Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I’m out of pesto… SO… MAKE PESTO!

I often tell people that culinary school can teach you preparations, but actually working in a restaurant is the only way you really learn to cook. After nearly a year of school and a lifetime of practice, I found myself working an internship at a NYC restaurant. Eager to please and show my skills, but trapped doing prep work and completely mundane yet necessary tasks (such as defatting a 20-gallon tub of brown sauce) these are the times that teach you humility. Then the day came when I was given the opportunity to work the line and, through time, dinner service. This was when I learned the true differences between what school could teach you and, the real world.

One important lesson to learn: you are only as strong as the prep cook who prepared your station. When you’re a novice, it’s easy to forget this. If you don’t check the walk-in and lowboy for every protein, sauce, and ingredient you may need (don’t forget salt and pepper) then you are doomed to fail.

Is the pasta water seasoned? Check.
Do you have enough clean sauté pans? Check.
Is your oven on and at the right temp? Check.

You get the picture. Thinking along these lines made me remember the day I truly learned this lesson. It was a busy Saturday night about two hours into service when I had five tables lined up on the horizon and was firing three sauces over two burners. I reached down to my lowboy for the pesto when I realized the container was done and… there wasn’t another container to be had.

I looked over to the sous chef, who was garnishing plates at breakneck pace, and yelled “We’re out of Pesto!”

Without even skipping a beat, hands continuing to work as his head turns to me with a look in his eyes like death itself, he growls “SO… MAKE PESTO… NOW!”

Granted, I’ve made pesto many times in my life, at home and in school. But the idea of stopping what I was doing and making pesto in enough time to get my food to the pass at the same time as the rest of the Chefs in the kitchen seemed impossible. The next 60 seconds was a blur: run to get the basil and Parmigiano Reggiano from the walk-in. Run back to the kitchen, grabbing the pine nuts, garlic and olive oil from dry storage. And, finally, setting up the immersion blender on my station.

Next I heard the poissonnier (fish cook) yell, “scallops almost up!” This was a main ingredient in my dish.

I was almost out of time as I placed a few cloves of peeled garlic and pine nuts into the blender on high. I then rough chopped the basil before also adding it to the blender. Next came the olive oil. There I was, grating cheese as quickly as possible while watching the consistency of the pesto. As soon as it looked smooth, I added the cheese with a pinch of salt and pepper, and gave it another whirl. Taste, season, a little more cheese, taste and season again. DONE.

Was it the best pesto I’ve ever made? I doubt it. But it was good and my plate made it to the pass. What I don’t understand, as I think back on that moment, is why so few people make pesto at home. The fact is that it’s one of the easiest sauces to make in a hurry, especially now with spring in the air and fresh basil popping up at local markets.

I guess this post is my testament to everyone out there: MAKE PESTO! Heck, you should even grow your own basil. All you need is a windowsill with good sun and you’ll find yourself with enough basil to garnish, season with, and still make pesto. Toss it with pasta, gnocchi, seafood… the sky’s the limit.

Lastly, I’ve even given you a quick pesto recipe to get you started. But don’t stop here: you can substitute the pine nuts for all manner of nuts. You can experiment by adding a bit of other fresh herbs or even different grating cheeses. It’s all about your palate but, no matter what you do, I guarantee you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to make great pesto.

Basil Pesto

This preparation happens very quickly and it’s important not to let the pesto get too warm in the food processor so be careful not to over use.

3 cups chopped basil
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano (Gran Padano is a good affordable alternative)
3 cloves minced garlic
1 cup E.V. Olive Oil (have more on the side in case you prefer a looser consistency)

In a food processor, place the garlic and pine nuts and pulse until finely chopped. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and the basil, and turn the food processor to low or medium speed. Gradually add more oil and, lastly, the Parmigiano cheese. Once the mix looks consistent, turn off the processor and taste. Season with salt and pepper, pulse a few times, and taste again. If you’re happy, then you’re done.

Chill for later use or use immediately.

The dish, in the photo above, was a pumpkin tortellini with pesto and toasted pine nuts. A really great combination and paired perfectly with a Hofstätter, Pinot Bianco.

2008 J. Hofstätter Pinot Bianco - Aromas of pear, pineapple and mint rise from the glass. A crisp, cool white with peach, honey dew melon and a bit of cut grass. Balanced and refreshing with melon lingering on the finish.

To find this wine on Wine-Searcher, click here!

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