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S & T: Life is too short for bad olive oil

July 28, 2008
or how to make killer pesto

summer basil harvest means pesto-a-plenty!

In my house, two things will cause a riot: running out of garlic or olive oil or both. Milk we can live without for a day. If there are no eggs, then it’s oatmeal for breakfast. But no olive oil?! There really isn’t anything you can substitute for it. The same goes for garlic. I grew up with good home Italian cooking. My parents bought olive oil by the gallon. I think olive oil is necessary to keep my motor running properly. I’ve even converted my Jewish Eastern European descent husband to crave olive oil and garlic.

I am constantly trying different brands of extra virgin olive oil to find the best one at the cheapest price. Some people look at the color and appreciate the taste of a fine wine. I do the same with olive oil. The bottle of olive oil I recently bought on sale was so bitter, I stopped making dinner and went out to buy a fresh bottle. Life is just too short to eat bad olive oil. It’s so bad, I’m going to return it.

The reason I taste olive oils is that a fine olive oil is critical to good tasting pesto. It’s pesto harvest season in my garden. If the olive oil is too bitter, it will ruin your pesto. Some extra virgin olive oils do have a bitter aftertaste. I usually save those for sautéing. Choose the smoother tasting olive oils for your pesto. Lean in closer while I tell you how to make the finest pesto that money can’t buy.

First, you need to grow your own basil, unless you have wads of cash lying around that need to be spent. You’ll burn through a small fortune buying fresh basil at the farmer’s market or grocery store if you make pesto the way I do, with LOTS of basil!

It’s hard to believe that I’m a die hard basil lover now. My mom always grew basil, along with flat leaved parsley, for her Italian cooking. My brothers, knowing that I didn’t like the smell of basil as a child, used to chase me around the yard, trying to shove basil up my nose. I managed to survive that trauma to grow up as a gardener of basil. In fact, I realized in horror the weekend before last, that I was not going to be able to freeze enough basil to get me through the winter on the eight plants I had already planted. I only had enough frozen basil and pesto to get me through January last year on six plants. Luckily, the farmer’s market had lots of basil plants on sale this weekend, so I bought two more.

Ingredients for Pesto:
lots of basil
1-2 cloves of garlic
pine nuts, about 1/4 to 1/3 cup
romano cheese (optional), about 1/4 to 1/3 cup or to taste
salt, about 1/4 to 1/2 tsp
olive oil

In order to become a good Italian cook, or a good cook in general, you have to give up the need to have exact quantities. The first time I asked my mom for a recipe for pasta fagioli, the conversation went something like this:

Me: “Can you give me your recipe for pasta fagioli?”
Mom: “Well, you need tomato sauce, cannellini beans, some celery with leaves, ditalini, garlic, some olive oil, and salt and pepper.”
Me: “How much do I need of each?”
Mom: “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t measure quantities. I just sort of wing it.”
Me: “But I have no clue what I’m doing!!”

My mom never had the patience to teach me how to cook as a kid. I did manage to inherit the family cooking gene, and now I’m able to use my intuition when I cook. I’m doing the same thing she does, adding ingredients based on experience, intuition, and taste-as-you-add. I’ll at least try to give you relative quantities, though every time I make pesto, it’s a little bit different. A lot of making pesto is relative to how much you like of each ingredient. I like a lot of basil, and you’ll never find that in store bought pesto.

The How to of Pesto Making
I make pesto in a food processor. A blender will work if you don’t have a food processor. First, fill the food processor with basil leaves. Grind them down. Put more basil leaves in if you like a lot of basil in your pesto.

Next, add a clove or two of garlic. I don’t like a lot of fresh garlic in my pesto, even though it would seem that you can’t have enough garlic. A little fresh garlic goes a long way. There are many different types of garlic too, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion that I’m not really qualified to get into. I like a mild garlic, which is usually the standard grocery store type.

Then, add the pine nuts and romano. I have never found a good substitute for pine nuts. You just have to bite the bullet and spend the money on them. You can use walnuts, but I think they are too bitter. Process the pine nuts enough that it chops up the nuts, but not enough to make pine nut butter. Pulse the processor if you have to. When it’s starts to stick together, stop processing! Ideally, you would want to stop before it starts to stick together, because that’s when it tastes like pine nut butter. You’ll know what I mean once you’ve made this mistake. I’ve done it more often than I’d like to admit.

For cheese, I prefer romano to parmesan. Again, it’s what I grew up with. We always had a jar of fresh grated romano cheese in the frig for sprinkling on all our Italian dishes. Romano has more flavor than parmesan, in my opinion, but use what you prefer. For a long time, I could not eat dairy, so you can leave the cheese out and the pesto will taste just fine.

Lastly, add the olive oil and a little bit of salt to taste. Try adding the salt in at 1/4 tsp at a time and taste it as you go. The romano will make the pesto salty tasting, but I like more salt than that. I don’t measure the olive oil. I just keep adding it until I get it to a consistency I like. You can pulse or run the food processor each time you add the olive oil. My husband likes his pesto creamier, so he usually puts in the olive oil in first with the basil. You can experiment with which technique you like best.

In the winter time, we often make pesto the same way but with arugula. The taste is different, but it all looks the same in the end:

Ahhh, heaven!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Spicy Sister permalink
    July 28, 2008 11:21 pm

    My basil plants are bursting – I have been dying to make a good pesto – can’t wait to try this recipe!!! Thanks!!

  2. The Muser (aka Beautiful Mama) permalink
    July 29, 2008 12:46 am

    Ah, the pesto looks yummy. Glad Magic is back home and recovering!

  3. Lollipop Goldstein permalink
    July 29, 2008 6:38 am

    Mmmmm…I wish we had planted basil again this year. Last year, we had so much at the end of the summer that it was crazy. It looks delicious.Will you part with olive oil brand advice? Which is the best for using on a salad (not sauteing).

  4. luna permalink
    July 29, 2008 9:53 am

    love the pesto! great S&T.

  5. Lost in Space permalink
    July 29, 2008 10:19 pm

    That looks sooooo good. I love pesto and can’t wait to try your recipe. Thanks!!

  6. Sweetpea permalink
    July 31, 2008 6:24 am

    Wonderful! My DH has been making pesto for several days now because we’re members of an organic farm and right now it’s unlimited pickings of basil! They have at least 10 different types of basil; I didn’t even know there were that many kinds – it’s amazing. So basil is the ingredient in most of our foods right now; last night it was ratatouille with LOTS of basil: Mmmmm. Thanks for posting all your basil and pesto expertise. : )

  7. HeidiM permalink
    July 31, 2008 8:19 pm

    Thanks so much for all the support you’ve given me on my blog!!I have an Italian mama too — I spent many hours with my mom and grandma in the kitchen but somehow didn’t get the cooking gene. Go figure. Although when I saw Emeril make raviolis on Jay Leno last night it gave me the hankering to make my own. And this may motivate me to make some yummy pesto to top it off.

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