My first attempt at pesto, when in my twenties, was in its purest form – with a mortar and pestle. I still enjoy making it that way. While smashing the basil and garlic, I daydream of seafarers in the Mediterranean who grew basil on their sailing ships, or an Italian mother in the mountains of Italy preparing it for her family one hundred years ago. Of course, these days we have food processors and the work is simplified. When I’m in the mountains, where there is no electricity, I’ve been known to mix a batch by hand but basil only grows there a couple of weeks per year. We get our first light freeze in August, and the last freeze is in July. Cowcamp is close to 9000 feet, and hot summer nights are a rare occurrence. This doesn’t prevent me from keeping some in the windowsill however. It allows for a basil leaf on the rare tomato that ripens on the vine, or to top one friends bring along when they visit from lower altitudes. I supply them with lettuce and greens such as swiss chard, which grow plentifully, in exchange for their warm weather harvest.
This pesto is a fresh and lively dressing for chicken, pasta, fish, pizza – whatever you fancy. But you must like lemon. The lemon replaces the olive oil in traditional pesto, and I think it improves it. Truth is, it’s a different flavor altogether. Almost everyone I’ve ever served it to prefers it to traditional pesto. Not only that, they begin craving it. The freshness of the lemon marries the aromatic basil, and results in a vibrancy that wakes up your taste buds on a hot summer evening.
This almost fat-free pesto is incredible with chicken. It works beautifully with the already roasted chicken you grab at the grocery store on the way home, or off your backyard grill. That’s how I eat this. They are perfect plate mates. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fabulous paired with the traditional pasta also, or pizza, cheese, or however you prefer your pesto. But I’m addicted to heaping it on chicken. It’s guilt free and tasty. Only about 15 – 20 calories per tablespoon. I’ve been known to use it as a spread too…when I’m warding off a carb craving and fail. It’s the lesser of two evils. Fat free pesto on Norwegian flatbread, or a chocolate icing topped cupcake….
If you like it, I strongly recommend making it in large batches when basil is in season and putting it in small Ziploc bags in your freezer. Farmers at market will sell you large quantities at a fraction of the grocery store cost off-season. I make enough to last all winter. It keeps beautifully, and is a pleasant surprise in mid-winter. It’s also great to have on hand when guests catch you off guard.
I work hard to refrain from carbs in the warmer months, and have been loyal to this pesto since Rosie Daley was Oprah’s chef many years ago. The original recipe comes from her book, ”In the Kitchen with Rosie.” You may still have it on your bookshelf. I’ve changed it over the years. Sometimes I want more lemon flavor, depending on the lemons, sometimes different cheese. This is a recipe that develops to your taste as you make it, and I urge you to do it as well. I love this pesto when the lemon bursts in my mouth. When you think it’s just as you like it, put some in a small dish and add more lemon. Then taste it again. Push yourself to the lemon limit, and then work backwards. That’s what I do.
It is possible to put everything in the food processor at once, and just let the machine run. It won’t hurt it. Over the years, I’ve learned to chop the garlic first. This prevents large pieces of garlic from being left in the finished product. I hate when that happens. I’ve always blended the cheese in by hand with a wooden spoon after everything else is blended, but it’s not necessary. Doing it by hand makes me feel more connected to the food somehow, and to the recipe’s original roots. Do whatever makes sense for you. Or try both and then decide. As much as I love my appliances, there is pleasure in chopping garlic, kneading bread, and mixing ingredients by hand. It not only connects me more to the food, but also to my ancestors – to those who came before me. The idea of preparing food in just the way my great-grandmother did connects me to something bigger than me. I love that thought.
I hope you like it!
Here’s how you make it:
1 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves
2-5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 Tblsp extra-virgin olive oil (optional, if you don’t want to use it, just add lemon instead)
1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts
1/4 cup Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (I keep extra lemons on hand in case I want more)
Put the garlic in a food processor with the 1 Tblsp olive oil or lemon juice and process until chopped fine.
Put the basil in and drizzle the lemon juice slowly with the machine running.
Add the nuts.
Add the cheese in the machine or mix it in by hand. I prefer doing it by hand because it creates a less pulverized, more rustic texture.
It’s a matter of personal taste. Do whichever you prefer.
Now check the consistency, and if you think you’d like more lemon, add it now.
It’s not just for pasta anymore!