Sep 28, 2013

Pesto Love

My love affair with pesto almost didn't happen.  I was born and raised on "red" spaghetti -- the kind dripping with tomato sauce and overflowing with meatballs and cheese.  Every special occasion in my life, in my friends' lives and everyone else I know has red spaghetti as a staple attraction.

A spaghetti pesto meal from Joey Pepperoni Pizzeria

When I first saw this green monstrosity -- heaps and heaps of oily green gobs, with tiny bits of green leaves looking very much like those shredded tobacco bits in commercial cigarettes, smeared over every strand of otherwise pearly-white, clean and pristine spaghetti pasta -- I was shocked.  Where's the meat?  Where's the brilliant red sauce tempting me to taste it?  It looked like something the cat threw up, to be honest.  And the taste?  It didn't agree with my taste buds.   It was a dark day for pesto.

Things changed when I worked in a company that had only 30 minutes allowed lunch break and 15 minutes for afternoon snacks.  I had to gobble everything very quickly.  Weeks into the job and my stomach is rebelling from all that speed-eating.  Until one day they served pesto at the cafeteria.  It was delicious, and the olive oil helped the pasta go down smoothly with a minimum of chewing.  That pesto spaghetti was a hit in that speed-eating environment.  And since then, and until now when I am no longer in that organization,  I have loved pesto and my love only grows as the days and the weeks and the years pass.

Okay, let's get down to the nitty-gritty of it.  Why do I like pesto?  Here's a few things why:

1.  Pesto is delicious

If you break free from the bonds of traditional tomato sauce, the combination of basil, nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil provides a tasty fusion of flavors that is appealing to the palate.

The cheese is the first thing that your tongue will probably appreciate, since cheese of any kind is in all of our comfort zones.  The olive oil isn't too bad either, it is very similar in appearance to the common oil we use for cooking.  But for health-buffs trying out pesto for the first time, all that oil may make them wary.  However, unlike traditional cooking oil, olive oil is actually healthier.  The nuts are palate-friendly, too.  It's actually the basil that screams at you, and, depending on your taste, can make or break pesto in your mind.  For one, basil is a herb -- it smells and tastes strong.  Some dislike basil for this, and the fact that it seems to leave a strange, pungent, medicine-like aftertaste. 

For first-timers, once you get over the pungent and general strangeness of basil, however, you will learn to like it.  Like Japanese sushi, it's an acquired taste.

2.  Pesto has many culinary uses

The pesto sauce that comes from pounding together basil leaves, pine nuts, and garlic, adding parmesan cheese, olive oil and salt to taste, is a versatile concoction.   As a pasta sauce, served with baked potatoes or green beans on the side, it is a healthy and filling meal.  It can also be used as a sandwich spread, a pizza spread,  or as additional ingredient in seafood menus and meat-based products like meatballs and burger patties (yes! even that!)  Food Network actually offers 50 things to make with pesto!

3.  Pesto is healthy

Pesto contains vitamins, minerals, good oils and phytochemicals that are good for the body.  Garlic and basil are little rays of sunshine -- packed with vitamins A and C.  Also present are potassium and phosphorus, omega-3 acids and a battalion of antioxidants.

4.  Pesto is fulfilling

It's one of the soul foods.  For people on the go, a plateful of pesto is a practical, no-fuss and guilt-free few-minutes of indulgence.  It is a filling meal that can alleviate hunger immediately.  It even has little to no complications with the digestive system.

5.  Pesto is easy to prepare

The original way to prepare pesto is by pounding together basil, garlic and pine nuts in a mortar with a pestle.  These days, a food processor or a blender can do quick work with crushing the said ingredients.  The addition of olive oil will combine the dry ingredients into a smooth paste, and adding salt and pepper to taste completes the mix.

The quantities of the ingredients can vary with your own taste.  Normally 2-3 cups of  basil is the only baseline to follow.  The quantity of garlic is up to you.  The amount of pine nuts can be 1/4 cup at a minimum, or more if that's how you like it.  Pine nuts are also optional for those people shying away from eating nuts.  The olive oil is also up to you.  Same with the cheese.  Basically you can wing it with pesto and never go wrong with the taste.

Pesto sauce can be stored in air-tight containers or bottles, and you can freeze them up to three months.

6.  Off-the-shelf pesto products are easily accessible in the market

As an alternative, there are also off-the-shelf instant pesto sauce products sold in grocery stores.  They come in vacuum-sealed sachets or bottles that you can just heat and serve conveniently.  Here are a few of those products selling at Amazon Online Store:

Personally, my favorite easy-to-prepare pesto spaghetti meal is one topped with tuna flakes and liberally sprinkled with parmesan cheese.  I substitute grated cheese of any kind when the parmesan runs out.  At times, I replace tuna with shrimps or chicken strips, or any leftover in the fridge.   

Nowadays, whenever I eat out with family and friends, a good pesto meal is also one of my staple go-to no-brainer choice.  When I hate to peruse the menu and get torn over so many choices, I just immediately order pesto.  The pesto spaghetti meals served at Joey Pepperoni Pizzeria and The Old Spaghetti House are a couple of my favorites.

Having said that, I hereby rest my case about pesto. 


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