Spicy Basil Pesto

Basil pesto is something I look forward to making each spring and summer. It's a super basic dish that can be remixed in an unlimited number of ways. The challenge I've had is that my pesto often ends up having a muddy green color. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that it occurred to me to ask The Google for some advice. Sure enough there's a way to maintain basil's beautiful color, and it's all about the chemistry.

It turns out that blanching basil not only makes it bright green, but it also helps preserve that beautiful color during processing. I may write a longer article about enzymes and freezing green food, but for now just know that science is your friend.

Useless Facts

  • Basil is a legit superfood. The level of flavonoids, or antioxidants, is higher than in spinach and broccoli. If flavonoids don't get you excited I don't know what will. In addition, it's suggested that the volatile oils in basil help fight bacteria, chronic diseases, and viruses, as well as lower blood pressure. So go stick a bunch of basil in your mouth stat.
  • The word "pesto" comes from "pestare", which means to crush or grind, as with a pestle. I make pesto in the food processor, but purists feel that to truly mash up the oils and flavor a mortar and pestle is the way to go. I agree with the traditional approach but I'm also a little lazy.
  • Pesto made its first formal appearance in the 1860 cookbook, "La Cuciniera Genovese", which came out of the Liguria region of northern Italy. Traditional Pesto Genovese is very specific in that it includes Genovese basil, garlic, Italian pine nuts, Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, and Ligurian extra-virgin olive oil. In 2011 the Pesto alla Genovese consortium was founded to establish the rules and guidelines for this dish. Italians do not mess around when it comes to their cheese, wine, and pasta. They're good people.

Recipe

Make sure the blanched basil is as dry as you can get it. I slacked on this with my first batch and it ended up with a watery texture.

Basil pesto is much better after setting up in the refrigerator so I recommend making it the day before.

Tools

Fresh Basil at Schaner Farms - Santa Monica Farmers Market

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces fresh basil leaves (about 2 packed cups give or take, that's why I use ounces)
  • 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 5 walnuts
  • 2 tsp minced green garlic (about 2 bulbs) Note: If you can't find green garlic just sub 1 regular garlic clove, but be sure to toast it with the skin on to soften the flavor. I've also used 1 tsp of roasted garlic + 1/2 tsp of raw garlic and that was delicious. Garlic is a matter of taste so experimenting helps.
  • 1/2 tsp flake-style salt
  • A few cranks of freshly ground pepper (to taste)
  • 3 tbsp Chili Oil
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • Optional: 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes from the Chili Oil Note: Rob and I like spicy food so I add this extra layer of heat.
  • 1/4 cup finely gated Parmigiano Reggiano Note: If you plan to freeze this sauce, I recommend adding the parm after you defrost it. Cheese and dairy don't always freeze quite right.

Instructions

Blanching

  • Set up a bowl of ice and water.
  • Boil some water in a sauce pan, then blanch your washed basil for 10-15 seconds.
  • Quickly transfer to the ice bath, then drain and spread the basil in an even layer on some paper towels.
  • Dry the basil thoroughly.

Walnuts

  • In a small pan, toast the walnuts over medium heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
  • Set aside to cool.

Pesto

  • Add the walnuts, basil, minced garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon juice to your food processor and pulse until the texture is somewhat even.
  • While the food processor is running, pour the oil through the opening, scraping down the sides a few times.
  • Transfer to a BPA-free storage container, stir in the parmesan, add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Before putting the lid on, lay a small piece of plastic wrap on the top of the pesto to minimize oxidization or drizzle with a bit of olive oil.
  • Store in the refrigerator overnight to marry the flavors.

Serving Suggestions

This recipe works best with 8 oz of pasta (3 tbsp of pesto/4 oz pasta). It should be noted that the pasta in these photos only had 2 tbsp of pesto/4oz, so your dish should be even greener.

Storage

Pesto freezes beautifully or you can store it in the refrigerator for 1-2 days in an airtight container.

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