- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Ask a die-hard martini drinker for his recipe, and I’ll bet a nickel it will include a specific gin. The same die-hard drill goes for

pesto. There is the traditional version versus the faux.

Pesto is a simple basil sauce from Italy’s Ligurian region — the recipe so old that it is said to predate the tomato by 1,500 years. Today’s pesto is a sauce of fresh basil leaves, fruity olive oil, sweet pine nuts, garlic and salt. Maybe Parmesan cheese is added. Maybe not. Pesto is always served fresh, never cooked.

However, things change. Ever since pesto entered the American mainstream culinary vocabulary in the mid-1970s, all kinds of ingredients and flavors have been contenders.

The word pesto is no longer a noun for a specific sauce. It has morphed into a process.

Sensing a good thing, chefs are making pesto with spinach, parsley, mint and other leafy greens. But why stop there? Deconstruction has become rampant as walnuts, almonds and cashews are substituted for pine nuts.

Olive oil has given way to other nut oils, and the star of the show, basil, has been replaced by sun-dried tomatoes or chilies. Just about any food can be pesto-ized. Fine. But please, call the result a sauce, not pesto.

In Italian, pesto means a sauce pounded in a mortar.

Today, most home cooks prefer the speed of whirling it in a food processor.

The recipe is easy. American basil leaves come in all sizes, many of them large. Gently break the biggest leaves into small pieces with your fingers, and please be gentle so the leaves are not crushed.

Since American garlic is quite a bit stronger than its Italian cousin, use discretion and choose a small clove.

The olive oil should be fruity and on the light side. As for the salt, try using coarse salt rather than table salt, which some purists believe has off flavors. Pulse the ingredients in the food processor just until the sauce comes together. It should have a pleasant texture.

Some people add Parmesan cheese at this point, but I prefer to leave it out. When I harvest my herb garden crop, I freeze many jars of plain pesto. Later, cheese can be grated fresh over a finished dish. The same goes for such other additions as softened butter or creme fraiche.

Perfect pesto has tons of uses but is most often paired with pasta. Spread some on bruschetta.

Stir a few tablespoons into soup. Use it as a topping for grilled vegetables. Make a topping for an open-face sandwich. Mix it into ricotta cheese for lasagna.

Mix it into cottage cheese for lunch. Or mix it into mayonnaise and add it to potato salad. I love it on cream cheese-spread bagels for breakfast.

Classic basil pesto has so much appeal, no wonder it has imitators. Just don’t call those wannabes pesto.

Food processor pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves

cup light, fruity olive oil

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 medium cloves garlic, lightly crushed and peeled

teaspoon kosher salt or more to taste

cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional

2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese, optional

3 tablespoons softened butter, optional

Put the basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic cloves and salt in a blender and pulse, stopping from time to time to scrape the ingredients down from the sides of the processor with a rubber spatula. When the ingredients are evenly blended, you have a choice.

To use later, transfer mixture into a jar and refrigerate or freeze. To use immediately, pour the mixture into a bowl and stir in the Parmesan and pecorino Romano cheeses by hand.

When the cheese has been incorporated, beat in the softened butter, if using. Makes 2 cups.

Tomato, garlic crouton and pesto omelet

Omelets are fast and satisfying, as good at lunch and dinner as they are at breakfast. Here’s one that celebrates the flavors of the Mediterranean.

You will have more croutons than you need. Save the leftovers for soup or salad.

4 slices sturdy white bread

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

2 large or extra-large eggs

1 teaspoon water

Pinch of coarse salt

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

to ⅓ cup grated mozzarella cheese

2 tablespoons homemade or store-bought pesto

1 small tomato or 4 cherry tomatoes, cut into bite-size chunks

Cut bread into cubes and toss with oil and garlic in a bowl. Spread cubes on a baking sheet and toast them in 300-degree oven for 15 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Transfer to a plate. When you’re ready to make the omelet, have all the ingredients ready nearby.

Crack eggs into a small bowl. Add the water and salt and beat lightly. Place a nonstick omelet pan over medium-high heat and add the butter. When it starts to sizzle, add the eggs. Stir the eggs with a fork (tines up) in a circular motion.

When the eggs start to set and form curds, spread them out evenly across the bottom of the pan. Immediately turn the heat to very low. Wait a few seconds and, when the top layer of egg is almost entirely set, sprinkle cheese over the surface.

Dot the surface with the pesto. Scatter the tomatoes and a handful of the croutons over half of the omelet and fold the other half over the filled side. Slide the omelet out of the pan and serve at once. Makes 1 serving.

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