Pesto is the mint julep of the garden; there are as many ways to make it as there are cooks who do so. Many are variations on the basic recipe printed in Basil Part One (Diversions, July 19), but there are also exceedingly unconventional options, including one with cream cheese and without garlic. See table below.There are still more “nutty” variations, including pistachios and Brazil nuts “which are cheaper than pine nuts but work every bit as well,” according to Robert Farrar Capon, in the New York Times many years ago.
You can use pretty much the same method for all these variations, which are sized for one pound of linguini and yield four to six entrée servings. Start the pasta cooking first. Combine the herbs, garlic, nuts, grated cheese and any other dry ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely chopped. Then add the olive oil, process until smooth and season with salt and pepper if desired. Drain the cooked pasta (it will typically take 10 to 12 minutes), toss with three to four tablespoons of butter, add the sauce and serve immediately.
Another delightful exception to the basic formula comes from Giuliano Hazan’s newest cookbook, “Hazan Family Favorites.” He makes it without cheese, “to make it lighter and fresher,” he says.
Without the cheese, pesto can also be frozen. There is a lot to be said for capturing the amazing flavor of this favorite herb while it is garden-grown and abundant. It can be dried, but I don’t recommend it. Instead, preserve the leaves in oil or make basil vinegar. Basil butter is another option. Soften a pound of unsalted butter, and, using a palette knife or a small silicone spatula, work in a half of a cup of finely minced fresh basil (increase amount of basil for a more intense flavor). Stir in two tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, season with white pepper, if desired, then chill. When it firms up, form it into four logs or bricks, wrap individually and freeze.
You can make this flavored butter with any “soft” herb individually or in combinations.
A tablespoon will work magic on grilled poultry or fish or virtually any cooked vegetable. It is a wonderful thing to have on hand to instantly transform something plain into something special.
Giuliano Hazan’s Risotto with Pesto
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 medium clove garlic
3/4 cup fresh basil leaves (a bunch of basil weighing about 1 ounce)
1/4 cup pine nuts
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 medium yellow onion
1 3/4 cups rice for risotto (carnaroli, vialone nano or arborio)
• Peel the garlic and cut it in half. Put one-half in a food processor, along with the basil leaves, pine nuts, 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Run the processor until a fine, creamy mixture forms. Set the pesto aside.
• Put about 6 cups water and the remaining teaspoon of salt in a saucepan over medium-low heat.
• Peel and finely chop the yellow onion. Put it with the remaining two tablespoons olive oil in a 5- to 6-quart braising pan over medium-high heat. Sauté until the onion turns a rich golden color, about five minutes.
• While the onion is sautéing, finely chop the remaining half clove of garlic. When the onion is ready, add the garlic, sauté for another minute, then add the rice. Stir until it is well coated, then add about 1 cup of the hot water from the saucepan and continue stirring. Add only enough liquid to produce the consistency of a rather thick soup and wait until all the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Continue until the rice is al dente, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, stir in the pesto, and serve at once.
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