Friday, March 18, 2011

Swordfish with Basil Pesto and Poached Asparagus

In cooking, the simplest recipes often yield the best results. Here's a prime example: Basil, Garlic, Olive Oil. Classic. Fragrant. Delicious — Pesto — the green goddess of Italian cooking. This sauce goes with almost anything. It's a perfect food. Italian grannies used to make pesto by hand using a mortar and pestle, adding the basil leaves one at a time. Although this method can still be used, it's much easier to use a food processor. The key is not to over-process the ingredients or they become a completely homogenized emulsion or paste. I still use a processor if I'm in a hurry, and the results are very good.

However, there is a third way:
chopping all the ingredients by hand.
When you dress pasta with pesto that has been hand chopped, the miniscule flecks of basil separate from the olive oil in places, there's definition between the ingredients, and bright flavors pop in a way they don't when they've been blended into one. So, if you are serious about making perfect pesto, chopping the ingredients by hand will take twenty or thirty minutes, but the results will be worth it. Y
ou will need a good quality large sharp blade, like a Mezzaluna, or else the basil will turn dark. I always make a batch of pesto whenever I see bunches of fragrant fresh basil in the market. I can't resist. Even if I only need a leaf or two for a recipe, I'll use the remaining leaves to make pesto. It's a particularly great marinade on fresh fish. 

My favourite is Grilled Swordfish with Basil Pesto and Poached Asparagus which I sometimes serve with a little spaghettini. Cooked in the same water as the asparagus, the pasta is simply tossed with a tablespoon or two of pesto once it's cooked al dente, with a grinding of fresh pepper and a garnish of fresh lemon. So simple, so delicious, and it tastes like summertime. Which is kind of nice in the middle of March!

Quick Basil Pesto - using a processor
Makes 1 cup

1 large bunch of fresh basil leaves, leaves only
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts 
3 medium garlic cloves, minced
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Combine the basil, garlic, and pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 1/2 cup of the oil and process until fully incorporated and smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If using immediately, add all the remaining oil and pulse until smooth. Transfer the pesto to a large serving bowl and mix in the cheese. If freezing, transfer to an air-tight container and drizzle remaining oil over the top. It will last for up to 3 months. Thaw and stir in cheese.

Hand Chopped Basil Pesto - made with love!
Makes 1 cup

Adapted from 101 Cookbooks

1 large bunch of basil, leaves only, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic
1 small handful of raw pine nuts
3/4 cup Parmesan, loosely packed and freshly grated
A few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil

The technique is: chop a bit, add some ingredients, chop some more — instead of chopping everything all at once. This technique ensures a spectrum of cut sizes throughout the pesto contributing to the overall texture. 

So start chopping the garlic with about 1/3 of the basil leaves. Once this is loosely chopped add more basil, chop some more, add the rest of the basil, chop some more. Scrape and chop, gather and chop. At this point the basil and garlic should be a very fine mince. Add about half the pine nuts, chop. Add the rest of the pine nuts, chop. Add half of the Parmesan, chop. Then add the rest of the Parmesan, and chop. In the end you want a mince so fine that you can press all the ingredients into a basil 'cake'. Transfer the 'cake' to a small bowl, and cover it with a bit of olive oil. It doesn't take much, just a few tablespoons. You can set this aside or place it in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. Just before serving give the pesto a quick stir to incorporate some of the oil into the basil, and enjoy!