Saturday, July 30, 2011

Perfect Pesto Pizza

Here you can see a basil plant in our backyard:

What you can't see is the second equally enormous plant immediately behind this one, nor the big bunches we have been receiving each week in our CSA box. I suspect we would have basil growing out our ears if we weren't careful. Of course, there is only one logical option for such an inundation... make pesto!

I base my pesto on the recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, Simply in Season, which contains wonderful everyday dishes using seasonal produce from the northern half of North America. It's the perfect cookbook if you shop regularly at a farmer's market or participate in a CSA, and provides helpful tips for how to eat seasonally and inexpensively.

First, toast 1/3 cup of pine nuts, walnuts or hazelnuts in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Personally, I like to use walnuts since they're a little less expensive than the others and we usually have them on hand. You don't need any oil, just keep stirring the nuts to keep them from scorching until they start to turn golden and smell fragrant. Allow the nuts to cool.

Next, put all of the following into a food processor and finely chop:
  • 1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1/3 toasted nuts
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

With the food processor running, gradually add 1/3 cup (or more to get a consistency you like) extra virgin olive oil to make a thick paste.

If you intend to use the pesto within a few weeks, you can store it in a glass jar with a lid. When you first put the pesto in the jar and each time after you use it, flatten out the surface of the pesto with a spoon and pour a thin layer of olive oil over the surface. This helps the pesto stay a bright green color (it oxidizes and turns brown in contact with air) and keeps it fresh longer.

If you want to freeze pesto for use through the winter, omit the garlic and cheese and pour the pesto into ice cube trays. When frozen, you can pop the cubes out and store them in a bag in the freezer. It's easy to defrost a cube or two as you need them; just add garlic and cheese.

All of this talk about pesto might leave you wondering "where's the pizza?" Well, one of the best parts about making super delicious homemade pesto is that the pizza itself can be very simple. We put artichoke hearts on ours, but I thought they were unnecessary and over-complicated the flavors. The pizza would have been perfect with just three toppings:

TOPPINGS (layered in this order):
  1. Whatever crust you have on hand, par-baked. The very best pizza crust ever or the simple crust are equally delicious for this one.
  2. Thin spread of pesto. A little flavor goes a long way, so there's no need to overdo it.
  3. Grated mozzarella cheese or thin slices of fresh mozzarella
  4. Thinly sliced fresh garden tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
That's it! Bake at 450 degrees F for 7 minutes. There's no need to top this one with more Parmesan or olive oil, since the pesto supplies more than enough of those flavors.

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