I have a love affair with basil – and since it was once considered to be the world’s most noble and sacred plant, and the Italians claimed it was an aphrodisiac, I’d say my love of basil is well placed.
Give me a bouquet of fresh basil and I will drink in the aroma all day. I love it. It makes me happy!
Needless to say, my husband and I love pesto. The simple combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, cheeses (and sometimes pine nuts) gives any dish a powerful punch. It’s amazing what a few ingredients can do for a dish, right?
For the longest time, I’d just go to the store and buy a jar of pesto to toss in with our pasta or use to marinate our chicken. No biggie – or so I thought! Have you looked at the ingredients of store-bought pesto??
Basil, Soybean Oil, Garlic, Romano Cheese (Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Olive Oil, Spice, Salt, Lactic Acid, Torula Yeast, Citric Acid, Natural Flavors
Soybean oil? Torula yeast? Citric Acid? Natural Flavors? Shouldn’t the “natural flavors” be coming from the basil, garlic, and cheese?
I knew I could do better, so I combed through a lot of recipes and they seemed pretty simple. A few tweaks here, a few tweaks there, and we had ourselves some yummy, fresh from the garden pesto!
To begin, you will need:
2 cups (packed) basil leaves
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
2/3 cup olive oil
“splash” of lemon juice (I just did a quick squeeze of one half lemon)
salt and pepper to taste
(How simple is that? No weird-sounding yeast. No citric acid (the lemon takes care of that). And most definitely, no nasty soybean oil. That stuff is bad for you!)
To make it, place the first 5 ingredients into a food processor or blender and process until smooth. (I used my Magic Bullet and it worked just fine.) Add in salt and pepper to taste, then give it a few spins to incorporate into the pesto.
So easy and the taste is well worth the bit of time it takes to make!
I will note that my first batch was pretty bitter. I was sure I had messed up somewhere along the way. However upon digging, I discovered that it could be 1) your basil or 2) your olive oil. Since I had just used some of this basil for another dish, I knew it wasn’t bitter. That meant my culprit was the olive oil – granted, it was somewhat cheap, but it was brand new. So it had not gone rancid. That’s when I discovered this interesting tidbit from Cooks Illustrated:
“Extra-virgin olive oil contains bitter tasting polyphenols coated by fatty acids, which prevent them from dispersing. If the oil is emulsified in a food processor, these polyphenols get squeezed out and the liquid mix turns bitter.”
They say that with the extra ingredients in the pesto, that this shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. The bitterness was overpowering for me. So, how do you avoid bitter pesto? One way you can combat this is to put a small amount (1/4 cup or less) of water in with the ingredients (minus the olive oil), just enough to make a paste. Then, after processing, transfer the paste to a bowl and gently mix in the olive oil. The original way was with a mortar and pestle and a bowl, so it’s not too far off from the original process!
If however, you decide to mix it all in a food processor or blender and the pesto becomes bitter, it’s a pretty easy fix. Add a bit more salt and a bit of sugar until the bitterness goes away. I just added the salt and sugar until my first version was delightful again – and all was right with the world!
If you feel the need to use your pesto for more than dipping your bread in (and I admit, sometimes that’s ALL I want to do), try marinating your chicken or creating Pesto Rotini Chicken with Roasted Tomatoes.