As you can probably gather by now, I derive great joy from cooking. Almost nothing gets in the way of my reveling in the preparation of a good meal: whether it’s cooked in an unusually small kitchen, it’s a dinner for picky eaters or it’s made with limited ingredients, I like the challenge! Note, however, the word almost. This is because, on a yearly basis, my desire to cook begins to wane with the arrival of summer, or rather, the unbearably hot summer in Rome.
My apartment has no air-conditioning (most apartments here in Rome do not have it, actually.) At home in the summer I tend to spend most of my time parked in front of my trusty electric fan, which unfortunately is little comfort in the sometimes 90-plus degree heat. In these conditions, whipping up a cake does not seem quite so inviting, stirring risotto over a hot stove for a half hour seems impossible and roasting anything in the oven seems just plain unbearable. I always reach a point where I think that subsisting on gelato – preferably purchased and consumed in a gelateria with air-conditioning – is the only way to survive the season.
This recipe for basil pesto, however, is one that saves me every summer. For those of you unfamiliar with pesto – from the Italian verb pestare, which means to crush – it is an uncooked sauce made of basil, parmesan, olive oil and pine nuts. It comes from Genoa, in the Liguria region of Italy. It perfectly showcases ever-abundant summer basil, is extremely flavorful and quick to make and, best of all, requires just a whirl or two in the food processor – no heat needed! Pesto is traditionally served over pasta (just a few minutes of boil time to cook the pasta – avoid standing over the pasta pot as much as possible to stay cool!) It is good over cold pasta as well, and is delicious served with grilled chicken or fish, or spread on toasted bread as an appetizer.
The traditional pesto recipe uses pine nuts, but since they can be a bit pricey, you could also substitute walnuts. Once you are comfortable with this traditional recipe, you could also mix and match the herb and nut combination; pistachio pesto (common in Sicily,) arugula pesto and even sundried tomato pesto are great too.
Basil Pesto Recipe
1 garlic clove, peeled
2 cups (40 grams, or two large bunches) fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup (28 grams) toasted pine nuts or walnuts
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2–3/4 cup (50–75 grams) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (56 grams) grated parmesan
Process the garlic, basil leaves, pine nuts, salt and pepper in the food processor, pulsing until finely chopped. As the food processor is going, pour in the olive oil slowly. The pesto should be thick but smooth; if it seems a bit too thick, you can add a little more oil to achieve the desired consistency. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the 1/2 cup of parmesan. This makes enough pesto for about 1 pound (448 grams) of pasta, which is enough to serve 4–6 people. Note that you can keep pesto in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, covered; drizzle a little bit of olive oil on top of the pesto to keep it from discoloring.