Homemade pesto

Now that spring and summer are officially on the horizon, pesto will become a staple in my kitchen (more than it already is). The beauty about pesto is that basil, Genovese basil to be exact, is readily available in the warm and hot months and I can just walk to my vegetable garden and pick a few leafs. Last summer, my friend Sharon surprised me with a full load of basil, literally.

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See, Sharon leaves in Albemarle County and her vegetable garden is at least three times the size of my little speck in the ground. She called, asked if I wanted “a little basil” and off I went, happy as a clam to be receiving some tasty garden offerings. Little did I know that what Sharon meant as “little” was really at least 10 whole plants – with roots attached. We run out of bags and decided to just throw everything in the trunk, that way I would be able to do my initial “cleaning” from the car.

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This is what I was working with: three bags full of aromatic basil (the aroma lingered in my car for at least a week – not that I am complaining, mind you).

The very first step in preparing for pesto making is the simplest, yet most time-consuming: washing. Every basil leaf needs to be plucked and washed thoroughly. The stem is too stringy, tough and bitter. It is also really important to inspect every single leaf – if it’s wilted or is excessively damaged, toss it. I plucked, washed and inspected every single leaf. Throughout the process, I asked myself whether I would like pesto once the ordeal was over. It turns out I still love it.

The simplest way to clean and wash the leaves is to fill the kitchen sink with water and let the basil soak in it for a few minutes.

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Pour the leaves into a colander, fill up the sink with water and soak the leaves once again. Repeat this process until the water is clean with absolutely no dust or debris. It took me 6 hours to wash the three bags of basil!

What you need:

Parmigiano Reggiano
Pine nuts
Garlic
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Take a fistful of fresh, clean basil leaves and place them into a food processor. There are really no true measurements for making pesto. Depending on how tangy you want the mixture, you can adjust the ingredients. I love a bitter/tangier pesto and for that I add quite a lot of garlic and Parmigiano Reggiano. If you like a sweeter pesto – to use as a marinade or as a meat sauce, add more pine nuts and be mindful of the amount of garlic.

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Season with salt and pepper to taste. Grind the ingredients to your preferred texture. Tip: if you use pesto with pasta, you can leave it a bit chunkier than you would a meat marinade.

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That’s it! You are done! You can use the fresh pesto for a quick lunch or dinner or you can can it. With my load of basil, I decided to can it and freeze it for posterity. At the end of the process, I had 11 jars of fresh pesto! I gave some to Sharon and others as house warming gifts.

To can, pour the pesto into the jar making sure that it coats all the sides of the jar. Once it’s filled to the brim, close it up and place it in the freezer –  it will last you for months, in fact, I have been eating pesto all winter long.

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Tip: Once you start using a jar, add extra virgin olive oil to the remainder pesto and store in the fridge. Even if the basil will darken in color, it’s still as delicious as before.

pesto9_logoTry this delicious summer treat: Pasta with homemade pesto, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella bites. Let me know what you think!

Out and About: 5 days in Madrid

Excuse the blog silence, but I had a lot of eating and culturing to do in Madrid. What a city! I was somewhat familiar with the lifestyle, the cuisine (both similar to my own), but, boy, this trip was a wake-up call. In between tapas, paellas, jamon Iberico, strolls in Plaza Santa Ana and breathtaking museum exhibits, I found myself again. Sure, trips to dynamic, metropolitan capitals would tend to make anyone think about his or her own existence, but somehow, it was different this time.

My daily life has become a monotonous ritual: home – work – home. Detours are rare. Not good. In Madrid, and that’s true for Italy as well, people take their free time seriously. Every afternoon/evening on our trip, people were out and about, sipping sangria, a cold cerveza, and enjoyed each other’s company. In Madrid, life is centered on living, and I mean…really living. I promised myself I would take note and start throwing some curve balls to my daily routine; nothing fancy, but just enough to feel more alive: a stroll in our gorgeous neighborhood alongside Francesco, a late dinner with dancing, a relaxing afternoon my the waterfall in our backyard. Simple things.

