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Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006 03:38 pm

The pesto pinch

Pureeing huge piles of basil leaves has to bring about good karma

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Hailstorms recently pounded northern Italy, and, as a result, much of the country’s basil crop was obliterated, making the preparation of pesto, the beloved summer herb purée, impossible. The area close to Genoa, long considered basil’s mecca, was particularly affected, an act of Mother Nature that inevitably will throw pesto off restaurant menus in that part of Italy.

An Italian summer without pesto is like a day without Chianti. I really didn’t understand the concept of pesto alla Genovese until I went to a small town in the Cinque Terre and sat down with a bowl of gnocchi bathing in a puddle of pesto. I remember eating each potato pillow one by one so I could savor the green sauce and imprint its intense flavor, perfume, and emerald-green color on my memory bank.

As multilayered as it is, pesto is an elementary sauce to prepare, requiring little more than a food processor and about 15 minutes. It’s this time of year when backyard gardeners complain of too much basil and not enough mouths to feed. Given Italy’s basil-challenged circumstances, I propose making the most of your basil harvest and whizzing up as much pesto as possible in an act of Italo-culinary solidarity. Call it Basil-Aid, Pesto for Peace, Hands Across Gnocchi.

Pureeing huge piles of basil leaves has to bring about good karma. Your kitchen will smell lusciously redolent, and the neighbors will love the gift, your pasta will soar to a new level, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll run into an Italian. Although purist about their pesto (it must come from Liguria to be authentic), Italians live for passion and will appreciate the passion you’ve inspired by spreading basil love on the other side of the Atlantic.

Contact Kim O’Donnel at kim.odonnel@creativeloafing.com

Basil Pesto
Adapted from James McNair’s Favorites, by James McNair

Word of advice: Taste all of your ingredients before making the pesto. If your oil or nuts are rancid, the pesto will taste off.

2 cups basil leaves (Genovese basil is recommended)
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon garlic (at least one clove, maybe two)
1/2 cup extravirgin olive oil
3/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (variation: Pecorino Romano)
Coarse salt
Options: Substitute almonds or walnuts for pine nuts. Substitute parsley, mint, or cilantro (or a combination) for basil

Combine basil, nuts, and garlic in a food processor. While the machine is running, gradually add the oil until everything is well blended.

Transfer to a bowl and add cheese. Taste for salt. Can be used on the spot or refrigerated for a few days, covered. If you’re going to freeze, omit the cheese and add it after the pesto thaws.

Use a few tablespoons for each pound of pasta.

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