By Pat O’Connor
One of the simplest meals anyone can prepare is pasta. I mean what could be easier than boiling some water and opening a jar of sauce? Well, for the vast majority of my life that’s what I thought pasta was, elbow macaroni and a watery pre-made sauce that eerily resembled ketchup. Whenever I ordered pasta in a restaurant, I wondered what magic powers the chef must have possessed to make such a pedestrian dish so flavourful. Well, I don’t believe in magic anymore (not since Michael Jordan retired) so I decided to try my hand at elevating pasta at home.
My friends, let me introduce you to your new best friend pesto. A fresh pesto can transform a 99 cent bag of grocery store pasta into a gourmet experience that will leave a lasting impression on that special someone in your life. Now you can buy a pre-made pesto sauce in a jar at any grocery store, but trust me it will taste like it came from a jar and you won’t be able to awe your guest(s) as you prepare a fragrant and delectable sauce from fresh ingredients right before their eyes. The best part is that you can prepare it in the same amount of time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta to a perfect al dente! Skeptical? I was too, but give me a few minutes of your time and I’ll explain all you need to know to make a versatile sauce that will take your pasta from ‘Spaghettios’ to spaghetti-OH!
Here’s what you’ll need:
A food processor or a really good blender
4-6 cloves of garlic peeled (the amount of garlic I find, is a personal choice and is often governed by the company you plan to eat it with. Better to keep a breath freshener near-by just in case)
1 cup (about 2 grocery store packages) of fresh basil (there is NO substitute for fresh basil. Please don’t try this with dried basil leaves. It doesn’t work. I know this from a very bad experience that I do not wish upon anyone)
¼ cup of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (now you can use the pre-grated parmesan that comes in the over-grown pepper shaker from the grocery store and it will still work. However, once you’ve had Parmigiano Reggiano, I think you’ll agree that using that pepper-shaker product is a crime against food)
¼ cup of pistachio nuts shells removed this is important!(here’s where I lose the purists! Pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts. Here’s my problem. I hate pine nuts. I prefer the pistachio. I’ve used almonds, peanuts, walnuts and even hazel nuts. The nuts add texture and a buttery-ness so use what works for you! Hell, use the pine nuts if you like!)
About ½ cup of extra virgin olive oil (the amount of olive oil is also a personal choice and I just add the oil until I get the consistency I want)
The juice of ½ of a lemon (optional)
A package of your favourite pasta (I prefer penne or if I’m trying to impress I use the bow tie pasta)
Boil your water for your pasta and don’t forget to salt the water!
Put the garlic, basil, nuts and parmesan into the processor and pulse it 4 or 5 times to get things crushed up good. Now turn it on and gradually pour in the oil until you get a nice thick sauce (the consistency is again, a personal choice I prefer mine to be a little on the thicker side so I’m a little more conservative with the olive oil)
Give it a taste and add salt and/or pepper as needed. This is where I add the juice of half a lemon. You can omit this ingredient if you’re happy with the taste. At this point you can also choose to add more parmesan if you think it needs it.
Guess what? You have just made pesto!
Add your pasta to the boiling, salted water and when it reaches your personal level of done-ness drain it but don’t rinse it (the residual starch helps the pesto to cling to the pasta). Put the pasta in a large bowl, pour in the pesto and mix well.
Grate, shave or sprinkle some more parmesan over the pasta and you’re ready to serve. Enjoy!
Hint: I like to make extra pesto and store it in the refrigerator. It makes a great dip and used as a condiment, it can really add a special dimension to a sandwich!