It’s August and I’m dipping fingers and bread into a bowl of freshly made pesto. The colour shimmers emerald green and licorice notes of sweet basil jump into my nostrils, the garlic-tinged oil making a smooth slide down my throat.
I want to eat it by the spoonful, but instead rush to store it before the colour and flavor are ruined by oxidization. So off it goes, portioned into small, glass jars covered by a thick layer of oil, lidded and refrigerated. I will slather it on warm toast, piling on sliced garden tomatoes and crisp bacon to make daily BLTs to be consumed with lascivious abandon. A teaspoon or two will find its way into homemade salad dressings, more will be drizzled over grilled shrimp and sometimes I’ll float a coin-sized island of it in the middle of a creamy cold cucumber soup or smear it on crostini with grilled veggies.
How was my life ever lived without pesto?
My first (hand-written) pesto recipe came from the finest Mediterranean-style cook I knew in the 80s. Lisa made her mom’s pesto and instructed me to freeze it in ice cube trays then toss the bright green cubes into pasta or minestrone soup. Lisa’s mother was a Greek culinary goddess, issuing out platters of moussaka and spanakopita in a single afternoon, then topping it off with her legendary finikia – soft, honey-infused oblong cookies covered in a crumble of crushed almonds. I found any excuse “to help” Lisa with her high school homework so long as we worked in her mother’s kitchen, drinking demitasses of muddy Turkish coffee and nibbling on the orange-scented finikia.
Coming from a culinary background more acquainted with Hamburger Helper and Sloppy Joes than pine nuts and olive oil, I naturally assumed pesto was a Greek thing, especially when Lisa sent me to her favourite food stores on the Danforth to purchase my supplies.
But a trip to Cinque Terre two decades later set me straight on the basil and pesto front. My husband Don and I had found a small room in a three-floor-walkup hotel in Vernazza, one of the five fishing villages that have made this spot along the Ligurian coast famous.
That, and the star item on every menu: “Trofie al Pesto”.
Don dove into his first steaming bowl and made a vow that he would eat none other, for the next three days. It was love at first pesto bite: handmade spirals of trofie pasta, cubes of potato and strands of crisp, green beans all covered in a voluptuous green blanket (no, duvet) of garlicky, oil-infused basil. There was not a trace of bitterness in this pesto and we were so happy with ourselves to be dining on the most local of all creations, “pesto Genovese” born a mere 100 km north in Genoa.
Don paid tribute every evening devouring a bowl then instantly dreaming of his next. He talked about it all day long as we hiked along the coast meandering our way from village to village, stopping for cappuccinos and photography, a glass of blood orange juice here, or a chilled glass of Limoncello there. All of it led up to dinner and another bowl of Trofie al Pesto.
I bought a few small jars of pesto Genovese and brought them home from Cinque Terre, yet none, dear reader, were as vibrant or as fresh as my homemade creations. Basil is currently at season’s peak. Whether you find it on the Danforth, at a farmer’s market or growing on your third-floor deck like a jungle, I bid you to pull out your food processor to create a delectable sea of green and make a toast to Don and his pesto.
This is a very basic recipe that is open to modification. If you have a bumper basil crop as I did this year, you can triple it. If you want to mix it up a bit, substitute some of the basil with flat-leaf parsley, chives, arugula or baby kale. Add twice the oil if you like a less green, richer sauce. Even the pine nuts can be substituted with Macadamia nuts, blanched almonds or even tahini. Many cooks like to add Parmigiano Reggiano but I like to hold off and serve it freshly grated over pasta that is tossed with pesto.
1 clove garlic
¼ cup pine nuts
4 cups packed basil leaves
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of salt
Toss garlic clove into the tube of a running food processor to mince finely. Pour in pine nuts and process until minced, about 30 seconds. Place basil leaves in the food processor bowl and pour over with oil. Process until emerald green and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice between processing. Season with salt.