Summer is on the way at last and the days are getting longer. In the early evening, if friends drop by it will soon be warm enough to be out on the deck leisurely sipping a glass of wine and enjoying some pre dinner snacks.
Two of my favourites snacks are made with pesto, a classical Italian sauce. Freshly made pesto is more fragrant and tastes so much better than that out of a jar from the supermarket.
Traditionally it was made by grinding the herbs with garlic, nuts and coarse salt with a pestle against the sides of a mortar, a laborious task. Purists may still want to do it that way but in the food processor it only takes a few seconds to reduce all the ingredients into a smooth and silky sauce.
The secret of making a good pesto is to use a good olive oil and nuts which are fresh so it’s best to avoid those from the bulk bins. Stale or rancid nuts will spoil it. Lightly toasting the nuts improves the flavour.
The green herbs, the olive oil and the nuts in pesto all add up to a healthy food. Macadamias are rich in monounsaturated fats, Brazils in selenium, almonds have healthy unsaturated fats and walnuts are the omega-3 nut.
Pesto Genovese (the original pesto) is made with basil and pine nuts but there are lots of other possible combinations. Green herbs such as mint, parsley, coriander and rocket can be used and baby spinach. Different nuts also give different flavours.
I made several batches of pesto this weekend. We did a tasting of 3 kinds of basil pesto made with Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts and almonds. The Brazil nut pesto was the favourite with a good texture and flavour. The macadamia pesto also appealed, it was smoother but a little oilier. The almond pesto would have been better if I had skinned the nuts first. The texture was a little rough. I also made a walnut pesto with rocket instead of basil which resulted in a peppery flavour. A squeeze of lemon juice enhanced it.
Any leftover pesto won‘t go to waste. It keeps well in the fridge for a week or so with a splash of olive oil over the top to keep it from drying out. Store it in a tightly sealed container. If you want to keep it longer you can freeze pesto in an ice cube tray.
One snack I often make is based on a recipe from BBC Good Food by Rick Stein. He cuts puff pastry into little squares and spreads each with pesto. First a half cherry tomato goes on top followed by a little more pesto ,a fine asparagus spear, a sprinkle of grated parmesan and a dribble of olive oil. Then he seasons them well with rock salt and pepper and bakes them in a hot oven slightly spread apart so they have room to puff up) for about 5-8 minutes until the pastry is golden and the cheese has melted.
Instead of asparagus I use whatever there is in the fridge at the time such as thinly sliced mushrooms or sliced yellow pepper or a sliver of bacon or may garnish each square with finely chopped basil once baked.
Here is the basic recipe I used and its nutty variations. It makes a moist pesto which is how I like it. Decrease the amount of oil if you want a firmer mixture. Do experiment further by substituting different herbs or nuts.
2 cloves of garlic finely chopped
¼ cup of a good olive oil.
About a dozen nuts (brazil/macadamias/walnuts/ almonds)
3 cups of basil leaves
4 tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan
A squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
Rock salt and black pepper to taste.
Put the garlic, nuts and basil in the food processor and process briefly until these are finely chopped. Then start to gradually pour in the olive oil. You can add more or less depending on the consistency you want.
Scrape the mixture into a bowl, stir in the freshly grated parmesan, and season to taste.