By STEVEN DESALVO
For Montclair Local

I try to greatly limit the number of pasta recipes I write about because if I could get away with it I would submit one far too frequently by any normal person’s standards. I just love pasta, and it is probably my biggest culinary passion and therefore the thing I’m most experienced cooking. Thankfully I checked and haven’t submitted a pasta recipe since December of last year, so I think I am in the clear! 

The recipe I have been cooking a lot of recently, even though it is technically out of season, is pesto. Pesto is one of the greatest pasta sauces to exist, in my humble opinion. 

It has pretty much limitless potential for creative license, it comes together in 15 minutes, and it makes for a perfect one-pot dinner since the sauce doesn’t even need to be heated up.

Now in Italy there are a number of different types of pesto: For example, Trapanese pesto is a Sicilian take that uses tomatoes and almonds (absolutely delicious, might I add), but the bright green basil, garlic, pine-nut magnificence that we think of is Genovese pesto, which hails from the northwestern region of Liguria. This thin strip of land is likely most famous for the Italian riviera; however, I would rank pesto as a very close second. 

There are some changes you can make that will add your own personal twist to your pesto. You can substitute other hard cheeses for the Parmesan. Some people like to use pecorino, which is a perfectly good swap. Personally I prefer parm because pecorino can be much saltier. 

I also sometimes substitute ½ cup of frozen peas for the pine nuts if someone has a nut allergy. The starch from the peas acts as a thickener, and the pesto is now nut-free. It gives a really special sweetness to the sauce as well. If you like peas you might want to do this anyway!

Sometimes I substitute roasted garlic for the blanched garlic to add a touch of sweetness. If you use roasted garlic add 4 cloves rather than 2. 

Lastly, feel free to substitute basically any leafy herb for a portion of the basil. Things like tarragon, mint or shiso make for a really bright and fun addition. 

Ingredients

  • 2 cups basil, fully packed (if you substitute other herbs add them here)
  • 2 cloves garlic, blanched in boiling water for 1 minute. This removes extra bitterness from the garlic and makes it more approachable. 
  • 2 tbs. pignoli nuts. For the nut-free version omit these in exchange for frozen peas; if you want to use both just add slightly less than a half-cup of peas.
  • ½ cup  grated Parmesan
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

1 pound of your favorite pasta. I used baby potato gnocchi for this recipe, but the traditional Ligurian pasta shape is called trofie, which is a short twist of dough. It is wonderful with pesto and can be found at a specialty Italian store.

Instructions

  1. Combine basil, garlic, pine nuts (and peas if using), Parmesan and olive oil in a food processor. Process until everything is incorporated. It is best to pulse the food processor because running it constantly will heat up the mixture, which will cause the basil to oxidize and turn brown. 
  2. Once the mixture is processed remove it from the processor into a container. At this point taste it and add salt as needed. 
  3. Cover the pesto with plastic wrap and seal the container. The less oxygen exposure, the less loss of color. Store in the refrigerator until needed. It can be made a few hours in advance.
  4. Bring a pot of water to boil and salt it liberally; the water should taste salty, like the sea.
  5. Cook your favorite pasta until it is al dente (still slightly firm in the center); while the pasta is cooking remove 1 cup of cooking water with a measuring cup.
  6. When the pasta is finished drain the water and add the pasta and most of the pesto to a bowl. Add about half of the reserved cooking liquid and stir. Add additional pesto and cooking liquid if necessary. How much sauce you allow is up to personal preference. 
  7. Serve and enjoy.

I know that pesto might not seem seasonally appropriate, but few foods evoke as much comfort and enjoyment for me. I can’t think of anything as warming as a creamy, herbaceous pasta sauce that can be thrown together in 15 minutes.

I think that comforting recipes are acceptable year-round. Let us know what changes you make to your recipe!

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STEVEN DESALVO
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In Recipe of the Month food writer Steven DeSalvo shares a recipe Montclairians might enjoy making. DeSalvo has a degree in hospitality business management from the University of Delaware and has worked extensively in restaurants and hotels. If there is something you want to know how to make, or if you’ve eaten a dish at a local restaurant that you are dying to make at home, drop us a note at culture@montclairlocal.news.