Cookbook author Mindy Toomay's blog about eating for health, cooking with spirit, and celebrating life in northern California. Here she dishes up food rants and raves, recipes, and plenty of kitchen wisdom.

By your own efforts, waken yourself, watch yourself, and live joyfully.
-- The Dhammapada

Why not make a daily pleasure out of a daily necessity?
-- Peter Mayle


Pesto passion

Asked to name my top ten favorite things to eat, pasta al pesto would make the cut. It might even be among the top three. Blame it on my friend Kathryn's mother, a true Italian cook from the old country who introduced me to the olive oil and basil and pine nut and garlic concoction. Add pasta and Parmesan and you have a potent feast of flavor, a garlic fantasy, an addictive carbo load from the gods. I could eat it every day, but don't, for the sake of my girlish figure. Once a month is a must, however, and it will become a regular craving of yours, as well.

Pesto -- from the same root word as paste -- is actually a method, not a specific mixture of ingredients. I've come up with loads of exotic variations in my time, including one made with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, walnuts, and ginger. Roasted red bell pepper makes a great pesto, mixed with mint and almonds. You get the idea. Anything you can turn into a thick puree could be called "pesto" and just might be delicious mixed with pasta, stirred into soup, or used as a sandwich spread.

At the height of summer, when basil is abundant and cheap, you can make several big batches of pesto, leaving out the cheese, and freeze it in small jars. Then it's available to cheer you up in the dead of winter. Where I live in northern California, though, fresh basil is always available, so I just make up a batch whenever I get in a pesto frame of mind.

(BTW, if you ever make more pasta al pesto than you can eat in one meal, throw the leftovers in a cast iron frying pan with some olive oil the next morning, add some beaten eggs and some more Parmesan cheese, and cook until firm on the bottom, then place under the broiler until the eggs are set. A delicious pasta frittata!)

Here's a basic recipe for the classic basil "pesto alla genovese." The lemon isn't exactly traditional, but it sets the color nicely and I like the way a bit of acid cuts the heaviness of the olive oil. This makes enough for one pound of pasta, which will feed 4 to 6 people.

Blessings and bon appetit!

2 cups fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 tablespoons raw pine nuts or chopped walnuts
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juuce
1/4 teaspoon salt

Using a blender or food processor, chop the basil leaves, then add the olive oil, cheese, pine nuts, garlic, lemon juice, and salt. Puree until fairly smooth.


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