When I was growing up, my parents insisted on family dinners nearly every night of the week, no matter how late E3 and I got finished with our extracurricular activities. As we got older, dance and piano practices went later and later, meaning dinner was often pushed to after 9pm, but as soon as everyone was home, we’d all sit down and catch up over a home-cooked meal. Those thirty minutes of family time every night are some of my favorite memories of my childhood, and not just because of all the joking that went on around our round kitchen table.
My mom made dinner most nights. She is a good cook, although she doesn’t enjoy it the way I do. With rare exception, everything she put on the table was fantastic. Chicken divan, smothered pork chops, and corned beef were guaranteed hits with everyone, but my favorite was one of the few vegetarian meals she made: pasta with pesto, tomatoes and Parmesan. I just loved the combination of pasta, basil pesto, sweet tomatoes, and cheese. It wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it was delicious, and my mom made it often because she knew how I loved it.
As I said, my mom is a good cook. But she isn’t always a scratch cook. She makes most things fresh, but when it comes to sauces, she usually goes for a jar. That pesto I loved so much is mass-produced. I continued to buy it into adulthood, not even imagining that I could make my own until I was well into my twenties. When I bought myself a food processor six years ago, pesto was one of the first things I made. I quickly ditched the storebought variety, and have been hooked on the homemade stuff ever since.
Homemade Basil Pesto is delightfully quick and easy, and has a much brighter and more intense basil flavor than anything you’ll find in the grocery store. Start by putting two cups of fresh basil leaves, 1/3 cup each of pine nuts and Parmesan cheese, and two cloves of minced garlic into a food processor. You could certainly use whole garlic cloves, but I find that mincing them ahead of time guarantees that the final product won’t have any large pieces it it. I love pesto, but I don’t love biting into big chunks of raw garlic!
While processing the basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, and garlic, stream in a combination of olive oil and lemon juice. The olive oil is what makes the pesto saucy and rich, and the lemon adds just a touch of brightness and acidity. As the liquid ingredients whirl with the basil, pine nuts, cheese, and garlic, a thick, bright green sauce will form. All that’s left to do is blitz in some salt and pepper!
Basil Pesto is great just about anywhere you can think to use it. Try it as a sauce for pizza, serve it over grilled chicken, spread it onto a halved loaf of bread and crisp it in the oven. Seriously, this stuff is good on everything. My favorite way to eat pesto is the same as it’s always been: tossed with pasta, topped with tomatoes, and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
1/3 cup olive oil
juice of one medium lemon
2 cups basil leaves, packed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup pine nuts*
1/3 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
For Pesto Pasta:
1 lb small pasta, cooked to al dente, drained
1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking liquid
1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in half
freshly-grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
In a measuring cup, combine olive oil and lemon juice.
Combine basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese in the bowl of a food processor or high-powered blender. While processing, stream olive oil-lemon mixture through the food processor’s feed tube. Process until a thick, bright green sauce forms. Add salt and pepper and process until well-distributed. Store pesto in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
To make pesto pasta, combine pasta and pesto in a large pot and fold them together with a large spoon. Add 2 tablespoons of the pasta cooking liquid and fold again. Add more cooking liquid by the tablespoon, until the desired consistency has been reached. Serve pasta in bowls. Top with halved grape tomatoes and additional Parmesan cheese, if desired.
Walnuts or unsalted sunflower seeds may be substituted for pine nuts.