2012 July: Presto Pesto

The repertoire of Italian sauces is loaded with classics like Alfredo, Bolognese, arrabbiata, marinara, and oil and garlic. The one sauce that stands just as tall and is just as versatile is pesto. I was always of a mind that pesto sauce never got the respect it truly deserves, even when it is used to sauce pasta (which is where it most often shows up). Lately, however, I have seen pesto coming to the fore in dishes like bruschetta, swirled into minestrone, in panini and as part of a stuffed chicken breast.

The one place I would love to see a pesto sauce used with more frequency, though, is on pizza. In fact, in one of my cookbooks, “The Ultimate Pizza,” I promoted the idea of a pesto pizza for which I make a fresh pesto sauce and employ for toppings some of the ingredients that go into a classic Pesto alla Genovese.

In Genoa, in the Ligurian region of Italy, the smell of fresh basil hangs fragrant in the air. Basil grows merrily in window boxes, clay pots, coffee cans — you name it. The people of Genoa love their basil and use it in every way imaginable. Pesto, that sublime combination of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and grated cheeses, is the most popular Genovese contribution to the culinary world.
The recipe for pesto sauce that follows is a classic in every way, and I encourage you to at least try it, so that you get the feel, the texture and taste of a well-made pesto sauce. However, I know full well that fresh basil can be expensive at times and in some cases difficult to procure on a regular basis. Also, the actual making of the sauce requires a bit of labor.

The alternative is, of course, to buy a pesto sauce that is ready to go. I have used several ready-made pesto sauces over the years and have hardly ever been disappointed in them. Generally they will come to you frozen, so the shelf life is quite long. Also, the sauce is concentrated, so a little bit goes a long way. In other words, along with ease of use, there is value, so it will be a simple matter to start offering a pesto pizza as a special to get customers into it. I would also suggest you add pesto sauce to your usual “additional toppings of your choice” selection.

This pizza is a variation of the famous pasta dish pesto alla Genovese, in which trenette pasta mingles deliciously with pesto sauce, potatoes, and string beans. Here I use sun-dried tomatoes instead of string beans and mozzarella to tune up and balance the flavors

Pizza alla Pesto
Yield: One 14-inch pizza

Pesto Sauce
(Yield: 1½ -2 cups)

2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons grated Romano cheese
¼ (one-quarter) cup pine nuts
½ (one-half) cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Place the basil (reserve about 8 leaves for garnish), garlic, cheeses, and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse the machine 10-12 times or until the ingredients are combined thoroughly. With the motor running, slowly add the olive oil. Process until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Should you wish to thin the sauce a bit, add hot water to bring it to a creamy consistency. The sauce can be made ahead and kept in the cooler, well covered, for several days.

1 14-inch pizza shell, ready to top
1½ (one and one-half) pounds new potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
½ (one-half) cup pesto sauce
½ (one-half) cup chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, patted dry
8 ounces shredded mozzarella
Reserved basil leaves
Place the potatoes in a saucepan of boiling salted water. Cook until barely tender, 8-9 minutes. Drain well.

Spread the pesto sauce evenly over the pizza crust up to the border. Sprinkle on the sun-dried tomatoes. Arrange the potatoes evenly over the pesto sauce. Sprinkle on the mozzarella. Bake. Just before sending the pizza out, sprinkle the fresh basil leaves on top of the cheese.

Now that you have the basic idea of how to construct a pesto pizza, let’s take a look at some options, and by adding various ingredients, build some delicious pesto pizzas.

One very popular sandwich making the rounds these days is chicken pesto (grilled chicken breast, pesto sauce), so let’s capitalize on that popular sandwich and put together a pesto pizza with chicken. For one 14-inch pizza, spread ½ (one-half) cup pesto sauce over the crust. Over the pesto sauce sprinkle 2 cups cooked chicken strips or cubes. Sprinkle 8 ounces Fontina cheese over the chicken. Bake.

Now we can take the pesto pizza with chicken and add one more ingredient — artichoke hearts — to make it even more interesting. To the pesto pizza with chicken add 6 ounces of sliced artichoke hearts.

Finally, here’s yet another idea. This one employs some of the ideas above. This pizza I like to call:

Four Seasons (Quattro Stagione) Pesto Pizza

Yield: One 14-inch pizza

One 14-inch pizza shell (you will be creating four sections in the shell by rolling a small pieces of pizza dough into two ropes, about the size of a pencil, to cover the shell from one end to another)
½ (one-half) cup pesto sauce, spread over the pizza crust
Lay the dough ropes over the pizza crust crosswise, so that you have four quarters.

In one quarter put some cooked chicken. In another quarter put some sun-dried tomatoes and spinach. In another quarter put some artichoke hearts. In another quarter put mushrooms and olives. Sprinkle cheese (your choice—mozzarella, fontina, provolone, asiago) lightly over each of the quarters (lightly, so that when the cheese melts, all of the toppings are visible).

And, as you have figured out by now, this makes a very tasty vegetarian pizza.

Buon Appetito!