I realize this may be just a "me" thing, but the smell of basil, alone, transports me instantly back to Italy. And THAT, my friends, is a wonderful thing! And so now, I make it my mission to keep fresh basil growing on my patio each year so that the smell I'm describing is within arm's reach.
You may be thinking, "Well, that must mean you've made pesto tons of times, Tori." Strangely enough, until a couple of years ago, I never had. Thank goodness Ginger's been patiently watching over that basil for me...
Friends, this the simplest, most satisfying summer meal I think I've had yet. And it can be eaten hot or cold. I'd like to make the argument, then, that pesto may be the best-o (any loyal F-R-I-E-N-D-S fans out there? Great episode). Anyway, add this to your summer menus. It makes a great entree (toss with pasta and add the protein of your choice-crumbled feta and/or grilled chicken or shrimp, etc) or side dish.
As always, though, a couple of things first:
Pine nuts: You can definitely use other nuts in the same quantity, but classic pesto calls for pine nuts, or pignoli. Pine nuts are a great source of B vitamins and omega 6 fatty acids. They're especially waxy in texture when they're eaten raw, but toasting them means they contribute a balanced flavor and subtle texture. They help bind the basil with the olive oil and garlic. Also, fun fact courtesy of my New Mexico friends: Piñon coffee is also with pine nuts. They combine them with coffee grounds to subtly flavor the end product!
Parmigiano Reggiano: Without getting on too much of a soap box, the difference between Parmesan and Parmigiano Reggiano is more than just the name. Parmigiano Reggiano is an artisanally crafted product made according to very specific regulations and aged for a minimum of 12 months. It has a very rich and savory flavor, and does cost a bit more than Parmesan sold in the U.S. It's worth it, in my opinion. Blocks of Parmesan are not held to those standards, but can still work in many dishes similarly-you may also see this called Grana Padano, which just lets you know that the cheese didn't make the "cut" for Parmigiano Reggiano, proper. Do buy whole blocks of cheese, no matter what kind you choose. And use a fine grater such as this in order to achieve, well, GRATE results. Ha!
1 1/2- 2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 garlic clove, smashed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup plus 2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano/Parmesan cheese
1. Toast the pine nuts: preheat oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil (your pine nuts may toast more quickly if you use foil, so just be aware of that!). Spread the pine nuts out evenly over the parchment/foil. Place the baking sheet in the oven and keep and eye on the pine nuts-stir them about every1-2 minutes to keep from burning! Toast them for 5-10 minutes (I lined by baking sheet with foil and it only took 5 minutes to toast them), until lightly golden brown.
2. In a food processor, pulse the basil, pine nuts, garlic, salt, and pepper until finely chopped. The mixture will look like this.
3. With the food processor still running, drizzle in the olive oil slowly using the opening in the lid, stopping to scrape the sides of the food processor as needed. Gradually keep adding olive oil until the pesto reaches a smooth, but thick, consistency. It will look like this.
3. Transfer the pesto to a small mixing bowl and gently stir in the cheese. Don't add the cheese into the food processor, the texture won't be the same! Add additional salt and pepper to taste. Store pesto in the refrigerator, it will keep for up to 3 days.
Note: If you're making pesto pasta, cook the pasta according to the package directions, making sure to add a large pinch of salt to the pasta water once it begins to boil. Don't add it before the water boils---it'll scar your pasta pot. Reserve ~1/2 cup of the pasta cooking liquid when straining it. The easiest ways I've found to do this are: (1) place your colander over a large bowl to catch pasta water as you strain the pasta (2) use a ladle or measuring cup to scoop out some pasta water just before straining the cooked pasta in your colander. Gradually stir in 1-2 Tablespoons at a time after tossing the pasta with pesto. This will allow the pesto to coat the pasta evenly.