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How to Make the Best Pesto

Basil, Basil Everywhere!

We love basil and every summer we grow it in a big pot.  Basil loves heat and does well as long as you water it – a lot.

Yesterday I showed you this year’s basil.

How to Make the Best Pesto


I knew it was time for pesto – that wonderful, fragrant paste of basil, pine nuts, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano, and extra virgin olive oil.

I learned how to make really good pesto years ago from John Ash, a cookbook author from California.  He was teaching at Sur la Table and promoting his new (2004) book, Cooking One on One. (You can probably find it on Amazon or Half-Price Books.) I love John’s approach to cooking:  learn the basic techniques and then you can vary recipes with a variety of ingredients.  Pesto is a perfect example: once you know the how-to, you can change the green (basil, spinach, arugula, cilantro, parsley) and the nut (pine nut, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans).  John has a “little secret” for making great pesto.

Here’s the Method

First, you have to have a bunch of basil.  If you don’t have basil in the garden, you need to buy a bunch at the store – not in the little plastic containers, but a couple of the big bags.

How to Make the Best Pesto

After washing the basil (if from the garden, you may have little critters), remove as many leaves as possible, big and little.  You will need 3 cups packed for this recipe to make 1 cup of pesto.

How to Make the Best Pesto

Here is John Ash’s first great tip:

Bring a pot of water to a boil and drop in the basil for 5 – 10 seconds. Remove with a slotted spoon or fine mesh strainer and immediately plunge into a bowl of ice water.(This is called blanching.)

How to Make the Best Pesto

I use my salad spinner ~ fill the bow about 1/3 with ice, place the colander in the bowl and fill with water; let stand a few minutes to chill the water.

How to Make the Best Pesto

Why do this?  Boiling the basil for a few seconds and then shocking in the ice bath sets the color.  Have you ever seen pesto that looks a bit grey?  Follow this tip and your pesto will stay pretty and bright green for days.

Dry your basil really well by squeezing all water out in your hand. You will have a little, bitty wad of basil about the size of your fist.How to Make the Best Pesto

But have no fear, you can fluff it out.

How to Make the Best Pesto

Here’s John’s second great tip:

Pesto has to have garlic, but you don’t want raw garlic to overpower the pesto.  So use garlic that has been poached, roasted, or toasted, which stabilizes and mellows its intensity.  If you want to poach the garlic, throw the peeled cloves into the water that you just blanched the basil in.  It only takes a minute.  You can carefully toast garlic in a small skillet with a little oil until fragrant or roast in a 375°F. oven for about 40 minutes (Cut off the top of a head of garlic and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.).  I like to smash a head of garlic to separate the cloves, remove the skin, and toss with EVOO.  It doesn’t take as long to roast, about 30 minutes, and you don’t loose any of the garlic.

You will need to toast pine nuts in a small skillet over low heat. Nothing burns more quickly than pine nuts ~ and once they’re burned, you have to throw them out. At $25 ~ $30/pound, pines nuts are expensive. So once you put them in the skillet, do not pass GO, do not answer the phone, do not go to the bathroom. Stay right by the skillet, and as soon as you smell the aroma, remove the skillet from the heat and place the pine nuts in a bowl.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

How to Make the Best Pesto

Now grate some Parmigiano~Regiano ~ the good stuff. Measure your extra virgin olive oil and you are ready to go.

How to Make the Best Pesto

John likes to use a blender to make pesto, but I prefer my food processor.

Here’s My Great Tip:

Turn the food processor on and put the coarsely chopped garlic cloves down the feed tube.  The garlic will be immediately minced fine.  If you put the garlic in the food processor and then turn it on, the garlic stays on the bottom of the bowl and doesn’t properly get chopped.  Then add the rest of your ingredients except the olive oil and process to a slightly chunky consistency.  Add the extra virgin olive oil through the feed tube for a few seconds until incorporated.  Taste for flavor and season with either kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

You are done. Wasn’t that easy!


How to Make the Best Pesto

How to Use Pesto?

Toss with pasta, serve on crostini or bruschetta, spoon over goat cheese, a baked potato, pizza, scrambled eggs or an omelet. a grilled or sautéed chicken breast or fish fillet. Use it to garnish a minestrone of other soup. If you have leftovers, freeze in ice cube trays.  Before the first frost in the fall, I strip our basil plants, make as much pesto as I can and freeze it.  It will last for about 3 months.  It’s a great burst of summer on a cold winter day.

Here’s the Recipe:

Enjoy one of summer’s best treats.


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