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Pesto chango: It’s not all about basil

by Amy Roby

When I was in college, I worked in a tiny, bustling restaurant that operated out of a refurbished trailer. I started in the back as a dishwasher, scrubbing pots, pans, plates, and utensils and occasionally bused tables. My duties eventually expanded to waiting on the 13 tables tucked into that snug space.

The restaurant’s owners were a husband and wife who devoted themselves to crafting their menu from scratch; everything from the salad dressings to entrees to desserts was made fresh onsite. From their modest kitchen flowed a steady stream of delectable dishes that belied the restaurant’s unassuming appearance and awakened my interest in cooking and straightforward, creative cuisine.

Working together in such close proximity gave me the privilege of observing the couple’s culinary process firsthand, and one of my favorite creations was their pesto sauce. They offered two varieties, depending upon the availability and season: basil and pine nut or spinach and walnut. Each offered a distinct flavor profile and filled the senses with a burst of bright green on the plate complemented by a heavenly, herbaceous fragrance.

My passion for pesto continues to this day, and each summer I try to cultivate basil (with varying degrees of success) in order to make big batches of it to enjoy and share. The thing I love about pesto is that it is so adaptable. Basil and pine nut is a classic version, but there’s plenty of room for interpretation and ingenuity when concocting this versatile and flavorful sauce.

This past weekend, my friends Susan and Hal gifted me an armload of arugula plucked fresh from their backyard garden: plenty enough to whip up a batch of sharp, peppery pesto.

I put about two and a half cups of the greens, rinsed thoroughly and blotted dry, into the food processor (a blender will also work). I tossed in three smallish cloves of garlic, a handful of cashews (the only nuts I had on hand), a few pinches of sea salt, and about 1/3 cup of parmesan cheese. I also added the zest of one lemon and a couple tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. As the processor blended everything together, I slowly poured in a thin stream of extra virgin olive oil, just enough to create a glossy, green paste.

Pesto goes great with pasta, of course, and is also a scrumptious addition to pizza and toast. It adds a wonderful depth when tossed with lightly steamed vegetables or spread on top of grilled meats; the only limit to its application is the imagination. If there happens to be any leftover, I’ll often spoon the pesto into ice cube trays and freeze it, in order to stock up and enjoy its fresh, summery flavors anytime.

Amy Roby can be reached at ranchosroundup@hotmail.com.