season Is Here
Have you been seeing a lot of fresh basil in farmers’ markets lately? Have the basil plants in your garden become lush and abundant, seemingly overnight? Yup, that means warm weather is here to stay — and basil is in season.
Basil is an extraordinarily flavorful herb, useful in all sorts of recipes. But it’s the diva in Pesto, where it conspires with olive oil, pine nuts, a hint of garlic, and (almost always) Parmesan cheese to form a substance so addictive that it would be banned if it wasn’t so wholesome. And you can make it in about 5 minutes.
If you have another 10 minutes or so, you can make Pesto Pasta, a stellar main course dish. What’s not to like?
Recipe: Pesto Pasta
Originally, pesto was made with a mortar and pestle (hence the name, which derives from the same Latin root as the English word “pestle”). And some argue that pesto made by hand is superior to the machine-made version. But even if you have a mortar and pestle (which I actually do), who has the time? I don’t, so I use the food processor. In a pinch, you could use a blender.
There are a lot of good Pesto recipes out there, most quite similar, but my favorite is Marcella Hazan’s in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. (She also provides instructions for the mortar method if you’re so inclined.) My recipe is adapted from hers, and makes about a cup. It can easily be scaled up to accommodate more basil.
Pesto will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for about a week. You can freeze it — but if you do so, don’t add the cheese (mix it in after you thaw the frozen Pesto).
To make Pesto Pasta, just combine the Pesto with cooked pasta, add some more Parmesan cheese, and toss. The procedure is very similar to the one we used for Pasta Cacio e Pepe. The pasta recipe serves 4. Leftovers will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two, although the quality will diminish.
For the Pesto:
- 2 cups of fresh basil leaves (pack these into the cup tightly to measure; small stems and flowers are OK, but avoid woody stems)
- ~½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts (may substitute walnuts)
- 1 or 2 crushed garlic cloves (to taste)
- ~¼ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
- ~1½ ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 2/3 cup when packed)
- 1 pound of long, thin pasta (I prefer linguine; but any shape, including tubular-shaped pasta, works)
- ~1 cup Pesto
- ~1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (to thin the Pesto)
- ~2 tablespoons butter (to enrich the Pesto; optional)
- additional Parmesan cheese to garnish the pasta
For the Pesto:
- Thoroughly wash basil in cold water. Dry in a salad spinner (or pat dry with a dish towel or paper towels).
- Add basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves, and salt to bowl of food processor. Process until everything is well mixed and creamy. You may need to stop and scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula once or twice. If your Pesto is too thick, add a bit more olive oil.
- When the ingredients in step 2 are well blended, you can add the cheese and pulse briefly to blend. But I prefer to dump the contents of the food processor into another bowl and blend in the cheese by hand. This gives a more interesting consistency to the Pesto. Taste and add more salt if necessary. If you want to freeze the Pesto, don’t add the cheese now. Instead, add it after you thaw the frozen Pesto.
- The Pesto is now ready to use in the recipe of your choice.
- Bring a large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) to boil. Once it’s boiling, add salt (to taste; I usually add 1 tablespoon per 4 quarts). Then add pasta. Stir pasta to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Bring back to boil, then lower to simmer. If you’re using packaged dry pasta, cook for 7 to 11 minutes (depending on brand), until the pasta reaches the al dente stage. I start testing at 7 minutes. Usually, I find it takes about 8 minutes or so before the pasta is done. If you’re using a particularly thin shape, like angel hair pasta, it may cook in as little as 5 minutes. And fresh pasta cooks in just a minute or two.
- Meanwhile, stir 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil into the Pesto to thin it (add more if necessary). You want the Pesto to reach the consistency of very thick cream. If you wish, add 1 or 2 tablespoons of soft butter to enrich the Pesto (it adds a nice flavor when served with pasta). If you prefer, you can substitute pasta cooking water for the oil. Or you can supplement the oil with cooking water to thin the Pesto (see Notes).
- When the pasta is done, turn off heat and reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain pasta, then return it to the cooking pot (pot should be off heat) or add it to a warmed serving bowl (warm the bowl about a minute before the pasta is done by adding ½ cup or so of pasta cooking water; empty it right before you’re ready to add the pasta).
- Add about half the Pesto to the pasta and toss to lightly coat the pasta strands. (If the pot is over heat, you risk the Pesto lumping up rather than coating the strands evenly). You may want to add some of the pasta cooking water to help the Pesto adhere to the pasta — add just a tablespoon or two. Add the rest of the Pesto and toss again to evenly distribute.
- Serve in pasta bowls or plates, preferably ones that are preheated (I add some hot water to my pasta bowls in order to heat them, then dump the water when I’m ready to serve the pasta). Garnish with extra Parmesan cheese.
- For the Pesto, your ingredient measurements don’t need to be exact, just in the ballpark.
- Butter is traditional in Pesto, and Hazan includes it in her recipe. You can add 2 or 3 tablespoons of softened butter to the Pesto after you’ve mixed in the cheese in step 3 of the Pesto Procedure. Added butter is particularly good if you’ll be serving your Pesto with pasta, and when I make Pesto Pasta I usually do add butter (see Step 2 of the Pasta Procedure).
- Many Pesto recipes call for Romano cheese in addition to Parmesan (Hazan’s does). If you have Romano on hand, you can add 2 tablespoons (grated) in step 3 of the Pesto Procedure. (I’ve seen recipes where Romano replaces Parmesan entirely, but that’s too sharp for my taste.)
- Pine nuts are traditional when making pesto, but they’re quite expensive. And if they’re not stored properly, they can turn rancid. I often (usually) use walnuts instead. There’s little flavor difference, but the price difference is considerable. (Walnuts can turn rancid, too. I always store nuts in the freezer.)
- If you see “pistou” on a French menu, that’s the French version of Pesto (it’s most commonly seen in a soup of the same name). Typically, French pistou doesn’t contain nuts, and often contains tomato.
- Spaghetti is the traditional pasta shape for Pesto Pasta. But I like linguine because I think it has better “mouth feel.” You can even use a tubular pasta like ziti if you want, although I find that Pesto coats thin pastas better than tubular ones.
- You don’t have to thin the Pesto before adding it to the pasta (Step 2 of the Pasta Procedure). But the Pesto won’t coat the pasta as well, and may clump up. If you don’t want to add more oil (which increases the calorie count, but also the flavor), you can just use warm pasta cooking water for thinning.
- If you have lots of basil, you can make multiple batches of Pesto and freeze the extras. Pesto can be used in any number of ways, including as a spread on bread or crackers, as a pizza topping, and as a garnish on grilled chicken or fish.
Grow Your Own
Basil is easy to grow and doesn’t require much room — you can plant a pot or two if you don’t have a garden. We’ve already started picking our home-grown basil, and we’ll be using it all summer. But you still have time to plant some if you’re living in a climate where the weather will be warm for a few more months.
If you don’t want to create a separate herb garden, you can grow basil in your flower beds – it adds a nice splash of green. And when you’re at the garden center buying basil to plant, pick up some parsley, too – it’s another easy-to-grow herb that nestles nicely in flower beds.
“Summer is here!” exclaimed Mrs. Kitchen Riffs when I dished up the Pesto Pasta. “I love Pesto!”
“Lucky we have a mess of basil in the garden,” I said between slurps of linguine.
Then Mrs K R added her own slurp — much more dainty than mine.
Ah, the sweet sounds of summer!
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