Pesto prep

Variations on a theme: Let the concept behind making pesto lead you in a thousand directions simply by changing the ingredients. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

Incredibly, there really was a time before pesto. When I was growing up back in the 19th ... well, never you mind ... we never saw it. We'd never even heard of it. Nowadays, though, it's as common as mud. Beautiful, delicious, bright green mud. Let's go make some.

Why you need to learn this

As I've said exactly one gajillion times, knowing how to cook means understanding ingredients and having a working familiarity with the methods and techniques of cooking.

Today we're making a traditional pesto, but let the concept behind its manufacture lead you in a thousand directions simply by changing the ingredients.

The steps you take

Pesto is associated with the port city of Genoa, Italy, though it has a close relative called "pistou" in southern France. The concept is fairly simple: Fresh herbs (originally basil) are ground with garlic and pine nuts, then the mash is enriched with extra-virgin olive oil and grated cheese, typically Parmesan.

Traditionally, pesto is made in a mortar, where the ingredients are ground with a pestle. In fact, the name of the sauce shares a common root with the name of the grinding implement, both coming from a Latin word meaning to "pound" or "crush."

Most of us aren't getting any younger, though, and would just as soon avoid the pounding and the crushing: behold, the food processor or blender. But just so you know, grinding the basil leaves with a mortar and pestle breaks them down and releases their flavor in a fashion that is different from whirring them in a food processor. Not better, necessarily, just different. You be the judge.

One quick note about ingredients: Pesto is usually a basil-based sauce. There's no reason, though, this being America and all, where we do what we darn well please, that we can't change things up a little and experiment with our ingredients. Any fresh herb will do, really, although some more strongly flavored herbs, such as sage, thyme or oregano, should be added sparingly to a base amount of parsley (like basil, another relatively mild herb). Start with a few leaves, then add more to taste.

Instead of pine nuts, try walnuts or almonds or any other kind of nut you like. (Pine nuts, by the way, are not really nuts like a walnut or hazelnut. They're the seeds of any of a number of species of pine trees. We call them "nuts" because of their similarity in appearance and texture to other types of nut.)

And finally, instead of Parmesan, try any other hard grating cheese.

For our purposes today, I'll lead you through a fairly traditional concoction. As to amounts of each ingredient, if you look at a thousand recipes for pesto, you'll find a thousand different ratios of basil to garlic to oil, etc. What that tells you is that there is no "right" way to do it. All you have to keep in mind is that the sauce ideally is a rich, garlicky basil mixture, as opposed to, say, a basil-y garlic mixture or a basil and garlic-flavored olive oil. In other words, the amounts are not copied off Moses' stone. If you think it needs more or less garlic (or cheese or oil), go for it.

1. Pulse a couple of cups of washed and dried basil leaves in your food processor along with two or three peeled garlic cloves, 2 to 4 tablespoons of pine nuts, a teaspoon of kosher salt (its coarseness helps grind the ingredients) and about a cup of extra-virgin olive oil. Scrape down the sides and keep pulsing until it's a smooth paste.

2. Scrape paste into a bowl, then mix in about a cup of grated Parmesan cheese (or a mix of Parmesan and pecorino Romano).

3. Use immediately or keep it in the fridge, covered with a thin layer of olive oil. Alternately, you can omit the cheese and freeze it in an ice cube tray. When you thaw it, work in the cheese and use it as you would fresh pesto.

Put to use

Though the obvious choice is to toss pesto with pasta or boiled potatoes, here are a few other ideas, regardless of your herb of choice.

Grilled meats: Thin pesto with extra-virgin olive oil or just whisk it into a simple vinaigrette and spoon over grilled meats, fish or tofu.

Sandwiches: Stir a spoonful into some mayonnaise to liven up any sandwich, or use as a base for sandwich spreads such as chicken, tuna or egg salad.

Salad dressings: Whisk pesto into a basic vinaigrette or mayonnaise to dress green, potato or pasta salads.

Butter: Whisk equal amounts of pesto and softened butter and use for corn on the cob, baked potatoes or steamed green vegetables.

Quick red sauce: Pulse a can of plum tomatoes in your food processor, then bring to a boil. Remove from heat, stir in a couple of spoonfuls of pesto and serve over pasta, chicken or fish.

Coming next month
James P. DeWan's columns, already available in an e-book format (available at chicagotribune.com/ebooks), will be published Oct. 15 as a print book by Agate and the Chicago Tribune. "Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques" will be a compilation of the best columns on cooking technique and methods published in Good Eating over the past eight years.