The Electric Green Basil Pesto Test

Anyone who knows me knows that:

  1. I love basil pesto
  2. I am not an elaborate cook

These points tend to cancel each other out. See, by the time I start thinking about what I want to eat, I'm already hungry. The idea of spending an hour or more preparing a nice meal—which I would then snarf down ravenously rather than enjoy—is a non-starter. I'd rather just make something quick, healthy, and halfway decent rather than put time, care, and effort I don't have into a meal I won't enjoy. The result is that I seem to have become a pretty reasonably short-order and stove-top cook, but the mysteries of the oven are largely unknown to me. I keep a good selection of fresh, rather generic ingredients on-hand, and improvise each meal according to whim, available time, and taste.

So I don't make a lot of basil pesto. And I don't buy basil pesto either. There are three main reasons:

  1. Store-bought pestos almost always contain parmesan and/or romano cheese, and never seem to be labelled to indicate whether those cheeses are made using animal rennet. (There is no labelling requirement that they do so.) Being a vegetarian—and now that I seem to be eating vegan more days than not—I pass.
  2. Store-bought pestos have an annoying tendency to contain walnuts. I don't like walnuts.
  3. Store-bought basil pestos are the wrong color.

What?! How can basil pesto be the wrong color? It's green! What other color could it be?!

See, I was spoiled. When I developed my taste for basil pesto, I had the good fortune to have had it made fresh by a knowledgeable cook using fresh basil. And the result was not just green: it was bright, shocking green. Alive, charged, energetic, zippy...almost unnaturally green. And the flavor! Pesto isn't meant to be a weak-kneed vaguely herbal concoction: ideally, pesto should ignite your taste buds, hit you in the sinuses, and stay on your palette for a while after you've eaten. Mmmmm.

But homemade pesto—and most store-bought pesto—isn't that color. Instead, it's a drab, wilted, spoiled-looking army-tent green. Sometimes these pestos are very tasty, but they look...well, they look dead. And I could never figure out how that bright, almost-neon green color was achieved without using coloring or other additives.

That is, until last weekend. I finally got it right: the secret is blanching the basil and a little lemon juice. Anybody who knows me also understands that I consider recipes to be merely guidelines (rather than something to be followed by rote) and I tend to improvise my meals. But this is the process and proportions as best I can remember!

Geoff's Electric Green (Vegan) Basil Pesto

Ingredients:
  • 2 cups washed, stemmed, and firmly packed fresh basil leaves (this is roughly two to four good-sized bunches)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1-2 tbsp lemon juice
  • Smidge of cayenne
  • Dash of black pepper
  • Dash of kosher salt
You'll need:
  • Blender
  • Stock pot
  • Large bowl
  • Colander or strainer which fits inside both stock pot and the large bowl
  • Toaster oven or small saute pan (for pine nuts)

Start to bring stock pot to a boil while filling the large bowl with ice water. Wash and stem basil while waiting for boil, and put a few nice basil leaves aside as an eventual garnish. When water is boiling, place basil in colander and plunge into boiling water, stirring like mad for about 15 seconds. Remove basil from hot water, plunge into ice water, immersing and stirring like mad to cool those leaves down fast. Remove basil from water; press dry. Put your pasta in the boiling water and get it started. Toss the basil in blender with the lemon juice and give it a quick whirl.

(Yes, a blender, not a food processor. A food processor will just plaster large chunks to the sides of its container. You need to brutalize your basil and the rest of your ingredients a homogeneous colloid. No mercy! No half-measures!)

Start toasting the pine nuts. Toss the garlic, olive oil, and spices in the blender and run it like you're a dictator grinding a developing economy into ruin. High speed. Whir whir whir! The consistency should be thicker than your average pesto! Your pasta is just finishing up right now. Put most of the pine nuts in the blender and give it another 30 seconds, but make sure the nuts get chopped: those wily little things can avoid the axe sometimes. Remove pasta from heat, pour off 1/3 cup of the pasta water into a measuring cup, then drain pasta into the colander. Pour the 1/3 cup hot pasta water into the blender and give another quick whirl. You're done! Serve in bowls, garnishing with the remaining pine nuts and the basil leaves.

Makes four hearty portions, six to eight smaller portions. Unused pesto can be refrigerated in a tightly sealed container for a couple days.

If you do it right, the pesto will be a nearly-neon green. Beautiful! If you don't like garlic, cut back to about half what I used. You'll notice I didn't add parmesan or romano (keeping things vegan!): if I were to add it, I'd throw it (maybe 1/3 to 1/2 cup grated) in with the pine nuts towards the end and give the blender another minute or two. You can add more pine nuts if you like: it's hard to have too many.

Mine turned out spectacular, perhaps in part because (I've always wanted to write something like this!) I took the opportunity to open some olive oil an acquaintance sent me from their private olive grove in Tuscany. (Tres chic!) But really, any decent olive oil will do.

Bon appetit!

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