“Pesto is the quiche of the eighties.” Haha, that’s a line from a movie I just saw for the first time. The pesto of this decade is…other kinds of pesto.
Pesto originally comes from Genoa, in northern Italy, where the specific ingredients and preparation were codified sometime in the sixteenth century. That kind of pesto — made with basil leaves, garlic cloves, pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino sardo, along with a fair amount of olive oil — is still by far the most popular, though its proper name now, in a world of many types of pesto, would be pesto alla genovese.
Most Italian dishes have, like, four ingredients max, but if one of them is even the tiniest bit different from the way Caesar liked his, it is no longer correct. For example, the Pecorino sardo in pesto alla genovese is not the same as Pecorino Romano, and only a fool would use Romano in place of sardo *shakes fingers as if trying to fling drops of water onto whoever is in front of me*. Anyway, pesto is made in a mortar and pestle, traditionally. (“Pesto” comes from the same root as pestle, as does the word “paste.”) The Italian mortar and pestle, like the French, is typically marble, and the ingredients are crushed in a circular grinding pattern, unlike, say, the “pok pok” smashing method of Thailand.
Now that you’re up to date on the true history of authentic pesto, let’s cheerfully cast that all aside. Pesto, to my modern, non-Italian mind, means nothing more than a paste of herbs and oil, sometimes with other things added, and I always have at least three or four kinds in my freezer; I rarely cook anything without some form of it. Right now, as the summer turns to fall, we are in the dying throes of herb season. Herbs are summer to me, and their aromatic compounds are most potent when they are fresh — not grown in a greenhouse in Argentina, not after a few days of wilting in your fridge. Raw leaves do not normally freeze well (they become soggy and gross when defrosted). But, when mashed into a pesto, they freeze SPECTACULARLY. So now is the time to get out the food processor (or mortar and pestle if you want, but I certainly don’t) and make enormous batches of several kinds of pesto, which you can use to add a hit of summer freshness to food all through the shitty awful nigh-endless winter we’re sure to have, again.
As for the type of plant products to use in a pesto: I like to use almost everything in the “herb” section, which would include parsley, basil, sage, oregano, cilantro, dill, marjoram, and tarragon. There are a few that don’t work in pesto, or don’t work well; mildly tough leaves like thyme and rosemary can be hard to pulse into a paste. Super tough leaves like bay and curry aren’t even really edible, so don’t bother.
My standard technique for freezing and using pesto year-round is about as basic as it gets: wash herbs, chop roughly, toss into food processor (along with other stuff, if desired) and pulse while drizzling oil into the hole in the lid until it reaches the desired texture — thicker than a sauce, but of a single consistency, without chunks. It should pour, but very very slowly.
When you’ve gotten there, pour the pesto into ice cube trays and freeze it. Pop the pesto-cubes out, throw them into a plastic bag, then stuff that back into your freezer. (Once, when I froze all of my pesto into a single, giant block, I had to chip away at it with the tip of my chef’s knife, and it actually broke off. Can you believe that? Anyways, ever since then, I’ve used ice cube trays to avoid this.)
Some herbs, like basil, will turn kind of brownish in the freezer, but this affects neither their flavor nor texture, so don’t worry about it. Beware of freezing with cheese; hard cheeses like Parmesan will do fine, but anything with a higher water content (basically anything that’s not a super hard cheese) will grow shitty giant ice crystals that will fuck up the texture of your pesto. As for defrosting! I mostly think it’s fine to toss small bits of frozen pesto into a hot pan, as long as you’re only in the early stages of cooking (sauteeing onions, for example). But if you’re going to toss the pesto with vegetables as a dressing, or place a spoonful delicately on top of a bowl of soup, you’ll want to properly defrost it. I recommend just leaving a few cubes of pesto in a small bowl or dish while you prepare the whole rest of your dish, and it’ll probably be defrosted by the time you’re ready to use it. If you need it defrosted immediately, microwave very cautiously on half power, otherwise you might damage the delicate herbs.
NOW FOR HOW TO USE YOUR PESTO CUBES.
