Saturday, November 3, 2012
For the longest time I only knew pesto as the excessively oily, fermented-smelling substance that the restaurant I worked at ordered in bulk. It was packaged in small glass jars, and came in two flavours: basil and sundried tomato. Half a shelf was dedicated to these little jars of red and green pesto, as if in perpetual Christmas spirit.
A centimetre of oil always floated at the top of each jar, and I used to despise opening them. The jars would inevitably become greasy to the touch, and after a brief struggle with the lid, the opened jar of pesto would emit the pungent smell of parmesan.
I realize this is all very unappetizing and more than a little unpleasant to visualize. I assure you that I did not find this initial experience of pesto in any way pleasant. To be exact, I found it more than a little repulsive.
And then, somewhere along the way, I fell in love with pesto. I think it began with the realization that basil pesto, cucumbers, tomatoes, and black olives is a magical combination. From then on, I began to realize the deliciousness that is pesto. The sharpness of the basil that borders on sweetness, combined with the rich saltiness of the parmesan and the bite of garlic, is a divine creation, and one that I have since made a point of making and eating whenever possible.
Because of course, like so many store-bought things, the oily Christmas-coloured pestos in jars was not particularly exceptional. It always left an acrid aftertaste on my tongue - an assertive taste as easy to get rid of as raw onion.
And yet it still took me a long time before I began making my own pesto. Initially, I was put off by the inescapable richness of it - with cheese, pine nuts, and olive oil as 3 of its five main ingredients, it's not exactly light. In other words, I was scared away by the fat. But over the past year, things like fat content and calories have begun to mean less to me, and I've started to enjoy food more. This is not to say that I've stopped being health conscious and eat buckets of ice cream whenever I feel like it, just that I don't attach so much guilt to eating, and it's amazing how much more I enjoy food and life because of it.
So yes, pesto is rich, but it's bursting with flavour, so even a little can go a long way. Made from scratch, it lacks that awful aftertaste the jarred version has. It tastes fresher and richer at the same time. I like using toasted almonds in place of the traditional pine nuts in my pesto - they have a deep, toasty flavour that lends a warmth to the pesto that seems especially perfect with this time of year, when, as my roommate says, "I begin to feel like I will never be warm again."
So go ahead, make pesto, dump in the cheese, drizzle in the oil and feel good about it.
Pesto is an awesome condiment to have on hand, as it's great for last minute meals and jazzing up old favourites like grilled cheese and roasted potatoes. One of my favourite ways to use it is to puree a good hefty scoop of it with steamed broccoli and mix it in with pasta. It makes for a hearty, flavourful, and healthy meal that your friends will request again and again.
1 cup Almonds (raw, unsalted)
2 cups Basil Leaves
1 1/2 cups Finely Grated Parmesan (not packed!)
1/3 cup Olive Oil
6 - 8 Garlic Cloves
Makes about 2 cups.
1. Preheat oven to 350°. Spread almonds evenly on a baking sheet and roast in preheated oven for 10 minutes, until slightly darker in colour and fragrant. Remove from the oven and let cool.
2. Remove basil leaves from stems, wash, and pat dry, making sure to remove any grit. Place in a food processor.
3. Grate parmesan using a box grater, and add to the food processor along with the peeled garlic cloves. Add in the roasted almonds.
4. Process the ingredients until you have a mixture of medium-sized crumbs. Continue to process while drizzling in olive oil, until the mixture is thick and clumped together.
5. Transfer the pesto to a glass jar and store in the fridge. It will become hard in the fridge, so you may want to let it come to room temperature before using in dishes or dressings.