Pesto with pasta is just a beginning

Ask five cooks how to make pesto, and you'll end up with five very different recipes. Some make the fragrant sauce with walnuts, plain or toasted, others with pine nuts or almonds. A mortar and pestle are the preferred tools of traditionalists; blenders and food processors appeal more to today's convenience-minded cooks. And basil is no longer the only herb tossed into the food processor. Cilantro, parsley, and sun-dried tomato pesto have become popular alternatives to the original recipe from Genoa, Italy.

All this tweaking of a culinary classic sends shivers up the spine of Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cooking.

Known for her strong opinions and cookbooks brimming with authentic Italian recipes, she makes only one concession to modern times in her preparation of pesto: the use of a blender. But in "The Classic Italian Cookbook: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating" (1983), her "Blender Pesto" appears next to her preferred method, "Mortar Pesto."

"You should try, at least once, to make pesto in a mortar, because of the greater character of its texture and its indubitably richer flavor," she writes. But, she adds, "Blender Pesto is still so good that we should enjoy it with a clear conscience whenever we don't have the time or the patience for the mortar."

In true Marcella style, she not only addresses tools and techniques in her writing, but she can't resist waxing a bit poetic about her country's cuisine, even this simple sauce. "If the definition of poetry allowed that it could be composed with the products of the field as well as with words, pesto would be in every anthology. Like much good poetry, pesto is made of simple stuff." There's nothing wrong with a little experimentation, however, so the following recipes include not only Marcella's, but also some of the best alternative pestos out there.

Just a word about harvesting basil: It is especially sensitive to frost, so if you grow it yourself, you'll want to harvest all you can before the cool air nips and blackens its bright green or purple leaves.

If you don't have a garden brimming with basil, no need to despair. You can take advantage of the seasonal freshness of this pungent herb at your local farm stand or supermarket.

In Italy, pesto is usually served over flat noodles such as fettuccine. But it's also delicious on grilled fish, meats, and vegetables, on fresh tomato slices, as a condiment on sandwiches, or as a flavoring for soups. Even a simple bowl of canned tomato soup takes on a sublime flavor when a touch of pesto is stirred into it.

Try mixing light cream or half-and half into your pesto before tossing it with your favorite pasta. It brings a smooth, mellow quality to the dish.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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