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Got Basil? Pesto Is Calling

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dscn1552My basil plants are thriving in this heat – at least when I remember to water them once, if not twice, a day. They have also begun to seed a little at the top, which can be good, because hopefully it means the plants will come back again next year. (I haven’t had to plant basil for four years now because of that little blessing of nature.)

All that basil means one thing to me: pesto.

This Italian sauce is a simple blend of garlic, basil, pine nuts, Parmesan and olive oil blended until it forms a sauce bursting with freshness.

The origin of the word, according to Wikipedia, is likely some derivation of the word “pestle,” which denoted the way it was pulverized in a mortar. We don’t need to work so hard at it any more. A food processor or blender does the work for you in seconds. (The Provençal pistou, in which a paste of garlic, Parmesan and basil, is stirred into a vegetable soup at the last second, is a distinct cousin.)

The Italians love this sauce on pasta, trenette, specifically, according to “The Joy of Cooking.” That’s a fresh flat-ribbon pasta akin to the dry linguine. But why stop there? It’s great on pork loin, beef, seafood, chicken and steamed vegetables. I even love a little on buttered rye bread.

The raw food movement likes to use pesto in vegetable “pastas,” such as a lasagna that uses slices of heirloom tomatoes and zucchini instead of noodles or long, thin strips of zucchini dubbed “spaghetti.” In this heat, that sounds cool and refreshing.

Over time, every pesto lover will create his or her own recipe for the basic sauce. Some like the way mint balances the bitterness of the basil. Others use flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, sorrel or arugula in the mix. Some use walnuts instead of more expensive pine nuts. The choices are yours.

Chef Robert Riddle, who ran the well-received San Remo Italian restaurant before moving on to Podna’s Catfish and Po’Boys and Big Bob’s Burgers, likes to toast the pine nuts in the olive oil he plans on using. He lets the oil cool down before starting. The technique makes the end result even more robust.


1 cup fresh basil leaves
1 clove garlic, chopped
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt, to taste

Purée basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan, oil and salt in a food processor until smooth. This amount should be good for about six servings of pasta. If you are going to freeze this, don’t add the Parmesan cheese until serving.

Basil-Mint Pesto

1 ½ cups fresh basil leaves, or as needed
1 ½ cups fresh mint leaves, or as needed
2 garlic cloves, chopped, or as needed
3/4 cup extra virgin olive-oil, or as needed
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, or as needed
Juice of 1 lemon, or as needed
1 teaspoon lemon zest strips
¼ cup pine nuts, or as needed
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

Combine basil, mint, garlic, Parmesan and oil in a food processor or blender. Purée until smooth. Add lemon juice, lemon zest and pine nuts. Process until incorporated into a sauce. Taste. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Then adjust to your taste. You may want more basil or more garlic. You may want to add sorrel or arugula. Play with the recipe and make it your own.

Makes about 3 cups.

Parsley and Anchovy Pesto

[amazon-product]0811824942[/amazon-product]1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
6 olive-oil packed anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, or as needed
¼ grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons pine nuts
Salt, to taste

Combine the parsley leaves, anchovies, garlic and olive oil in a blender or food processor. Purée until smooth. Add the cheese, lemon juice, nuts and salt and process until all the ingredients are well-blended into a sauce. If the sauce seems too thick, add a little more olive oil.

Makes about 1 cup.

From “Olives, Anchovies and Capers” by Georgeanne Brennan

dscn1544Pesto Cheesecake

Seasoned dry breadcrumbs
2 cups pesto, divided use
1 pound ricotta cheese
1 cup sour cream, divided use
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
12 sun-dried tomato halves in oil, drained and chopped, or chunky tomato salsa, drained, or tomato relish, drained, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly butter an 8-inch springform pan. Dust the bottom and sides of the pan with breadcrumbs.

[amazon-product]0743246268[/amazon-product]Mix in a large bowl ½ cup pesto with ricotta, ½ cup sour cream, eggs, salt, zest, nutmeg and black pepper. Pour into the prepared pan. Bake in a water bath until set, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from the water bath and transfer to a rack to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate until cold, 6 to 12 hours. Slide a thin-bladed knife around the outside of the cake and remove the outer ring. Spread the remaining pesto around the sides of the cheesecake. Spread remaining ½ cup sour cream on top in an even layer. Arrange chopped sun-dried tomato on top or cover with layer of salsa or drained tomato relish. Serve with toasted French bread.

Makes 20 appetizer servings.

Adapted from “The Joy of Cooking” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker

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2 Responses to “Got Basil? Pesto Is Calling”

  1. John made this Pesto Cheesecake for us to have a taste of yesterday. It was, as John would say, very snacky. bw