Some like it hot, some like it cold. A chili basil pesto is both in one bite. One for those who can take the heat.
It didn’t take much devising. The ingredients were staring me in the face as I glanced up from my dawn espresso on the decking; a hideaway that’s a natural shady gazebo hewn out of overgrown Bougainvillea and Plumbago. It’s a perfect spot to enjoy the slight coolness and peace of early morning before the heat of yet another Mediterranean summer day. I saw the herbs intertwined. Chilis and basil growing in profusion but now being munched overnight by pests unknown. Time to harvest before I don’t get a look in.
Everyone has their own version of a traditional pesto, and even if we all follow the same recipe, our pestos (pesti?) would taste different. Their are so many types of basil for starters; large-leaf Genovese is a favourite for pesto as it has a strong and somewhat spicy flavour. Napolitano is another pesto-maker’s joy as flavour aside, its gargantuan size means you don’t need the entire basil plant used up for one batch of pesto. But you could use Greek basil for a sweeter flavour; its smaller leaves make it look more like oregano. Purple basil would be interesting for colour. Here’s a good resource I came across on basil varieties. Then the oil you use and the soil your basil is grown on would also make a different to the flavour. And, the final point of difference: do you add Parmesan in the making or just grate on afterwards to the pesto dish?
Traditional pesto should be simply basil, pine nuts and quality extra virgin olive oil. Parmesan should be left out of the making if only because pesto keeps fresher longer without it mixed in. I am a purist so grate Parmesan or Grana on the dish later.
This year I gave up seeding basil in my homemade newspaper pots and simply strew the seeds on the open soil, lightly covering them and protecting them from the cat with a wicker fence. It was a slower start but the plants grew just fine. I’ve been picking some for garnishing and the inevitable Caprese salads, but now it’s high time to cut the entire patch for some serious pesto making. Thankfully, pesto freezes very well so I needn’t worry about eating it up in a week. Use ice cubes trays, then decant the pesto cubes into bags. And with lots of pesto cubes now in stock as we edge slowly to summer’s end, I come to the other part of this post’s title: the various uses for pesto which go far beyond pasta sauce. I’ve listed my favourite 10 uses of pesto below.
And, pesto needn’t be basil based. Use capers, mint, chard, spinach or other deep green herbs and leafy veg as the main base, along with a variety of nuts from almonds and walnuts to cashews. Try a bit of vinegar, balsamic or red/white wine, mixed in the the oil for a tarter flavour. I love basil, but when those frozen cubes run out in early winter, and I yearn for pesto, I simply experiment. So versatile a ‘sauce’ to have around is pesto.
Red Bistro top 10 pesto uses
1. Quiche – dollop a few teaspoons on the top before baking or mix in with the eggs and milk
2. Fish – pep up steak fish by smearing on before baking or grilling. Fish pie – put some pesto not grated cheese on the potato topping before baking
3. Pizza (a) – dollop on to the mozzarella before and after baking
4. Pizza (b) – use pesto instead of a tomato sauce base for a crisper pizza (see my Gozo-style pizza recipe)
5. Focaccia, ciabatta, BBQ flat breads – add a tablespoon of pesto to the dough making stage or on top at baking stage.
6. Dips – pesto as one of a tris of starter dips
7. Baste BBQ meats or smear on meats after roasting (oven or BBQ)
8. Toasted sandwiches – spread on inside (a tbsp) or outside (a mere hint) of bread depending on whether you use a closed toastie maker or not.
9. Potatoes - toss in pesto and roast to serve as a side, or place pesto-tossed, ultra-thin potato slices on baking paper and roast up homemade chips / crisps
10. Grilled vegetable salad – toss 1cm slices of summer vegetables (peppers, aubergines, zucchini…) in pesto and griddle..and an
11th way! A tablespoon dolloped onto rustic soups, like the French do with their Provencal Pistou soup.
5 Alternative Pesto Recipes to try
Extra virgin olive oil in all.
1. Ruccola, radicchio & pine nuts
2. Parsley, fennel seeds, walnuts
3. Mint, lemon zest, pine nuts
4. Sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts
5. Chard leaves or spinach, cashews, fennel tops
Chili Basil Pesto
Makes around 300g jar
3 large handfuls of fresh basil leaves
2 medium, red chilis
100gm pine nuts (quality ones, with no black ends)
180ml extra virgin olive oil, best quality
pinch sea salt and a twist of freshly-milled black pepper
Parmesan to sprinkle on your pesto dish after
a few stripes of chili to garnish
1. Wash and spin or pat gently dry the fresh basil. Remove the leaves and place in a food processor.
2. Wash and split the chilis to remove the seeds. Chop roughly and add to the processor bowl.
3. Place pine nuts in the processor and then blitz up pulsing to begin with, then on speed one and two, until the the mix is in small bread crumb size.
4. Turn on the blender or processor again, on speed one, and drizzle the oil in through the top opening in the lid, slowly and steadily, until the pesto is runny but not too liquid. You may not need all the olive oil. The required consistency depends on what you intend to use the pesto for – dips and spreading need thicker pesto, dough and basting need runnier pesto. See list of uses above for ideas.
5. Place in sterilised lidded jars and keep in the fridge (ideally use within a week) or freeze in ice cube trays, then bag up and keep frozen ready to defrost the pesto in small amounts as required.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013