A typical pesto pasta night at our house, Dec. 26, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

A typical pesto pasta night at our house, Dec. 26, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Kalifornsky Kitchen: A fresh start with pesto

It’s bright. It’s green. It’s fresh. It’s cheesy. What’s not to love?

I’ve been noticing a lot of people I know are making that viral TikTok recipe for baked feta pasta. The videos are mostly the same. They start with filling a baking dish with cherry tomatoes, olive oil, spices and a brick of feta cheese. It goes in the oven and cooked pasta is added and it’s all sort of mashed together until you have a tomatoey, cheesy sauce that coats the noodles. I’ve never had it before, but it reminds me of a dish that plays heavily into my dinner rotation.

I love pesto. It’s bright. It’s green. It’s fresh. It’s cheesy. What’s not to love? Another great thing about pesto is you can freeze it. I keep a container of the stuff in the freezer, and pull it out whenever I want to cook something that’s not labor intensive. My go-to pesto meal is inspired by “Alaska From Scratch,” a cookbook written by Kenai’s own Maya Wilson. She has a recipe that calls for halibut on a bed of pesto-coated pasta bejeweled with roasted and burst cherry tomatoes. It was one of the first recipes we made from her cookbook and it was so good that we decided to keep making the pasta part, whenever we wanted an easy meal.

Besides pasta, pesto can be added to so much. Slather it on toast, toss it with chicken and put it in a sandwich, use as a dip, dollop it on soup, coat it on roasted vegetables or make a compound butter with it.

Pesto relies heavily on herbs and olive oil and cheese. The better those are, the better your pesto will be. So keep this in mind when grocery shopping. In Alaska, especially in winter, herbs at the grocery store can be pretty sad and silty, or not available at all. I highly recommend taking advantage of local farms and hydroponic farms that are growing herbs fresh. Nothing beats fresh basil! If you can’t find basil, other leafy greens and herbs like spinach, kale, watercress, parsley, cilantro mint or sage will do. The flavor will be different, but you’ll still end up with a nice green sauce.

This recipe also calls for nuts, specifically pine nuts. I’ve found them in small individual bags in the produce section. The bag is the perfect size for making a batch of pesto. Don’t like pine nuts or you’re allergic to tree nuts? Basically any nut can be used in place. I’ve seen it all! When I was in college, my friends and I made a pistachio pesto. You could use almonds. Again, this will change the intended flavor, but you should still end up with a delicious herby sauce.

When it comes to freezing the sauce, I recommend a plastic jar. You could also use a gallon plastic bag and freeze it flat. I’ve heard of people making pesto ice cubes, which come already perfectly portioned out.

Also, keep in mind this recipe requires some special equipment: either a food processor or a mortar and pestle.

Ingredients

2 3⁄4 ounces of Parmesan and/or pecorino cheese (roughly 1 1⁄2 cups of cheese)

1⁄4 cup pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped

A pinch of salt to taste

1⁄3 cup of olive oil

2 1⁄3 ounces of basil leaves (about five cups)

1. Start by blending or grinding your chunks of cheese until they have the texture of coarse sand.

2. Next, add the garlic, salt and nuts and crush in the food processor or in the mortar until a smooth paste forms.

3. Roughly chop the basil leaves and add to the food processor or mortar, and blend until the herbs are combined with the other ingredients in the mix.

4. Add the oil at the end and mix until a creamy consistency forms. The pesto should look spreadable.

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