A handful of times a week, someone will ask me, “Oh, you’re a food blogger! What are your favorite restaurants around here?” It’s been happening for a while now, so I’ve developed a standard, foolproof answer. It goes something like this: “Errrr, ummm, we don’t really — because I cook kind of a lot, and — if you like, well, there’s a totally decent sushi place, but — and this one time we went to that Italian joint with the lodge-y vibe and paid $23 for a glass of wine, so….” With any luck, by that point the frightened questioner will have backed away in small, studiously calm steps and joined a different conversation. This answer is foolproof in the sense that it provides proof of my foolishness as a food enthusiast and a human being.
Well. I may be an idiot, but I am an idiot with a scapegoat. And since my scapegoat is made of pulverized herbs (including scapes, in case you need a little closure in your life), the buck stops right there in the large mortar and pestle or bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachement.
The thing is, just like many of you, I’ve paid enough effortlessly obsessive attention to food and cooking in my lifetime that I know what I like, and I know how to cook it just the way I like it. I don’t mean that in a boastful way, believe me. If anything, it’s a big ol’ geek stamp on my dance card. It’s just that when I wake up dreaming of pesto, it’s not a half-assed, out-of-tune restaurant pesto on too much pasta that stirs me from slumber. It’s the pesto I’ve stayed at home on Friday nights tinkering with for years until it caresses each and every taste bud into a gentle state of euphoria. (At least I was getting some action, such as it was, on those lonely nights, right?) At any rate, the food we eat at home is generally a lot tastier and a lot less expensive than what we’d get at a run-of-the-mill restaurant where we live. So when we go out — which we do, I swear — it’s rarely to be divinely inspired by the quality of the food. It’s for friends, or for date night, or for convenient Cal-Mex tacos, or for my desperate, long-running addiction to decent sushi. (You can tell it’s a true addiction, too, because sushi hasn’t been chic for a decade.)
While I clearly can’t offer you a valid restaurant recommendation, what I can offer is My Perfect Pesto. In the spirit of My Perfect Oatmeal and My Perfect Guacamole, this is the pesto recipe that would be my Platonic Ideal of a pesto recipe if Platonic Ideal meant what I always want to think it means, even though I attended a fancy four-year college.
This is good old basil pesto, but with a few meaningful tweaks that really bring it to life. For one thing, it’s heavy on the nuts, and I use walnuts instead of pine nuts for two reasons. Most of all, I simply prefer the mellow nuttiness of walnuts in pesto over the assertive presence of pine nuts. Also, though, buying pine nuts these days is a real bitch and a half. Spend $11 per quarter pound for the real thing, or settle for blandness up front with a lingering aftertaste of metal from the cheap imitation? Thanks, but no.*
*2017 Update: I’m back to using pine nuts most of the time, but the intensity of that paragraph made me giggle, so I’m leaving it in. The recipe reflects both options.
Second, while regular garlic is a perfectly adequate choice, I really prefer the gentle bite and additional bulk of scapes in my pesto these days. If you can get your hands on some scapes, I’d recommend using them. Third, I always prefer to brighten up my pesto with a little lemon juice. And fourth, technically, we are all supposed to be using a mortar and pestle or mezzaluna instead of a food processor to make our pesto. But at the moment, to be honest, I’d gladly take a free half hour and a slightly more homogenized sauce instead of an intact sense of food snobbery and a few extra specks of hand-mashed basil in my teeth.
Lord knows I don’t need basil in my teeth to embarrass myself at this point in my life. I’ve got my little speech about restaurant recommendations for that.
Talk to you soon.
My Perfect Homemade Pesto
- 1/2 cup pine nuts or shelled walnut pieces
- 6 garlic scapes, cut into 1/2-inch segments OR 2 large garlic cloves
- 6 gently packed cups fresh basil leaves
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese
- Toast the walnuts in a small, dry pan over medium heat until they are fragrant and a little darker brown than they started out (3 to 5 minutes). Let cool slightly and pour into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment.
- Add the garlic scapes or cloves, basil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and process just until a thick paste forms. Stop to press any stray or stubborn basil leaves into the whirling action of the blade as necessary.
- With the motor running, pour the olive oil through the feed tube in a slow stream. Add the grated cheese to the bowl and process for a few seconds more to incorporate.
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