August 1, 2015 |

Pesto Perfection

By Jeffrey Freehof

Simple sauce has multitude of uses, twists

Sausage, Roasted Red Pepper, Artichoke and Spinach Pesto Pizza

Sausage, Roasted Red Pepper, Artichoke and Spinach Pesto Pizza

Pesto is a sauce whose origin comes from northern Italy and is traditionally made up of fresh basil, garlic, salt, olive oil, Parmesan and pine nuts. The ingredients get blended together except for the pine nuts, which get added at the end so they are recognizable.

Pesto is very easy to make and has multiple applications. It is great when used in pasta salad or tossed with hot pasta. It can be blended with either marinara or Alfredo to make a creamy pesto. I use homemade pesto as a marinade for pork tenderloin and I also use it in an aioli that gets spread on a plate where I place arancini (risotto fritters) on top of it. Spreading pesto on a pizza skin is an excellent alternative to tomato sauce.

When giving a cooking demo at International Pizza Expo, I showed attendees how fast, simple and inexpensive it is to make your pesto given how many operators are buying pre-made pesto. Folks were soon making their own in their stores, and with great reward. You can interchange any and all of the ingredients with other ingredients that fit the profile of the dish you are creating! You can also puree them smooth like a basil pesto or leave it a little coarser for texture.

Here are some of my favorite pesto ideas and applications to use them:

• Walnut pesto. This isn’t much different than traditional pesto except you replace the pine nuts with double the amount of walnut and you chop up the walnuts with the other ingredients. Try this recipe:

Walnut Pesto

4 ounces of fresh basil

1 cup of shelled walnuts

5 peeled garlic cloves

2 cups of extra virgin olive oil

2 teapoons salt

½ cup of Parmesan

Put it all in a food processor and pulse or blend for approximately 30 seconds until well blended without being a smooth puree. This pesto is delicious with poultry and game!

• Artichoke pesto. This my favorite non-traditional pesto. There’s just something special about artichoke hearts that makes every dish that much more enjoyable.

Artichoke Pesto

1 ounce of fresh basil

½ ounce fresh thyme

3 sage leaves

2 cups extra virgin olive oil

15-ounce can of drained artichoke hearts

6 peeled garlic cloves

1 cup of Parmesan

2 teaspoons of salt

I don’t put nuts in this one, but the glory of you being the chef is the freedom to incorporate whatever you like. This is a pulsing process instead of a pureeing because I like there to be recognizable pieces of artichoke in this sauce. This is great tossed with any pasta dish with chunks of roasted veggies, chicken and especially great with seafood!

• Roasted red pepper pesto. Bring that awesome flavor of fire-roasted red peppers into any dish that enhances without overpowering the dish completely. To create this, either purchase a 16-ounce jar or can of fire-roasted red pepper or do it yourself with a couple of red peppers over your char-grill. Don’t be afraid of getting them good and black. I like to put them in a covered container as soon as I take them off the fire, which softens the burnt pepper skin. After 30 minutes, peel the pepper with your hands under running water and remove the seeds. Now you’re ready to blend the pepper in a processor with a cup of basil pesto or any one of these great pesto recipes. It’s great with the artichoke recipe.

Sun Dried Tomato  Pesto Penne

Sun Dried Tomato
Pesto Penne

• Sundried tomato pesto. This brings a richer flavor than a simple tomato pesto recipe, but that’s what I’m going for in this one. If you think about a sun-dried tomato, all of the tomatoes’ flavor is concentrated into that small, compact dried tomato. You can purchase sundried tomatoes either dry or packed in oil. Obviously if you are using the ones packed in oil, you don’t need to soak them because they’ll already be soft enough to incorporate into a pesto. If you purchase the tomatoes packed dry, simply soak them in warm water for approximately 20 minutes so they will puree easily. To make this, put 2 cups of moist sundried tomatoes in your food processor with two cups of extra virgin olive oil, 6 peeled garlic cloves, 4 ounces of fresh basil, 1 ounce of fresh oregano, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 1 cup of Parmesan and pulse or puree until you get the desired texture and toss in a couple of ounces of pine nuts or any other nut that you desire. This recipe is awesome tossed with any pasta, but I love it with fettuccini topped with some chunks of grilled peppers and onions and slices of flank steak over the top.

• Cilantro & hazelnut pesto. Bring a fresh approach incorporating:
4 ounces washed and stemmed cilantro, 1½ cups of extra virgin olive oil,
5 peeled garlic cloves, 1 cup of Parmesan or any hard cheese and 1 cup of hazelnuts. A ½ to 1 teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes will bring a nice heat to this pesto which is great on chicken or fish.

• Lemon thyme pesto is one more recipe in our parade of pesto that just has a great fresh and clean flavor profile. Place 2 cups of extra virgin olive oil in the food processor and add 2 ounces of fresh parsley, 2 ounces of fresh thyme, 5 cloves of peeled garlic, the juice of one lemon and a teaspoon of lemon zest. This recipe only has ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese. Blend it all up in the processor and add some pine nuts once it’s pureed. This makes a great marinade and sauce for pork, chicken, fish and shrimp.

Pesto is fresh, fast and easy and offers new and creative options that will attract some fresh new interest with your diners, which is always a good thing!

Jeffery Freehof owns The Garlic Clove in Evans, Georgia. He is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today and a speaker at International Pizza Expo.