Saturday, May 26, 2007

Have The Courage To Cook Simply -- Cilantro Pesto

Over the past few weeks, I've talked to quite a few people about cooking. I love to cook, always have. Lately, I've gotten the cooking bug back. Back with a vengeance, too. I'm always thinking of what I'm going to be cooking later. Always talking about it, apparently.

Some of my friends just don't cook. When I asked them why, it's obvious that they are intimidated. But, cooking is easy. They just don't know it. Grab half the cookbooks on the shelf of a bookstore and you'll see so many ingredients and steps that the newbie puts it back and heads to the drive through.

But, here's the secret. Keep it simple. Cook simply. Food is good. Fancy food isn't always better, it's just different. When in doubt, keep it simple. There are a few simple little things you can make and keep handy that make basic foods better. My number one such thing is a condiment called pesto.

Pesto means "paste" in Italian. In it's most simple and traditional form, pesto is a paste of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts. But remember, we're talking simple here. And, simple means you have to be able to find it all easily. Sometimes you can't find enough fresh basil at the supermarket to make a batch of pesto without breaking the bank. Pine nuts are expensive, too.

In Southern California, you can always find cilantro, the basic, staple herb of Mexican cooking. Sunflower seed kernels are pretty easy to find, too. Cotija cheese is a crumbly cheese in the cheese section of most grocery stores, but if you can't find it, go with Parmesan.

Finally, but most importantly, this is about you trying to impress someone, right? Lots of people have had the traditional basil pesto. The last thing you want to hear when you serve your meal is some "best pesto I ever had" story about some Italian restaurant that may or may not have been on a date...

Cilantro Pesto
2 cups of firmly packed cilantro leaves
1 large garlic clove
4 tablespoons raw or toasted sunflower seed kernels, divided
1/4 cup plus 2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup crumbled cotija (or Parmesan) cheese plus additional for garnishing

Using food processor (or a knife or blender (see below), which is harder, but still doable), blend cilantro leaves, the garlic clove, 2 tablespoons of the seeds, the the crumbled cotija cheese, and the 1/4 cup olive oil until the mixture is smooth. Add additional oil in small amounts, if necessary, to make a smooth paste.

Knife Pesto -- you sometimes find pesto made by chopping alone in some fancy restaurants. You just chop, chop, chop the ingredients, then chop some more.

Blender Pesto -- lots of little pulses, scrape down, pulse, scrape down, repeat for what seems like forever. A food processor is so much easier...

Serving the pesto

Once you have the pesto made, there are so many ways to use it. You'll like it so much that you'll want to make extra. Down at the bottom of this blog entry, check out a few storage methods, so you don't have to make the pesto every time you want to eat it.

Use the pesto for anything, but here are a few ideas. Remember, the pesto has a strong and robust taste, keep the foods pretty simple. That's why this is easy. The chicken may be the biggest thing on the plate, but the pesto is the main ingredient.

  • Top some grilled chicken with your pesto and serve with hot grilled vegetables, like zucchini, summer squash, and bell peppers
  • Toss some hot pasta with a little olive oil and a few tablespoons of pesto. Throw in some diced or shredded chicken or pork for a complete meal.
  • Grill some corn on the cob, straight on the barbecue or grill. Give it a light coating of pesto just before serving.
  • How about some gourmet quesadillas or tacos? Nothing run of the mill about a taco that's been spread with a thin layer of pesto before you fold the tortilla around the simple steak, chicken, or shrimp filling. Or, rather than guacamole next to a quesadilla, place a large spoonful of pesto there, instead. A tiny salad of diced avocado, bell peppers, red onion, and a bit of pesto for dressing brings it all together.
  • Pesto, thinned with a bit of half and half makes an excellent, creamy salad dressing, too.
  • Stir pesto into tortilla soup or fresh or jarred salsa for a change of pace.

Whatever you serve, a little extra crumbled or shaved cheese and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds makes a good garnish.

Storing the extra pesto

Pesto keeps well in the refrigerator, but, it turns dark very quickly. Use the tallest, narrowest jar you can find and pack it down. Just before it goes in the refrigerator, pour just enough olive oil over the top so that air cannot come in contact with the pesto. Cover the jar and put it away for up to a week.

For longer storage of your pesto, freeze it. I like to use an old ice cube tray to make pesto cubes, then break them out into a large ziplock bag. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight, before using them. You can use the microwave, but be careful, go slow, and don't nuke them until they are hot, just thawed. ...and never use these trays for ice cubes again!

Thank you for stopping by...

Okay, so I hope you enjoy what you can do with cilantro pesto. It's easy and unexpected. Having some handy can make a simple meal pretty good. Pesto is not something that most people expect to be served at someone's home, so you'll be in a good position. Someday, they'll regale someone else with the story of "the best pesto I ever had," so be happy that it will have been served by you.

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