Confession. I spent years, YEARS, hating pesto. My memories of early dates with Keith, those special occasions when we splurged on a decent Italian meal instead of going out to our college staple of milkshakes, go like this:
Me (reading the menu): This sounds delicious… pasta with basil, pine nuts, and Parmesan!
Keith: Did you read the part in Italian? It’s pesto.
Me: Oh. Never mind then.
I finally converted to a pesto-enthusiast when I backpacked through Europe. I traveled on like 20 bucks a day (food and lodging), so most of my meals revolved around bread and cheese. But in Cinque Terre, I had this intense experience with a nude beach, an abandoned train tunnel, and an Australian opera singer (see The Road Taken: How to Dream, Plan, and Live Your Family Adventure Abroad for the whole story). Intense is actually an understatement. Afterwards, when my new buddies invited me for an actual dinner out, I figured I deserved it.
I gathered with three other backpacking women and we scored an outdoor table overlooking the Mediterranean and I decided to order pesto. Liguria is the birthplace of pesto after all. If ever I would like pesto, it would be here. They had to know what they were doing.
They very much knew what they were doing.
That plate of pasta with a crisp white wine stands out as one of my lifetime’s favorite meals.
So pesto became something I ate, usually enjoyed and occasionally loved. Mostly when it approximated that plate of heady green pasta I savored in Cinque Terre.
Then pesto became something I feared….
You see, more than ten years ago, I made pesto and we ate it and assumed everything was fine. Not the best pasta ever, but not the kind of meal that would live in infamy.
The next day, we left for the beach. My scarfed down breakfast tasted a little funny. I figured this was because I’d just brushed my teeth. My lunch on the road tasted a little funny, I figured it was rancid oil. I don’t eat at fast food restaurants often, but my recollection is that there’s regularly a bitter tinge.
Then we stopped at a farm stand on our way onto the island and bough a box of peaches. Firm, golden peaches that smelled of flowers soaked in honey. I couldn’t wait to take a bite. Walking to the car, I plucked a peach from the box and sank my teeth into the almost-tropical silky fruit. And promptly gagged, spitting it out.
I looked over at Keith who was hunched over, heaving.
We looked at each other and quickly compared notes. I asked him…does the peach taste like…old pennies? YES! He shouted. WHY DO OUR PEACHES TASTE LIKE OLD PENNIES? Nicolas and Siena regarded us like a mildly interesting magic show. And then each took huge bites of their peaches. Stop! We yelled, they’re toxic! Nicolas cocked his head. Baby Siena cocked her head. If Gabe had been born yet he would have cocked his head. The kids took another huge bite of their peaches and chewed thoughtfully. Nicolas shrugged. “Tastes really good to me.”
I grabbed his peach and sniffed. It smelled okay. I took a tentative nip and promptly spit it out.
What was going on? The peaches seemed fine. Keith and I realized that all our food that whole day had tasted off. Did we have simultaneous tastebud cancer? Had we been poisoned?
The truth began to dawn on us.
We’d heard of pine mouth. Just the week before, actually. Our friend told us how she hesitated to buy pine nuts because she’d heard that they could cause a bad reaction that made food tastes bitter and metallic. Sometimes for weeks. It was unknown if it was a kind of pine nut (like from a certain location), or just old pine nuts (for the record, i vote for the later, since I’d used this same batch of pine nuts a few months before with no ill effects).
Friends, there was no ice cream, peaches, fudge, or salt water taffy for us that beach trip.
And I never bought pine nuts again.
Nowadays, I make my pesto with pistachios or with slivered almonds that have been stripped of their brown skins.
I’ve worked at it over the years, experimenting with recipes, hoping to one day replicate a gorgeous pesto that reminds me of the one I had in Cinque Terre. Without filling me with terror.
But I’ve done it.
Not only that, I learned a trick that ensures pesto that is vivid emerald colored, rather than drab army green. The secret? Dunking the basil leaves briefly in boiling water, then removing them to icy water, and then draining them on paper towels until ready to use.
This summer, our basil plant had a bit of an identity problem and thought it was a basil tree. We planted two, and only this one struggled with this confusion. It grew past my hip and just wouldn’t quit. I’ve never seen a basil plant this eager to prove itself.
So I learned how to freeze pesto by making it up until the stage where cheese is added. I freeze the pesto without the cheese in ziplock bags laid flat on cookies sheets, so once they are frozen, I can stand them up in a row like gentle soldiers. Waiting to be called to action.
Ready for the recipe?
2 cups basil leaves
2 T nuts (pine nuts if you are daring, or slivered almonds or pistachios. If you use the latter two later nuts, toss in a few extra since there’s so much space between them when you measure).
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil, the best you have
1/2 cup Parmesan
Blanch basil leaves by boiling them briefly and then plunging them into icy water.
Heat a clean and dry skillet. Add the garlic cloves in their paper jackets. Toss and when the paper starts to turn color, add the nuts to the pan to toast them briefly. Do not get them any more than lightly golden. Remove from the heat, and take the paper off the garlic. If you like that garlic sharpness, toast the garlic for less time or not at all. If you like the rounded effect that toasting it gives, let the garlic linger on the pan longer, but never get brown.
Combine the basil, nuts, and garlic and process in a mortar and pestle (for extra silkiness), a food processor, or a Vitamix (what I’ve been doing lately, what with all these batches, it’s done in a flash).
With pestle action going, or machine running, dribble in the olive oil until it’s incorporated neatly.
Add cheese and mix briefly (or don’t add cheese at this point and freeze, writing on the bag how much cheese to add later).
Add salt. Some people like pepper here. Some people like a squirt of lemon juice. You do you.
If you’ll be making pesto pasta, when the pasta is almost done boiling, add a few tablespoons of that starchy pasta water to the pesto to warm it up and smooth it out. Then add the warmed pesto to the drained pasta.
Also remember that pesto works beautifully as a summertime pizza sauce!
Do you love pesto? Do you have any tips or tricks for making it or using it? Let us know in the comments and please share this post by clicking on a social media icon below!