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.
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.