Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Pesto Season

An Italian friend of mine recently taught me how fresh basil should smell to make good pesto, as her mother taught her years ago. She said it should smell green and sweet and not at all like licorice, although much of it does. (I never realized basil could smell like licorice.) She said the freshness and quality of the basil is so important to the finished pesto that her mother would only make the green elixir when she found basil that passed her strict inspection.

At the farmer's market this past Saturday, Lou found a big bunch of fresh basil and suggested we buy it to go with the variety of fresh tomatoes we were collecting. I thought it might make a perfect pesto. I naively sniffed the herb and detected no hint of licorice, and so gave my approval of the purchase. We brought the bunch home and with roots in tact, placed the stems in a vase of water to keep the basil leaves hydrated until we were ready to use them. Today the leaves were lively and green and still I detected no hint of licorice!

I often undertake more than I have time for, and I thought the perfect accompaniment to some freshly made pesto would be freshly made pasta. At 7:45, when I started to make dinner, I came to my senses. Luckily, Marcella Hazan claimed at the end of her pesto recipe that the perfect accompaniment to this pasta sauce was spaghetti! Now we don't stock much pasta in our cupboard, but spaghetti I had, so I started boiling the water-we'd be eating in no time!
Pesto is traditionally made in a mortar and pestle, hence the name "pesto", but I found it just as satisfying to make it in the food processor. Here's her recipe for what Marcella Hazan calls "the most seductive of all sauces for pasta":

Pesto by the Food Processor Method

For the processor
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine before putting in the processor

For completion by hand
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
2 tablespoons freshly grated romano cheese
3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

1 1/2 pounds pasta

1. Briefly soak and wash the basil in cold water, and gently pat it thoroughly dry with paper towels.
2. Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, chopped garlic, and an ample pinch of salt in the processor bowl, and process to a uniform, creamy consistency.
3. Transfer to a bowl, and mix in the two grated cheeses by hand. It is worth the slight effort to do it by hand to obtain the notably superior texture it produces. When the cheese has been evenly amalgamated with the other ingredients, mix in the softened butter, distributing it uniformly into the sauce.
4. When spooning the pesto over pasta, dilute it slightly with a tablespoon or two of the hot water in which the pasta was cooked.

p. 176, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, by Marcella Hazan.

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