Festive Alternatives for Holiday Entertaining

Pesto… diverso

I have included pesto for holiday entertaining for its festive seasonal color, exquisite flavor, and for its many applications paired with other dishes, if not gloriously presented on its own with fresh homemade pasta or slathered on a slice of crusty bread.  I can’t think of a more delicious accompaniment as a flourish for a holiday meal.

Pesto...diverso

Pesto…diverso

Pesto predates the Renaissance and thought to have originated in Genoa.

Basically: basil – garlic – olive oil – nuts – grated cheese

I turned to Nancy Silverton’s Mozza Cookbook, as I often do, for guidance as I wanted a rustic pesto with all the flavor that you would find in the Italian countryside. The name Pesto refers to the pestle in Italian, and using a mortar and pestle to make pesto, sine qua non, is my method of choice. A bit of a work out but the results are worth all the effort, producing an infused flavor and gorgeous green color that out does any machine made pesto by a country mile.  

That said, as Italian basil is a rarity here in Thailand, except from my own garden, which is just now emerging from the monsoon season, as are pignoles (pine nuts), my options were to use  Thai basil , with its peppery flavor and hint of anise, and cashews  which produce an exceptionally, if decidedly different, robust aromatic pesto! Hand ground in a mortar with pestle, as is the norm here in Thailand, as well as in the Italian countryside, will produce an infused flavorful and aromatic pesto with a difference, which I urge you to try!  

Pesto:  makes 1 cup (or double the recipe if more is needed)

  • 2 tablespoons crushed toasted cashews
  • 1 large garlic clove, finely grated 
  • 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt plus more to taste
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped Thai sweet basil leaves
  • 1-1 ½  teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon or lime  zest
  • 2 tablespoons Parmigiano, Pecorino, Romano, or a combination of two

Toast the cashews in a dry pan until lightly toasted and crush them into bits.

Combine the grated garlic, flaky sea salt, cashews, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a mortar and grind while stirring in a circular motion with the pestle until the ingredients form a paste.

Add the chopped basil and 2 more tablespoons olive oil to the mortar and continue to grind and stir until the basil is pulverized and incorporated, resembling a course paste. You will now begin to realize that this is going to be a bit of a work out as promised, but well worth the effort I assure you!

Add the lemon or lime juice and zest to the mortar and continue to grind and stir until the mixture is further broken down and pulverized into an evolving smoother consistency. Then, while continuing to grind and stirring vigorously, slowly drizzle the remaining olive oil into the mixture and continue to grind and stir with conviction for several minutes!

Add the grated Parmigiano, or cheese of choice, and continue to grind and stir until the pesto emulsifies. That said, you will not achieve the emulsified texture of a machine processed pesto, but that is the point of making a hand hewed pesto. The resulting intensity of flavors and gorgeous color will be your well earned reward!

 Serve the pesto at room temperature, remixing just before using for various applications; fresh pasta, peperonata crostini (see recipe here), soups, meats, poultry, etc.

Serving the pesto fresh is unequivocally the best option, but the pesto can be refrigerated for up to two days before the color and flavor begins to fade.

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