Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pesto, Pasta and Other Good Things......

Among my favorite sauces is "Pesto".... and after Carbonara and Bolognese is among one one of the most used in the Italian cooking collection of sauces..... While some people might think this is a very limited use sauce, the opposite is actually true since it can be used in all manners and styles, and once you get the "hang" of making your own, is one of the simplest sauces around too!

So come with me on a journey into "Pesto Land" and let's see some of the creative ways to use this most flavorful sauce.... Great, fresh ingredients - easy to make - keeps well in the fridge - available for a quick meal - healthy and tasty! If you ask me, these qualities make it a sure fire ingredient to have on hand anytime.....

Pesto comes from Genoa, Italy in the Liguria area of Italy. The ancient Romans ate a cheese spread called "moretum" which may sometimes have been made with basil. The herb likely originated in North Africa; however, it was first domesticated in India. Basil took the firmest root in the regions of Liguria, Italy and Provence, France. The Ligurians around Genoa took the dish and adapted it, using a combination of basil, crushed garlic, parsley, grated hard cheese (pamigiano, pecorino, etc.), and pinole or pine nuts with a little olive oil to form pesto. In 1944, The New York Times mentioned an imported canned pesto paste. In 1946, Sunset Magazine published a pesto recipe, by Angelo Pellegrini. But Pesto did not become popular in North America until the 1980s and 1990s.

A slightly different version of the sauce exists in Provence, where it is known as Pistou. In contrast with the Genovese pesto, pistou is generally made with olive oil, basil and garlic only: while cheese may be added, usually no nuts are included. Pistou is used in the typical soupe au pistou, a hearty vegetable soup with pistou flavour. The sauce did not originally contain basil, however. Instead, cheese and olive oil were the main constituents.

Sometimes almonds are used instead of pine nuts, and sometimes mint leaves are mixed in with the basil leaves.

Pesto alla siciliana is a sauce from Sicily similar to Genovese pesto but with the addition of tomato and much less basil. Pesto alla calabrese is a sauce from Calabria consisting of (grilled) bell peppers, black pepper and more; these ingredients give it a distinctively spicy taste. Pesto alla genovese is made with Genovese Basil, salt, garlic, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil (Taggiasco), European pine pine nuts (often toasted) and a grated hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano (but which may be Grana Padano, Pecorino Sardo, or Pecorino Romano). (Don't forget to try these variations too!..... create your own custom pesto, go wild!)

Other existing ingredient variations include: arugula (instead of or in addition to basil), black olives, lemon peel or mushrooms. A German variety uses ramsons leaves instead of basil. In the 19th century, Genovese immigrants to Argentina brought pesto recipes with them. A Peruvian variety, known as "Tallarin Verde" (literally "Green Noodles", from Italian tagliarini) is slightly creamier, uses spinach leaves and is served with potatoes and sirloin steak.

Plus, there is also my Mexican version of Pesto (to make do with our local ingredients or when I just couldn't find this or that so I improvised) which I now find among my favorites being loaded with flavor and a sweet taste that is very adaptable to Chicken, Fish, Salad, Veggies and much, much more.... Using Cilantro, peeled almonds and Cotija hard cheese.... it's really good and very inexpensive to boot.

Here's some great examples for pesto, beginning with the basic recipe:

Basic Pesto:

1 bunch of Basil leaves
1-2 oz Pine nuts
1-2 oz Parmessan Cheese, grated
1/2 cup Olive Oil
1-2 garlic cloves
You can use a pestle and mortar, but I suggest a food processor. Put everything in the bowl and pulse several times until you get a well blended mix. It should be thick and rich. Taste it and see if you'd like to add salt and pepper (or some crushed red pepper flakes).....
NOTE: Use this as a base and then make any substitutions as desired from those I've noted.

Gorgonzola, Pesto and Natural Tomato Pizza:

Your choice of ready-made or home-made pizza crust
Tomato Sauce (any kind you like)
Grated Mozzarella, about 1 cup
1 tomato, sliced
3.5 oz Gorgonzola Cheese, crumbled
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4 cup Pesto

Pre-heat oven to at least 400 degrees and pre-bake your crust about 5 min to set.
Spread the tomato sauce evenly on crust. Place tomato slices over tomato sauce and put pieces of the Gorgonzola Cheese on top of these and bake until the crust is golden on the bottom.
Take a large tablespoon of Pesto with some olive oil and mix until you get a "looser" pesto sauce or one you can drizzle. Once your pizza is cooked and done, top with the pesto sauce, drizzling it over the top of the pizza and serve.

Risotto with Pesto and Shrimp:

For the risotto:
2 tbl of oil
1 1/2 cup of rice for risotto (Carnaroli)
2 tbl of shallots
2 tbl of butter
2-3 tbl of Parmessan Cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1/4-1/2 cup fruity white wine
3 cups of good Chicken Stock

For the shrimp:
Olive Oil
8 shrimp, large (or if smaller, more..), cleaned and deveined
salt & pepper to taste

To make the risotto:
Place some butter in the pan and melt, add the shallots and stir fry slightly; add the rice and fry for a couple of minutes, add salt and pepper and the wine, stirring all the time until the liquid evaporates. Add 1/4 cup of the stock at a time, stirring all the while until it too evaporates, adding more during 15-17 min. until the rice is cooked. Use a wooden spoon to do this.
Remove from heat and add the pesto sauce and mix gently but evenly. Taste to insure it doesn't need salt or pepper.

For the shrimp:
In a hot pan with some butter and oil together, add the shrimp and stir fry a minute or two only, salt and pepper and reserve off the heat.

To serve:
In the center of the plate and using a metal ring, 2-3 in in height (or you can use a buttered cup or gello mold and unmold); fill with risotto and pat down. Remove the ring and place some shrimp on the top and side, lay some fresh basil leaves on the side as decoration and some toasted pine nuts as well.

Scallop and Shrimp Pesto Salad:

3-4 tbl Olive Oil
8-12 large shrimp, cleaned and deveined
1 frise lettuce
1 lemon
2 Granny Smith Apples, cut in julienne slices
1 cup Pesto
12 large Scallops

Put the scallops and shrimp on skewers and cook, after brushing them with oil, preferably over charcoal, turning every minute or so to avoid overcooking. Should make 4 skewers each.
Mix the apple with the lettuce and add the pesto, mix well. Lay the lettuce and apple mix on
plates, lay the scallops and shrimp on top while still warm and serve at once since this salad is best warm.

Fusilli with Pesto Sauce:

1 package Fusilli
1 cup Pesto Sauce
1/2 stick of butter
1/2 cup grated Parmessan Cheese

Cook the fusilli with a couple of tbl olive oil and plenty of salt. When pasta is "al dente", drain off most of the water but leave a couple tbl in the pan. Add the butter to the pan and the pesto, mix well and insure the pesto has loosened up a little so it will cover the pasta well. Add the pasta and mix well. Top with the grated cheese and serve.

I should also mention that you can use Pesto as a topping for baked Chicken, almost any kind of fish fillets, steaks also benefit from a dollop or two on top, you can make crostinis (bagettes toasted, topped with cheese and some Pesto (or just Pesto), if you add more oil and make it liquid you can also use it as a salad dressing over lettuce or seafood, over grilled veggies, etc. I'm sure you can think of other creative ways to use this most versatile sauce. Don't forget there are no rules here.... if you think it will taste great on something, do it, it probably will....

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