Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hand-chopped basil and pasta salad

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with pesto. I do love the herbacious, potent flavor of basil. But sometimes, pesto is just a bit too much for my taste, especially with its pine nuts (yuck) and overly oily consistency.

The key, for me, is making it at home. A while back I made a delicious arugula-basil pesto (using walnuts instead of the aforementioned yucky nuts) which was great as it allowed me to control the proportions of each component. And a few weeks ago I made a traditional basil pesto, which I used in a delicious summertime pasta salad.

Another reason I like homemade pesto is that sometimes I find pesto a tad bitter, which I recently learned is due to the emulsification of the olive oil in the food processor. So when I came across this method of hand-chopping the basil I was intrigued. Would it produce a milder, less bitter pesto?

A few minutes into my 20 minute chopping adventure...

While I didn't do a side-by-side comparison for a truly controlled experiment, I definitely preferred the hand-chopped pesto to the food processor ones I've made in the past, even though it took a long ass time to chop up.

I continued to chop a little longer after snapping this photo, but actually ended up leaving 
a few tiny chunks of nuts. Yes, it was because I was lazy. But there's really nothing 
wrong with leaving this pesto a bit more rustic.

First, the basil was a bit more "real" tasting, and it retained more of its fresh herby quality. Second, while recipes recommended chopping this for ~30 minutes, I probably only chopped for about 20 minutes, which left a little bit of texture to my pesto. Third, instead of mixing olive oil into your pesto, you use it to top your pesto--so no super oily pesto nastiness here!

It's hard to tell with this photo, but I simply placed the basil paste into the bottom a 
small dish, and coated with a few TBSP of olive oil. No more greasy pesto!

So did it take a bit longer to make this pesto than using a machine? Yes. (Although washing a food processor is always a pain in the butt too...) But between the improvement in taste/texture, and the cathartic act of chopping away for 20 minutes, I'd say it was well worth my time.

Obviously you can use the pesto in a variety of ways. But there's just something to be said about the classic tomato/basil/mozzarella combo perfectly encapsulated in this summertime pasta salad.

Simple summertime pesto pasta salad

1 lb pasta
1 to 2, 8 oz containers of grape tomatoes, cut in half
1/2 - 3/4 lb mozzarella balls, cut in small pieces
at least 1/4 batch (few TBSP) homemade pesto, see recipe below

  1. Cook pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente. When done, drain pasta and place in a large bowl. 
  2. While the pasta is still warm, add in pesto (as much/as little as you'd like) and a healthy glug of olive oil to coat the pasta.
  3. Allow the pasta to cool, then add in the tomatoes and mozzarella. Serve immediately at room temperature, or allow to chill in the refrigerator.
Homemade, hand-cut pesto adapated from 101cookbooks

1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
1/4 cup walnuts (or another nut of your choice)
3/4 cup Parmesan, freshly grated

  1. Prepare for chopping madness by getting out your largest cutting board and a sharp knife (or mezzaluna if you're cool like that).
  2. Chop the garlic with ~1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is roughly chopped, add a bit more basil and chop. Keep adding more basil, bit by bit, and scraping/chopping as you go. Chop, chop, chop.
  3. When the garlic and the basil are all finely minced, add about half of your nuts. Then (you guessed it) chop. Add the remainder of the nuts and chop chop chop. 
  4. Add half the Parmesan and chop. Continue with the remainder of the Parmesan.
  5. Keep chopping until the basil is at the consistency that you like. This will likely take 20 - 30 minutes, depending on your chopping skillz and how finely you want your basil.
  6. When you're done, gather your pesto into a ball (like you're making a snowball). Transfer into a small bowl or container, just bigger than your pesto ball, and add enough olive oil to cover.
  7. Refrigerate until ready to use, or freeze in small portions for later use.


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