Pesto; Pistou; Pasta

One of the greatest challenges of living alone is the simple fact that it’s often hard to motivate oneself to prepare delicious meals when there is no one else to impress.  The rewards of gourmet cooking are decidedly reduced when there’s no one ooh-ing and ahh-ing over your hard-wrought creations … and of course, cooking from scratch takes a lot more work and produces a lot more dishes than just simply throwing a frozen pizza into the oven.

Another trouble with cooking for one is that most things simply aren’t sold in single-sized portions.  Buying just one nice chicken breast, pound for pound, is two or three times the cost of purchasing an entire chicken.  And a lot of vegetables simply don’t come in smaller sizes — a bunch of celery is a bunch of celery is a bunch of celery, and damn that’s a lot of celery for just one person to eat before it goes limp.

Now, there are a lot of different solutions to these problems.  Cooking larger meals and then freezing the leftovers, buying frozen vegetable mixes to introduce more variety without having to buy a dozen different things, and making use of odds and ends in simple one-pot meals are all options that many of us single-types employ.  But one solution that I’ve found particularly useful, and somehow it doesn’t seem to be on most people’s lists of shortcuts, is the magic of sauces and spreads.

Making a large batch of, say, pasta sauce, is an easy way to use up vegetables before they go bad, and it also provides you with easily stored leftovers that can be re-heated and served very quickly.  In the 10-15 minutes it takes to boil water and prepare pasta, you can take a serving of sauce from the freezer, to a pan, and have it nice and warm by the time the pasta reaches al dente.  And there’s no need to get bored of eating the same thing all week long, because in the freezer the sauce will keep well for a month or two, allowing you to spread out your meals.  The same goes for many different sauces and spreads — even things that can’t be frozen can often be stored in the fridge or preserved in canning jars, in order to last much longer than the raw ingredients would on their own.

One of the fruit & vegetable shops near my house sells large bunches of fresh herbs for really excellent prices, but generally an entire bunch is much more than I could possibly use in a week.  I have a particular love, though, for fresh basil, and this week I just couldn’t resist picking up a bundle.  Enter: the magic of sauces and spreads.

Image by Paul Goyette, used under Creative Commons license

One of the ways in which most people are introduced to basil is through pesto, a popular spread with its roots in Genoa, northern Italy.  Pesto’s popularity is a testament to its deliciousness, and you might be surprised to find out just how easy it is to make:  a traditional pesto contains only 5 ingredients.  Fresh basil is ground up with pine nuts, garlic, a little bit of coarse salt, and some Parmesan cheese.  Sometimes olive oil is added to improve the consistency.  The ratios of various ingredients may change (the Internet is full of “secret recipes” for the “perfect” pesto), but the basic method remains the same.  Put it all together in a food processor, blend until smooth, and serve over noodles or spread on fresh bread (or add it to other dishes).

I’m not actually a particular fan of pine nuts, and so I tend to make the less-well-known French version: pistou.  Pistou is even simpler to prepare, being prepared only with basil, garlic, salt, and olive oil.  Sometimes cheese is added, but I prefer to leave it out — I’ll generally add cheese to the dish later, if I want it.  Pistou goes extremely well with goat cheese, feta, Swiss cheese, or just a simple Canadian cheddar.

The ratio that I use in preparing my pistou is:

  • 2 cups roughly chopped fresh basil
  • 8 to 10 cloves fresh garlic
  • 1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp coarse sea salt (you can leave the salt out if you’re looking to monitor the sodium in your diet, but remember to add a touch of salt in later if you’re going to be using it on its own or in a dish that doesn’t already contain salt, as this does enhance and round out the flavour).

Start with a smaller amount of olive oil, and add more as things are blending if you find that the food processor is having trouble integrating it all into a paste.  I find that the amount of oil used can vary quite a bit, depending on factors like the moisture content of the basil and the humidity of the air.  The final result should be about 1 to 1-1/4 cups of fragrant, delicious pistou, ready to be used as-is (it’s delicious spread on fresh bread), or combined into other things.  Store your pistou in an airtight container, and it should keep in the fridge for a month, or freeze it in an ice-cube tray and then keep frozen (in a ziplock bag, to prevent freezer burn) for up to three months.

Ideas for using your pistou include:

  • Add a tablespoon of pistou and some grated cheese to warm pasta for a delicious, quick lunch or dinner.
  • Alternatively, make a pasta salad by adding pistou and fresh lemon juice to cold cooked noodles.
  • Add a tablespoon or two worth of pistou to cream or cheese sauces for extra zing
  • Put a teaspoon of pistou inside a stuffed chicken breast with bacon, asparagus and asiago cheese for something fancy and delicious — this is a meal I use when I really want to impress somebody, as most people get really excited about food-stuffed-inside-other-food.
  • Add a bit of pistou to a creamy risotto dish for extra flavour.
  • A scoop of pistou in a vegetable or chicken soup adds a nice hit of flavour and some pretty green flecks (this is a very traditional way of using pistou in Provence; pistou soup is usually prepared with summer vegetables and spaghetti noodles)
  • A tablespoon of pistou, a tablespoon of whole-grain mustard, a splash of lemon juice, and a cup of olive oil (well-shaken) makes an easy and delicious salad dressing.
  • Add a generous amount of pistou to some sour cream, cream cheese, or greek yogurt  to make a yummy dip.
  • Add pistou to a hummus spread for a non-traditional flavour.
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4 Responses to “Pesto; Pistou; Pasta”

  1. I like this idea! And I completely understand your pain of cooking for yourself. I love cooking, and it just seems hopeless when it is only for myself. That’s why I like to post blogs, especially on the days that it is just me, to show off what I ate. 🙂 Haha.

    And just a tip about the chicken breast: I buy frozen chicken tenderloins. Just defrost two when I want to cook for myself, and wa-lah, chicken!

    • Oh no, I’m caught! Haha — blogging about food is totally just an excuse to show off my cooking. Good to know I’m not the only one!

      My solution to the “why are small pieces of things so expensive?” conundrum is to shop for sales and buy in bulk. I’ll wait for chicken breasts or chicken thighs to go on sale, then buy a big family pack of them. When I get home, I’ll divide them into individual servings, put into ziplock freezer bags, and freeze so that I can thaw them out one at a time. Same goes for pork (tenderloins and ribs go on sale pretty often at my grocery store), or beef (family packs of ground beef get divided into 4 parts before freezing, or roasts get cut into steaks and stewing beef). This solution means that I’ve always got plenty of options for what to make — at the moment I’ve got two steaks, two boneless pork chops, an entire pork tenderloin, a bone-in chicken breast, and some frozen tilapia in my freezer, and I can thaw out any of the above for making dinner tonight.

      • Haha! I’m so glad that I’m not alone as well! It is so rewarding to hear that someone is interested in what you are cooking, and even better when someone actually writes you back and tells you that they actually cooked what you cooked!

        That’s a really great idea. I did that once during my first semseter of college, but they all ended up getting severe freezer burn. I think I need to find a better way at making sure that doesn’t happen! Maybe it is time to invest into one of those weird machines that tightly zips your bag for you.

        • It’s important to make sure you’re actually getting freezer bags, not just ziplock sandwich bags. The freezer bags are thicker and have a double zipper, to make sure they’re really airtight. Keeping your freezer clean also helps — it doesn’t function as efficiently if you get a build-up of frost happening, so emptying and defrosting your freezer a few times a year is important.

          I try not to keep things frozen for more than a month, if I can help it, just because the freezer does cause some flavour loss.

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