Pascale's Kitchen: Pesto, pesto and more pesto

Pesto, a classic Italian dish based on basil leaves, is extremely versatile.

Pesto is a classic Italian dish based on basil and pine nuts.  (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
Pesto is a classic Italian dish based on basil and pine nuts.
(photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)
For decades, I’ve been trying out new cooking methods and peeking into other people’s kitchens to see how they prepare food. What I’ve found is that everyone has at least one special signature dish that they prepare in a unique way and that is really excellent. It usually ends up being a basic dish, which serves to set the tone for that person’s cooking style.
For example, when people hear the word “pilpelchuma,” they usually associate it with Tripolitan cuisine; s’hug goes with Yemenite cuisine; chimichurri with Argentina; harisa with Tunisia; charmoula with Moroccan; horseradish with Ashkenazi (Europe); garam masala with India; Baharat with Iraq, etc.
And, of course, when people hear the word “pesto,” they immediately think of Italian cuisine. Pesto is a special sauce/spread that is made from basil, garlic and olive oil. The best way to get the most flavor from basil leaves is by crushing them. There are a number of different types of pesto: pepper pesto, artichoke pesto, dried tomato pesto and olive pesto, to name a few.
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Classic pesto (pesto Genovese) is made from basil and pine nuts, and is considered the highest-quality pesto. Genoa (known as Genova in Italian), the capital of the Liguria region, is located in northern Italy.
I loved discovering all of the dishes and pastries that are made with pesto. Pesto can be found in a large number of Italian dishes, especially those that are prepared in the Genoa area.
The basic version, as well as many of the other versions, are based on basil leaves. Some versions also incorporate mint leaves, cilantro, thyme, and other types of basil. Pine nuts can also be swapped out and replaced with cashews, walnuts or hazelnuts.
For the classic version, it’s best to crush the basil leaves with a mortar and pestle since that brings out the best flavor. If you’re preparing a large amount, however, it might make more sense for you to use a food processor or an immersion blender. You should blend the basil in short pulses so that you can achieve the desired texture and don’t overmix it. It’s best to leave some pieces and not make it too creamy.
When you’re done preparing the pesto, I recommend pouring it into a jar and then pouring olive oil on top, which will prevent oxidation and keep it from turning black. If you’ve decided to prepare a large amount of pesto, I recommend storing it in small packages in the freezer.
Pesto has an extremely unique flavor, which can sometimes overwhelm the other flavors of a dish. Therefore, you should be careful to use only the minimum amount you need to make a dish flavorful.
Pesto goes nicely with roasted vegetables, cheese and also meat dishes. What’s great about pesto is that you can alter the ingredients, and each time you will end up with a unique flavor.
The first recipe below is for the simple, classic version of pesto. It’s quite simple to prepare, and you will quickly find yourself filling an entire jar with this gorgeous spread which can turn any regular dish into something spectacular.
The second recipe is for pesto pasta, for which you can use any pasta shape you fancy. Just prepare the pasta as usual and then add the pesto sauce before serving. The third recipe is for pesto bread, which is a wonderful and fabulous addition to any festive meal, or a regular weekday meal served with fresh salads and cheese.
I usually double this recipe and use half of it as is, and to the other half I add Parmesan cheese. This way I have pesto sauce ready for both meat and dairy meals.
Makes 1 small jar.
1 bunch of fresh basil, without stems
2 garlic cloves
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup walnuts or pine nuts, roasted
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Blend the basil leaves in a blender. While mixing, gradually add the rest of the ingredients. Mix until well blended. Store in the fridge.
Level of difficulty: Medium.
Time: 120 minutes.
Status: Parve.
A hearty bowl of pesto pasta is a wonderful thing. (Photo: Pascale Perez-Rubin)A hearty bowl of pesto pasta is a wonderful thing. (Photo: Pascale Perez-Rubin)
Sometimes you can make tasty foods that are easy and quick to prepare. It’s oftentimes not necessary to spend a lot of time in the kitchen in order to prepare great dishes. This colorful pasta dish is a great example of that. When you’re in a hurry, all you have to do is add a spoonful or two of this sauce to your pasta and you have a fancy and tasty meal.
Makes 6 servings.
1 bag (500 gr.) pasta (any type will do) made from wheat, whole wheat or gluten-free flour
1-2 Tbsp. olive oil (or butter, if you’re making a dairy meal)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1-2 heaping Tbsp. homemade or store-bought pesto sauce (or more, depending on amount of pasta)
½ cup pine nuts, fresh or roasted
¼ cup small basil leaves
Prepare pasta according to package directions. Drain the pasta and transfer to a bowl. Add olive oil, salt and pepper and mix well.
Add pesto sauce, mix. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Serve in deep bowls. Sprinkle pine nuts and basil leaves on top.
Level of difficulty: Easy.
Time: 20 minutes.
Status: Parve (or dairy, if you use butter).
Pesto bread is a novel way to enjoy this Italian classic.  (Photo: Pascale Perez-Rubin)Pesto bread is a novel way to enjoy this Italian classic. (Photo: Pascale Perez-Rubin)
You can make this bread dairy by using butter and milk, or parve by using margarine and nondairy milk. Both versions are very tasty.
Use a wonder pot (an Israeli invention for baking on top of a gas stove rather than in an oven).
230 gr. butter
½ cup milk
3 cups flour
3 Tbsp. sugar
50 gr. fresh yeast
¼ cup water, at room temperature
3 egg yolks
¼ tsp. salt
1 jar of homemade or store-bought pasta
1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp. water
100 gr. pine nuts or walnuts, ground
Heat the butter and milk in a pan until butter melts. Remove from the flame and let cool for a minute.
Sift 2½ cups of flour into a large bowl. Add the sugar and mix. Sprinkle yeast on top and mix. Add the water and egg yolks and mix.
Add the melted butter and milk and mix with a wooden spoon. Knead with your hands or mix with an electric mixer fitted with a dough attachment. While mixing, gradually add the rest of the flour. Just before it’s done mixing, add the salt.
Transfer the dough to a greased bowl and sprinkle flour on top. Cover with a towel and place the bowl in the fridge overnight. In the morning, take out the dough and let it sit on the counter until it reaches room temperature.
Separate the dough into two sections and roll out each section on a floured work surface into a 30 cm. x 50 cm. rectangle.
Spread the pesto on top of the rectangles and then roll them up, starting with the side closest to you. Place the rolled-up dough on a greased baking sheet with the open part facing down.
Slice the dough logs into pieces that are 1.5 cm. wide and arrange them on the baking pan with the filling facing up.
Beat the egg yolk with the water, and brush the egg wash on the dough pieces. Sprinkle pine nuts on top and then cover with a towel. Let them rise for another two hours, then bake for 1 hour in an oven that has been preheated to 180° until they turn golden brown.
Level of difficulty: Medium.
Time: 90 minutes + overnight.
Status: Dairy (or parve if you use margarine and nondairy milk).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.