Monday, 21 May 2007

Pesto mesto

There are many various ways of making pesto, but I had to register an objection to this one from the bloggers at Serious Eats of all people.

In the first place, Reggiano is far too expensive and too subtle a cheese to be used in pesto. Cost may not matter to the kind of foodies who write and read food blogs, who think costlier is better, but it makes a difference to most people, and it's a good principle that you don't throw good ingredients away for nothing. Especially when you see what's coming next. Gran padano is perfectly good, as is a generic pecorino, which as a sheep's cheese is better for some people.

Now check out this step:
2. In a saucepan, boil 3 quarts water. Add garlic to water; cook for 30 seconds. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon. Add the basil; cook 15 seconds. Remove basil with a skimmer; place in ice water, and cool about 1 minute. Drain well, and squeeze excess water out of basil leaves.

WTF? Boil your garlic? Why? Boil your basil? Are you fucking nuts? Does everyone know what happens when you plunge green leaves into boiling water for 15 seconds? That's right, they wilt. They lose their crispness and their colour, so goodbye any texture and taste that pesto may have had.

It keeps on getting worse:
3. Add basil and garlic to a food processor; chop. Transfer to a blender; blend on high while adding olive oil in a thin stream while the machine is blending. Add the Parmigiano; process until blended. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, processing briefly to mix.

This is disastrous advice. No matter how little time your blender is running, your garlic and basil are going to be an emulsion by the time you've added your oil. And it is simply a very bad idea indeed to process cheese in this way. Cheese should never be attacked with a blender or food-processor because the structure is destroyed and you end up with what looks like a huge ball of used chewing gum weeping fat.

In the last step, you're advised to add your pine nuts whole to the dish you're preparing. Another mistake, but not nearly as egregious as what went before.

My ideal method for making pesto is to pummel the garlic and pesto in a mortar with a pestle (it's where the name came from) but that's time-consuming. If you're in a rush blitz the leaves and garlic for as little time as possible with a wand-mixer and a small amount of oil. You should still be seeing tiny pieces of garlic and leaf.

Dry-roast the pine nuts in a clean pan. Watch them like a hawk, because they go from being cold and white to being cremated in about half a second. But one roasted pine nut has twenty times the flavour of one raw. And if you're using the good ones (they're big and fat, unlike the emaciated cheaper ones that come from China) you'll be able to use less. Break the nuts up roughly: one of the easiest ways is to put them in a plastic sandwich bag and gently roll them with a pin. You want chunks, not puree.

Grate the cheese to the consistency you prefer: I do mainly a fine grate with about one-fifth on the biggest holes for a robust chewy texture. Mix it all together, check for salt (depends on the cheese) and add enough oil to give the flowiness you need. Some dishes need a sauce, for some others you're looking for more of a relish consistency.

Quantities are entirely up to you. Start off with about two fistfuls of leaves, then add garlic to taste, pine nuts for an accent, cheese for bulk. Use a good oil, but not necessarily the best. There are so many competing flavours that your finest Luccan extra-virgin is likely to be swamped anyway. I've always found coarse, sun-baked Sardinian and Corsican oils work well in pesto. Nothing too fine.

But no cheese in a blender, please. Ye Gods.

Above is a photo of what a good rough pesto should look like. See how you can still see what's in it.