Right now, in the dead of winter, it’s hard to be a vegetarian. In the summer, it’s too easy to walk to the farmers’ market and be inspired by each piece of fruit or vegetable in at least nine different ways. Sometimes, it seems like there’s just not enough time in August to actually cook.
Autumn isn’t difficult because of the root vegetables, and spring brings new, unexpected delights like the first asparagus and lettuce.
But January is just tough and there seems too little in the way of options for local, fresh produce. So that’s when I turn to the freezer.
One of my favorite tricks is the frozen pesto that keeps giving all year long. An ice tray full of the cube-sized morsels of vibrant green are the perfect serving size to pop out when you need just a small amount.
I have to admit, growing basil here at almost 8,000 feet isn’t something I’ve figured out yet either, but at least there’s an abundance of it at the market. Even now in January, it’s plentily available at the grocery store and for things like homemade pesto, the more you make at one time, the easier it is in three weeks to find a quick meal.
Pesto originated in Genoa, Italy. If you’ve spent any time on the Ligurian Sea, then drinking pinot grigio and dining on fresh pesto pasta should be a familiar experience to you. The word literally means “pressed” or “crushed” in Italian, and that’s a simple and exact summation of what happens to the five main ingredients: basil, olive oil, garlic, nuts and cheese.
These days a food processor makes the whole thing easier, but pesto bona fides will swear by a mortar and pestle. If you lack both, a good knife will do the job.
Sometimes people are scared of pesto because of its high fat content, but I think as a culture we’re learning there are good fats and bad fats — healthy nuts and olive oil happen to fall on the good side (in moderation). If you forego the cheese, pesto is vegan.
The pine nuts can be substituted with walnuts to offset costs, and I’ll throw in spinach or arugula with the basil to even out the taste a bit. After you’ve nailed down the basic recipe, there are several variations — cilantro, sun-dried tomato and parsley — that all serve different purposes.
Obviously pesto is great on pasta, but throw it on pizza or sandwiches for a twist, drizzle over grilled vegetables for an added kick, or use alone as a dipping sauce for flat bread.
2 cups of fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried
1/2 to 1 clove of garlic
2 tablespoons of pine nuts
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan
Combine all of the ingredients in food processor or by hand. Add more olive oil if you prefer a thinner mixture. Continue to process until it’s a puree.
This recipe can be multiplied to produce larger, storable quantities, and alter the ingredient measurements to taste.