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The Trick to Smooth, Creamy Pesto

Blanch the basil first to keep its bright color and to create a better emulsion

Fine Cooking Issue 45
Photos except where noted: Joanne Smart.
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When I pull tender leaves of basil from their stems, I can’t resist closing my eyes and taking a deep breath; the fragrance is pure summer. One of my favorite ways to showcase the herb is to make a traditional Genovese pesto sauce, a purée of lots and lots of basil with garlic, pine nuts, cheese, and olive oil. Not only is this potent sauce versatile—equally at home on pasta, in an omelet, and paired with chicken—but because I can freeze it, I can make pesto when basil is at its best and then continue to enjoy it through the fall.

A blanching and a blender give you the best results

Most cooks agree about the ingredients that go into traditional pesto. What we don’t often agree on is the best way to combine these ingredients. As its name implies, pesto is traditionally made using a-mortar and pestle. Although some swear that pounding gives you the best flavor, I’ve never noticed a difference that’s worth the effort. Others prefer to use a food processor, but while this machine certainly speeds up the process, the ingredients tend to bounce around and fly onto the sides of the bowl, resulting in an inconsistent texture. I prefer to use a blender. Because of the blender’s tapered shape, the ingredients are drawn to the blade, where they get puréed more evenly. I’ve noticed with some blender models, however, that you’ll have to help the puréeing along by periodically stopping the motor and moving the ingredients around with a spatula or a spoon.

Robert Danhi prefers a blender for making pesto. The action of a blender pulls the ingredients into the blade, whereas food processors spray a good portion of the ingredients against the sides fo the bowl.
Check for a coarse purée before adding the oil. You may need to stop and start your blender at first, as well as scrape down the sides.

A quick blanch before blending softens the basil, creating a more supple sauce. There are two reasons why I blanch my basil before puréeing it. One of them, admittedly, is purely cosmetic: a brighter green color that holds for several days. More important, however, is the texture. Blanched basil emulsifies more easily to produce a smoother yet full-bodied sauce. Blanching will slightly reduce the potency of the fresh basil flavor, but because a good bunch of basil starts out so incredibly fragrant, the reduction is minimal. Just be sure to dip the leaves only briefly in the boiling water and then quickly plunge them in ice water to keep them from overcooking.

The briefest dunk is all you need. You want the leaves to become limp but not cooked—just a few seconds in the hot water.
A shock in ice water stops the cooking and keeps the color. This blanching step makes the pesto super-creamy and helps it stay emulsified.

Start with the best basil, the freshest pine nuts, and good-quality cheese

Searching for the right sources for pesto ingredients is time well spent. Aside from your own garden, farmers’ markets are a great source for fresh basil. But at this time of year, you can even find giant bouquets of sweet basil with bright, perky leaves at the supermarket, so don’t settle for bunches that look droopy or have blackened leaves. Fresh basil doesn’t last long (which is another reason I’m often whipping up a batch of pesto). To extend its life in the refrigerator, I usually wrap the basil in barely damp paper towels and then put it into a plastic bag.

Pine nuts thicken the pesto. These soft nuts purée really well to give the sauce more body. But because they spoil easily, smell and taste your pine nuts to be sure they’re fresh before adding them to the pesto. (Storing them in the refrigerator extends their life.) Sweet, rich pine nuts are the standard in basil pesto, but you could substitute another mild-flavored nut, such as walnuts or almonds.  

Choose extra-virgin olive oil for the best basil pesto. I prefer a mild, fruity oil rather than a peppery one since the sauce already gets some heat from black pepper and raw garlic. When I make pestos using other herbs, such as the cilantro-scallion pesto, I might choose a more neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed. Whichever oil you use, smell and taste it for freshness as well.

Pesto freezes well, so go ahead and make a lot of it

Take advantage of this peak season for basil—you’ll get the best quality at the best price—by preparing several batches of pesto. If you plan to use it within a week, all you need to do is refrigerate it in an airtight container. To extend your pesto’s shelf life for up to three months, freeze it. If you have spare ice cube trays (that you don’t need to use for ice again), pour the pesto into the trays, freeze, and then put the cubes in a freezer bag for storage. You can also freeze small amounts of pesto in little plastic snack bags (and then stack those in a bigger freezer bag) for when you want enough for just one portion of pasta or for a dollop in a soup or stew. If you flatten the pesto in the bag, the thin amount can be quickly defrosted by soaking the bag in tepid water.

Pesto pasta, potatoes, chicken & more

Pesto can brighten your menu in many ways:
• Swirl a dollop into a potato, tomato, or white bean soup.
• Spread some on pizza dough as a base, in place of or in addition to tomato sauce.
• Add a tablespoon to a simple vinaigrette for drizzling on grilled vegetables.
Or try some of the recipe suggestions below.

Pesto Pasta: Toss your favorite cooked pasta with pesto that’s been thinned slightly with stock or the pasta cooking water; a few tablespoons of pesto per serving works well. Delicious additions might include black olives, chopped tomatoes, toasted breadcrumbs, sautéed or grilled zucchini, roasted peppers, andeven grilled chicken.

Pesto Mashed Potatoes: Gently fold some pesto into your favorite mashed potatoes. I use about 3/4 cup pesto for mashed potatoes made with 2-pounds potatoes and 1 cup cream or milk (no butter needed). Taste for salt and pepper after adding the pesto.

Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Pesto, Mozzarella & Sun-Dried Tomatoes: On the thickest side of a boneless chicken breast, cut a deep, long pocket. Open the split chicken breast like a book. Spread 1 tablespoon basil pesto over the inside of the breast, sprinkle with about an ounce of grated mozzarella and some finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (rehydrated if very dry). Fold the breast back together, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake in a lightly greased baking pan at 425°F until cooked through, about 30 minutes. Top with an additional teaspoon or two of warmed pesto after cooking, if you like.

Grilled Eggplant, Goat Cheese & Pesto Sandwiches: Bake or grill slices of eggplant until tender. Spread some pesto on the inside of a split baguette and grill the baguette as well. Top with crumbled fresh goat cheese, tomato, some arugula, and the eggplant slices.

Broiled Shrimp with Cilantro-Scallion Pesto: Devein some large shrimp but don’t remove the shell (slit the shell to expose and remove the vein). Toss the shrimp with olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and broil for about 5 minutes. Flip the shrimp over and cook until opaque all the way through. Serve with the cilantro pesto for dipping and a bowl for the shells.

Pesto Crostini: Slice a baguette into thin rounds; toast the rounds lightly. Spread on a thin layer of pesto and top with thinly sliced tomatoes or roasted red peppers. You can also sprinkle grated Parmesan or mozzarella over the top and broil briefly to melt the cheese.


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