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Counter Intelligence: Pesto is summer in the freezer

By April Hamilton
April Hamilton
The local basil crop continues until first frost, which allows plenty of time to build up a supply.
Kenny Kemp Use a food processor to puree basil with olive oil and herbs.
Kenny Kemp Freeze pesto in ice cube trays to make pesto cubes to use all winter.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It is the first day of fall. While most people embrace the change of seasons, I have my heels dug in, clinging to summer.

Don't get me wrong, I love fall -- the crisp temperatures, the colorful leaves, even the cuisines that arrive when the mercury subtly drops. As much as I enjoy it, I fear what lies beyond, and I truly dread leaving the warmth of sunny summer days behind.

But I have figured a way to carry summer with me, to brighten a gray day. Pesto! I turn to my cache of frozen pesto cubes. Summery, green, fragrant, flavorful pesto.

If you've not been converted to this traditional Italian sauce, its freshness and versatility will win you over.

This classic combination of fresh basil, garlic and olive oil -- and, if you like, Parmesan cheese and pine nuts -- is more than just the sum of its parts.

It is a gorgeous sauce that clings to linguini. A tasty addition to a simple marinara sauce. A fabulous base for a salad dressing. Sandwich spread, soup topping -- the list never stops. As a bonus, these key components are actually rich with health benefits. Really!

Now is the time to begin the great stockpile of this summer staple. Make a batch and fill your ice cube trays. Freeze. Repeat. Stash the frozen emerald jewels in freezer bags and when the summer craving strikes, let your imagination soar.

The local basil crop continues until first frost, which allows plenty of time to build up your supply. Break out the food processor, gather your ingredients and puree a pesto party that will bring you delicious joy in the coming seasons. Buon appetito!

Pesto

A traditional basil-garlic sauce. Make a little extra for pizzas or other savory creations.

Pesto keeps in the refrigerator for two weeks or well-wrapped in the freezer for months. To preserve its green color, drizzle a thin layer of olive oil on top of the pesto in the container. To freeze, divide pesto into ice cube trays and freeze until solid. Pop the cubes out into freezer bags, squeeze out the air and seal (zip-top bags work well).

     3     fresh garlic cloves

     Salt to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon)

     3    cups fresh basil leaves

     1/3  cup extra-virgin olive oil

     1/2  cup freshly grated Parmesan (optional) (see note)

COMBINE the basil, salt, garlic and half the oil in a food processor or blender.

PROCESS until chopped, scraping down the sides occasionally. With motor running, add remaining oil, processing until incorporated.

TRANSFER pesto to a small bowl and stir in the cheese. Cover surface with plastic wrap. Chill until ready to use.

Note: Other hard cheeses may be substituted: Grana Padano, asiago, Pecorino Romano are all good choices. Cheese is considered optional.

Pasta with Pesto

Once you have tossed your pasta and pesto together, any leftovers can be refrigerated. This actually makes a great cold pasta salad.

Additional mix-ins can create fun variations. Depending on the season, add halved cherry tomatoes, blanched asparagus spears (cook with the pasta during the final 2 to 3 minutes), fresh sautéed mushrooms.

     1     batch pesto

     1     pound dry pasta (see note)

     1/2  cup cooking water reserved (use a large soup ladle to remove)

BRING a large pot of salted water to a boil.

COOK the pasta, uncovered, until it is tender but firm (al dente); the package gives a cooking time.

PUT pesto in a large bowl, for serving. Whisk about half of the reserved pasta cooking water into pesto. Add drained pasta to thinned pesto and toss well.

Note: Choose your favorite pasta shape for this colorful dish. Spaghetti and linguine are good choices, but my preference is the festive farfalle. Note the cooking time on the package -- all shapes have distinct cooking times.

Super Fast Marinara

No need to slow-simmer for hours -- this sauce cooks quickly.

     1     tablespoon olive oil

     1     onion, finely chopped

     1     small carrot, peeled and grated

     1    28-ounce can diced tomatoes

     2     cubes pesto (2 to 3 tablespoons)

HEAT oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.

ADD the chopped onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the carrot and cook 1 minute.

INCREASE the heat to medium-high and stir in the tomatoes and their juice. Cook for about 10 minutes, adjusting heat to keep sauce at a soft bubble, not a raging boil, until juices are slightly reduced and sauce thickens.

ADD the frozen pesto cubes and stir to blend.

SERVE over cooked pasta, or use for lasagna. Or make a grilled mozzarella sandwich, cut into "sticks" and use the sauce for dipping.

April Hamilton has always said, "Cooking is fun!" She shares her easy, practical recipes for delicious food through her cooking classes for kids and families. April's husband and three daughters help with testing and tasting in their Charleston kitchen. April would love to hear from you: Email aprilskitchencounter@gmail.com.


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