Prepared pesto is one of the few processed grocery items you can regularly find in my cart. It feels like such a cop out, but I like to have some on hand for a simple dinner if the day gets away from me or we change plans at the last minute. My whole family loves it. I use it for pasta, pizza and a sandwich spread. We sometimes like to have impromptu dinner picnics in Coconut Grove and having pesto on hand makes a last minute pasta salad a snap.
That being said, it is a processed food. There are preservatives, which I must remember is just a euphemism for chemicals. It’s also a pricey item. I rarely buy anything above the $3 range at the store, so it always scandalizes me a bit when it’s rung up.
The problem with making pesto from scratch is that the ingredients are super expensive: basil and pine nuts don’t come cheap. Pesto lovers need to grow their own basil to make this a worthwhile pursuit. Every year, I try to grow basil. Sometimes I have success, certainly enough to sprig my Caprese dishes and garnish pasta sauces, but I have never been able to grow a bounty large enough to make a batch of pesto without wiping out my entire crop.
I just returned from an August spent with my mom, who has two green thumbs which she didn’t manage to genetically pass along to me. Drats! She grows bushels of herbs, but doesn’t cook with them enough to dent her harvest. (Believe me, my plan for her retirement is for her to be my gardener and me to be her cook. Maybe throw in a bit of babysitting time and we’ll all be happy.) While I was there, I commandeered her basil and made us glorious pesto. Twice! And she still had oodles left over to wither on the stem.
1/3 c pine nuts (A thrifty substitute is walnuts, store extra in your freezer to prolong their shelf life.)
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 1/2 c basil leaves
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 c extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon wedge
sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1. In a small pan over a medium flame, toast the nuts. Just place them in the pan dry and give them a shimmy-shake every so often. As soon as you can smell them and they start to show some color, spread them on a plate to cool. This should only take about five minutes. Watch them carefully, so they don’t burn.
2. Add nuts, garlic, basil, cheese, a generous pinch of sea salt and a pinch of black pepper to a food processor with a steel blade. Pulse a few time to get it going. Then turn it on and slowly stream in the olive oil. Watch the pesto as you add the oil. You want a loose consistency, but not too liquidy. Adjust as needed.
3. Taste the pesto and adjust the seasonings, if necessary. Take your small wedge of lemon and squeeze the juice into the pesto. This helps preserve the green color and gives it a hint of brightness. Pulse to perfection. Enjoy your pesto right away, or place a bit of plastic wrap directly on the pesto while you cook. This also helps preserve the color.
Cooking with Pesto
The most classic pairing of pesto is the Caprese flavor profile, just add fresh mozzarella and tomatoes. I have noticed that when I buy the water-packed Bufalo Mozzarella, it needs to be added just before serving. If it sits for any length of time on hot pasta, it loses it’s delicate, moist texture. If I know the pasta needs to sit a bit, I use the less expensive block mozzarella.
If you are using pesto with pasta, be sure to save a cup of the pasta’s cooking water. Use the water, a little bit at a time, to loosen the pesto as you stir. If you don’t do that, you’ll probably add more pesto than you need and get clumps of it on some pieces of pasta and nothing on others. Pasta water has starch in it, so don’t substitute regular water, which will just thin out your sauce. The pasta water both loosens and thickens your sauce. Magic!
Pesto is also an amazing pizza topper. I substituted it for sauce on a pizza and add cheese and tomatoes as toppings. Marvelous.
It’s also great to spread on a Caprese sandwich.
The Caprese Alternative
Although I never tire of Caprese anything, there is one other fantastic pesto pairing which I discovered sophomore year of college. I accidentally discovered this yummy combo when my cafeteria plate oozed its components together. Some raisins from my salad ended up in my pesto pasta and it was DELICIOUS. I started regularly adding raisins to pesto and have eaten it ever since. Everyone who has tried this has loved it after a copious amount of skepticism. Try it. You’ll love it, too.
The Bottom Line
Both my walnut and pine nut pestos were divine to eat. It was actually a challenge to add them to the food, as mine and my cousin’s tasting spoons more than double-dipped. The fresh purity is unparalleled, especially as the basil was freshly picked from my mom’s organic garden. Perfection, indeed.
However, looking at the cost, it was prohibitive. A small package of pine nuts cost $7.50. Ouch! We used 3/4 of it for the recipe, which meant it was crazy expensive to make. Walnuts definitely help keep the cost down (about $1) and taste great. But not as great as the pine nuts, I must admit.
The pesto I usually buy costs $4.49 for seven ounces. If I have garden basil and bulk walnuts, I can make it cheaper. It costs about $2.50 for me to make that. If I had to buy the basil or I used pine nuts, the cost is very expensive.
But is it worth the price?
Yes and no. If it is a special meal, one for guests or one we will eat with savored attention, I would love to make my own. But if I just need some basic pesto to throw a quick dinner together, I must sadly admit that the processed version has a place. I don’t want to waste a large garden harvest on something we won’t really appreciate. The months of careful tending and the years of disappointing crop failures deserve the respect of an attentive diner. I never buy the jarred version, only the refrigerated one with an expiration date. Some people freeze pesto, but I’ve had limited success with that.
One of the grocery stores I shop at has herb plants for sale in its produce department. They cost just as much as the pre-packaged herbs, but they are alive with the promise of more if only a green thumb could care and nurture it. I always buy the plants and hope for the best. Florida’s growing season begins in late October and this year I am going to track down a garden mentor. I need to take more time and offer more care to my plants, so they will repay me with a lovely harvest. That’s only fair.
Homemade pesto is divine. I’d like to have more of it in my life. It tickles my taste buds and reflect my values of quality and green living.
As for the packaged version, I know I will still buy it. It’s fresh(ish) and sometimes I need convenience. I make so many things from scratch that it can be overwhelming at times.
Here’s the but.
But, now that I’ve mastered making the good stuff and reflected on my sometimes mindless eating habits, I know I will eventually change. My family doesn’t eat for convenience. We eat for nourishment in every sense of the word. Quality food, a four-top table, a silly conversation and conspiratorial glances between the parents nourish our whole selves.
It is who we are. It is what we eat.