In hot and humid Chicago summer days, when the AC is almost always on, (don’t remind me of the electricity bill), the last thing I want to do is spend the afternoon in the kitchen having the oven or stove on. I admit, I need an effort to become creative at whipping out dishes (decent ones, mind you) under one hour. I usually take refuge doing something on the grill, but there are days when I couldn’t bear the sight or smell of barbecued meat (as much as I love it!). So then, what do I do? Start by opening the fridge veggie bins for some inspiration. That quickly turns me off since sometimes all I find are some pathetic wilted scallions or forgotten half bell peppers. I am a very clumsy meal planner, so most of the time I have to improvise with what’s at hand. And oh look! What’s on our counter!! A beautiful bouquet of fresh basil that my brother in law brought over from his garden! My creative wheels start to turn. I open the freezer, there lies a package of walnuts. A jar of sun dried tomatoes in the fridge. Enough garlic to feed an army. I look at the clock – it’s 5:15 p.m. Heck, I might be able to pull it off too feed them for our religious 6 o’clock-dinner-on-the-table time. It’s Pesto!
I had the luck of tasting the real pesto in Cinque Terre on the northwest side of Italy (aka Liguria). That taste is ingrained in my brain like a tattoo, so unfortunately I compare every pesto to that. Liguria (precisely Genoa) is the birth place of the pesto sauce, having fresh basil, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano or the pungent Pecorino (my favorite), pine nuts as the main ingredients and olive oil to bring them all together.
But leaving all tradition aside, chances are that you could whip up a pretty decent pesto sauce capable of rivaling 5 star restaurants with only the ingredients you have available right now. You can also skip the mortar and pestle method of crushing pesto – although gosh it sure looks pretty cool. Just stick to your faithful processor. Specially if you only have 45 minutes until dinner with hungry kids jumping all over your china. Not a minute to spare.
Serves: 5 hungry adults (plus you can freeze half of the pesto for later use)
1 Lb rigatoni pasta (or home made pasta if you feel adventurous)
2 cups walnuts
3 garlic cloves (yeah, baby!)
5-6 sprigs of big leafy basil (or approx 2 stuffed cups with the basil leaves)
5-7 sun dried tomatoes halfs
2 oz Pecorino (or Parmiggiano-Reggiano)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
Lemon juice to taste
Get your largest pot going with boiling salted water, pour in your pasta and give it a stir immediately after that to be on happy terms with the Italian traditionalists (aka pasta won’t stick to the pot). Read the boiling time information on your pasta package and keep boiling until al dente (aka has a bite). I always fish one out and taste it – usually go about 2 minutes short of what the boiling time on the package say. Drain pasta and return it to pot, cover. And PLEASE, do not rinse your pasta EVER! You’ll loose all the precious starch on the pasta surface and your sauce will not stick to it!
While the pasta is boiling, in your processor combine the walnuts, garlic, basil leaves, sun dried tomatoes, the hard cheese, pepper, (salt not yet) and give them a spin until it forms a nice texture resembling coarse bread crumbs. Next, add the olive oil, lemon juice (it elevates the taste) and spin it a couple more times until smooth. Now taste and add salt only if needed, but usually the hard cheese can be pretty salty.
Add half of the pesto sauce to the cooked pasta and fold in gently until evenly spread. Pack the other half in a zip lock bag and freeze it. Done! Look at the clock – it is 5:50 – still time for a nice cup of wine. You are a hero!