You can add a pesto at the beginning of your cooking process or at the end, but each way produces different effects. If added at the beginning, along with your onions and garlic and/or chiles and/or ginger or whatever, the pesto will mellow significantly, adding nothing so distinct as a slight herbiness and richness. Added at the end, as a topping, it will be sharper and more intense, especially if you use raw garlic. Both have their uses! And honestly, almost every dish — soups, stir-fries, salads, meat or fish (if you eat such things), roasts, pastas, sandwiches — can benefit from some pesto.
( I am aware that many recipes encourage you to make greens like kale into pesto. I think this is gross; pesto is to add a big hit of flavor, not to like, sneak healthy greens into your diet. I also do not think kale makes for a particularly pleasing pesto; it’s sort of bitter and grainy and funky. Let’s just stick to herbs.)
My go-to pesto for Italian recipes does use basil, but I also like to throw in some parsley to take away some of the licorice-like intensity that basil can have. I always use walnuts in place of pine nuts — the flavor and oil content is similar, and walnuts are priced as if a normal human might buy them. I also leave out garlic; I tend to think the herbs freeze much better than garlic, and I’d rather just add fresh garlic to the dish than mess with the frozen stuff. Otherwise, keep it traditional: herbs, nuts, olive oil, Parmesan. I don’t measure, but roughly, I’d say: one bunch of basil, half a bunch of parsley, a small handful of nuts, and add just enough olive oil until it looks like pesto rather than like chopped herbs. Blend until smooth, freeze. This works well as a flavor base for Italian dishes or sauces, or just tossed with pasta. This makes at least a dozen servings — maybe more if you’re using it as an accent rather than the dish’s flavor focal point.
Parsley pesto is very underrated. Now that I think about it, parsley in general is underrated. I like to blend one bunch of parsley, about half a lemon’s worth of lemon zest, a small handful of walnuts (or macadamia nuts, if I’m feeling fancy) and olive oil, and use it as a base for shellfish dishes. (This will make enough for maybe six servings.) Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until soft, then throw in a cube of this parsley pesto for a few minutes until it thaws and starts to smell, like, really good. Then throw in a dozen clams or mussels or both, pour in about a third of a glass of white wine, drink the other two thirds of a glass of white wine, bring to a boil, cover the pot, lower the heat to let it simmer, and then wait until the wine-y smell is gone and the shellfish have opened. Eat with pasta or bread or both or neither, I’m not the boss of you.
Another good one that is vaguely Indian: cilantro, mint, neutral oil (grapeseed is good), lime juice, and a touch of sugar. It’s sort of like that cilantro-mint chutney you get with takeout Indian food, but more intense, and it works really well with stewed greens. Get a heavy pot, cook some onions and chiles down for awhile in oil, then throw in some curry powder and cook it down some more. Then, throw in a bunch of this pesto until it defrosts, followed by a ton of coarsely chopped greens (spinach, chard, or kale all work great). Add a touch of water to help the steaming/wilting process, stir, cover, and cook until the greens are tender (the amount of time will vary; more for kale, less for spinach). Add in chickpeas at the end. Serve over rice or quinoa.
Or, to make it kind of Mexican, do the same thing but remove the mint from the pesto. Cook the same ingredients the same way, but add garlic at the beginning, and use a mixture of cumin, turmeric, and chile powder (ratio: 2:4:1), instead of curry mix. Also, use black beans instead of chickpeas, and serve with queso fresco (or feta if you can’t find that) and another squeeze of lime. This works great over rice or quinoa. If you’re doing tacos, don’t add the pesto in the beginning — save it until the end, and spoon some over the greens, because tortillas are more strongly flavored than rice and you’ll want a more robust kick of cilantro pesto.
Pretty much any herb can be pesto-ed: just add oil, and maybe nuts or hard cheese, then blend or grind or however you would prefer to reduce them to a pesto-y consistency. I’ve made dill pesto and spooned it over salmon with boiled potatoes, thyme/parsley and lemon pesto for trout, and some mutant kind of chimichurri pesto as a finisher for vegetable soup (to make it chimichurri, add a touch of vinegar). Regardless of which herb and which combination you use, pesto isn’t just for garbage grilled chicken sandwiches at Panera. It’s a way to pretend it’s nice outside even when it’s not.
Photo by thebittenword.com