Globe/Roger Nomer -- Darryl Altmon uses a mortar and pestle during a pesto demonstration at the Webb City Farmers' Market.

By Mike Pound


It’s one of those foods that just sounds sophisticated.

The sort of thing that some young couple living in an elegant apartment in New York would say to another young couple also living in an elegant apartment in New York.

“Scooter and Babs. You must stop by this evening. Prescott and I will whip up his famous pesto and we can talk about opera.”

Oh, and both young couples likely wear sweaters around their necks.

But guess what? Pesto is not so sophisticated. Pesto, it turns out, can be made by just about anyone. Even someone like me.

That’s right. I made a batch of pesto and I liked it. There! I said it.

I like pesto.

Darryl Altmon taught me and several other food-curious folks gathered at the Webb City Farmers’ Market last week to learn all about pesto. First of all, pesto, which gets its name from the Italian verb “pesta,” which means to pound or crush, has been around forever. The name is appropriate because to make a pesto the authentic way, the ingredients — most often basil, garlic and nuts — are crushed using a marble mortar and pestle. It’s a time-consuming, yet rewarding process much like kneading and rolling out your own bread dough.

Of course, time-consuming is not always the way folks want to go in the kitchen so it’s also possible and quite acceptable to use a blender or food processor to mix the pesto ingredients.

The key to any pesto is fresh basil. I suppose you could make a pesto using dried basil leaves, but I’m not sure the pesto gods would approve. But I’m guessing even a pesto made with dried basil leaves would be pretty good.

With the basil you also want to add some fresh parsley, garlic cloves, pine nuts and allspice berries. Olive oil, Parmesan cheese and kosher salt round out the list of basic pesto ingredients. Altmon said since pine nuts tend to be some what pricey, it’s perfectly acceptable to substitute another more common type of nut such as almonds or walnuts. You may also use black peppercorns in place of allspice berries, Altmon said.

The great thing about pesto is that it can be tweaked to suit your individual tastes or preferences. For example, Altmon’s basic recipe for Pesto Genovese calls for four to six cloves of garlic ... which is fine if you’re a garlic lover and don’t plan on going out in public for at least 24 hours. But if you’re not a huge garlic lover or if you don’t need to ward off vampires any time soon, you can opt to cut the amount of garlic. You may also add sun-dried tomatoes if you prefer a red pesto paste as opposed to the traditional green paste.

Once prepared, pesto can be used in a variety of ways. The most common use is to mix it with your favorite pasta. What you do is boil up the pasta and add about 2 tablespoons of the pasta water to about 1/3 cup of pesto and mix the pesto into the drained pasta. Altmon suggests serving the pesto-pasta with a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of dry red wine.

As an appetizer, pesto can also be spread directly onto bread. Since pesto also goes very well with tomatoes, a nice variation is to mix some chopped tomatoes with some pesto and spread the mixture onto slices of French bread and toast it with a dash of olive oil drizzled on top.

Altmon provided the following pesto recipes:

Pesto genovese

4 to 6 cloves of garlic, peeled.

1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1/4 cup pine nuts (roasted or browned in olive oil)

2 or 3 allspice berries (or black peppercorns)

About 16 large basil leaves

2 sprigs parsley

6 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup olive oil

In a mortar and pestle, pound garlic and salt together until thoroughly mashed and as smooth as possible. Pound in nuts and allspice until mixed in well. Pound in basil, parsley and cheese until as smooth as you can get it. Put into a bowl and slowly add olive oil, stirring constantly. Use immediately or freeze.

To speed up the process, put all ingredients except the olive oil into a food processor or blender and pulse until very fine. Run processor or blender while pouring in olive oil in a thin stream, making the mixture as smooth as possible.

Scalloped potatoes al pesto

4 cups very thinly sliced potatoes

1 medium onion, very thinly sliced

3 tablespoons butter, softened

2 tablespoons pesto

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Salt and pepper to taste

About 1/2 cup hot milk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Thoroughly mix butter and pesto together. Grease a 11/2-quart casserole and cover bottom with a layer of potato and onion. Sprinkle with some of the flour, pepper and salt (be cautious with the salt; remember, your pesto already has some in it.) Dot with the butter pesto mixture. Repeat layering, ending with a layer of potato. Dot with butter mixture. Add enough hot milk to almost cover potato layer. Bake covered, about 45 minutes, uncover and bake for another 15 minutes to lightly brown.

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