If I learned anything about real Italian food while studying food science in Italy, it is the importance of simplicity. A product or dish with only a few very high quality ingredients wins out over the hodgepodge of unnecessary fillers and additives every time. Throwing in more stuff does not add up to better quality. This seems pretty obvious for food processing; look at your labels to avoid artificial preservatives, colors, flavorings, disguised forms of sugar…
But what about in your cooking? Do you find yourself resorting to shortcut ingredients (minced garlic in a jar, lemon juice from a bottle…) that are lacking in taste, then maybe adding more ingredients or copious amounts to compensate? Or using extra ingredients that may be covering up flavors more so than enhancing them? I know I’ve been guilty of this, so I’ve been trying to take a step back in the kitchen and consider every ingredient and step more closely. Am I taking advantage of seasonal produce? looking for the best sources of meat and dairy? using the most minimally-processed packaged products, and only those that are necessary? (i.e. grains, dried fruits, etc., but never again jarred minced garlic–go fresh and you’ll never look back.) If so, I should be able to get more from less.
For example, it hit me pretty hard to learn that garlic doesn’t belong in everything by default. Yes, it is a nutritious, magical little flavor enhancer, but sometimes other foods deserve the spotlight. As I mentioned in my Italian Food Adventure Recap, one of the best tomato sauces I’ve ever tasted in my LIFE was also probably the simplest…No obvious spices or herbs, and I don’t even think there was garlic in there (gasp!). The insanely delicious tomatoes pretty much carried the show on their own.
To be sure, it’s not always practical to have the best of the best, vine-ripened, fresh Italian tomatoes on hand; it’s ok to take short-cuts sometimes; and store-bought seasonings and packaged foods can have their place in recipes. The big lesson is to pay attention to your food–what’s in it, how it was made, where it comes from–get back to the basics whenever possible, and let the foods’ quality shine in your cooking. No ingredient or step by default; everything added with a purpose.
For both your tastebuds and your health.
Now on to this basil pesto–a perfect example of how a few naturally flavorful ingredients can come together to create something simply beautiful and unbelievably delicious.
- Fresh basil– Taking advantage of the season!
- Fresh garlic cloves– I know I previously admitted that garlic doesn’t belong in everything, but these flavortastic little nuggets most definitely have their place here. 🙂
- Pine nuts– They are more expensive than other nuts, but we’re going for quality over quantity; I would recommend splurging a little and just using them sparingly…always with a purpose, right?
- Olive oil– Go for the best! The taste is very important when it’s a star ingredient. For this pesto, I like a robust Sicilian olive oil. Also, olive oil should always be stored in a dark container and away from heat sources to prevent oxidation.
- Parmigiano-reggiano– Look for these words (not just “parmesan”), because they actaully do mean something! You’re getting a specific aged cheese of the Parma/Reggio Emilia region of Italy, held to the highest standards. It should appear grainy and taste sharp, savory, and nutty. Also, buy a block and grate it yourself for the best texture and longer shelf life.
- Sea Salt– Just a pinch or two to your tastes. Sea salt (as opposed to rock salt) means more taste for smaller amounts and more healthy minerals as well. If you really want to go over the top, try fior di sale (fleur de sel in French), the best of the best from the top of the sea, with exceptional delicate flavor.
Now, how to use it? Pesto is one of those fabulously versatile foods that can star in numerous types of dishes:
- Panini. Spread some pesto on bread or a wrap, add cheese (such as smoked mozzarella, asiago, or fontina) along with a protein (grilled chicken, bacon, ham, fried egg, etc.) and/or veggie (tomato, grilled eggplant or zucchini, bell pepper, etc.), if desired. Press or grill sandwich until melty and toasted.
- Cold sandwiches and wraps. Fresh mozzarella and ripe tomatoes would love to join the party.
- Cold pasta salad. Add some fresh lemon juice and/or additional olive oil for more of a dressing, if desired.
- Hot pasta. I will be playing with creamy pesto pasta recipes and posting soon!
- Pizza. The perfect sauce for homemade pizza dough.
- Roasted or grilled vegetables. Toss zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, red bell pepper, yellow onion, and/or mushrooms with olive oil and roast or grill until tender, then top with pesto; or toss crisp roasted potatoes with pesto.
- Eggs. Serve pesto with a fried or poached egg (on toast/English muffin/bagel/creamy polenta/savory oats, if desired); or use as a filling in your omelet
- Roasted or grilled meats and seafood. Simply rub pesto on chicken, turkey, pork, fish, etc., then bake; or use it as a topping after grilling/pan-frying.
(Pan-seared chicken breast, sliced and topped with pesto. Served over creamy Parmesan polenta.
And there are a plethora of other uses as well…Have fun with it!