We landed in Madrid early Saturday and took the metro to the city’s bustling downtown district, where our hotel was located. We dropped off our luggage and hopped with excitement down the street. This was the first trip Francesco and I took by ourselves in a long time and I wanted to savor every little piece of it. The photo below was taken at Plaza del Sol, where Madrid’s official code of arms is represented with a larger than life statue.

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We decided to start our tour at one of Madrid’s most famous plazas: Plaza Mayor. The public square had many different uses throughout history including being the location for public executions during the Spanish Inquisition.

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It’s a stunning spectacle of architecture, culture and history and a center of life for Madrilenos to this day. I am a history nerd, so I stopped to inhale every scent, every sight and sound of that plaza. Much of our trip was punctuated by historical monuments and architectural brilliance, but I would be lying if I said food played no role. In fact, it was our companion day and night. Jet legged and famished, Francesco and I made our move: we had heard about this great indoor market where we could find delicious treats. Here enters Mercado San Miguel, an incredible mix of tourists and townspeople looking for the best lunch or snack in town.

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The sight as we entered…and we thought that Madrid was already near and dear to our heats. Jamon Iberico was everywhere we turned. The smell of smoked and cured meat was so enticing, it literally accelerated our hunger to the point that at 11am, we decided to just go with it and eat everything we felt like.

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Our first meal in Madrid consisted of this: The famous and utterly mouth watering jamon iberico with Manchego cheese served in a crunchy baguette. We could not have been happier to have discovered such a gem. The deal with cured meat is simple: growing up in Italy, one has unobstructed access to prosciutto (cotto or crudo), mortadella, bresaola, salame, coppa, pancetta, and the list goes on and on. But when one leaves Italy and moves to the United States, one realizes that the same quality products are really hard to find…hence, our ridiculous exuberance at the first taste of the jamon.

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But when you are in Spain, it would be an inexcusable miss to avoid paella entirely. See, when I was a teenager, my parents bought a motor home that allowed us to travel through Europe during the summer months. One year, we ventured westward and trekked along the Spanish coast from Barcelona to Tenerife (unbelievable and unforgettable trip). At one of our very first stops, mom, dad, brother and I dove into big portions of paella, which turns out to be one of my favorite dishes in the world. Of course, I was not going to let this one go by.

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It is not a joke when I say I would have eaten the entire pan, but alas, the tapas size (about 2 cups) was perfect to satiate my delirious appetite. Francesco and I looked at each other and we knew we had found El Dorado. The city itself was dynamic, loud, cultured and it was all represented in its architecture, a mixture of styles that assembled together clearly resembled its essence. We walked for miles and miles, but never once thought of us as tired or exhausted. The sky was clear, the sun shined, our belly were full and our hearts really were close to explosion.

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Dinner usually happened no earlier than 8pm and included some sort of meat or its derivatives. Our first night, we opted for the traditional tapas in the beautiful Plaza Santa Ana, a quick walk from our hotel. We sat with our city guide book and took it all in: slices of jamon Iberico, slices of Manchego cheese and my personal favorite: croquetas de jamon, fried potato dumplings with cheese and diced jamon.

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We had heard that the most traditional, oldest and authentic restaurants in Madrid were in the cuevas, underground caves that were converted into restaurants. By walking through Plaza Mayor, we stumbled into this cueva gem: Restaurante Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, founded in 1949. According to its history, the restaurant is named after Luis Candela, a legendary bandit that is said to have robbed the rich to give to the poor.

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The restaurant was literally carved out in the underbelly of Madrid. An incredible experience. Sure, the cuevas were more expensive than every restaurant we tried, but the sensory experience was enough to make that hefty bill be legitimate and worth it.

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Although this restaurant is known for its roasted suckling pig or Madrid stew, Francesco and I went traditional tapas again. Almost every night, our dinner looked like this:

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Even breakfast was a meal to take seriously. The very last day, we told ourselves we deserved a treat, from start to finish. It turns out, Madrid’s preferred desayuno is chocolate with churros. The chocolate is not the typical American hot chocolate, but it’s much similar to what my mom used to make us kids on dark and cold winter nights: tick, bitter dark chocolate with just a hint of milk to make it drinkable. I dunked my churros, fried pastry, into the chocolate over and over again. After “drinking” that beverage, I needed a cold bottle of water. It was so insanely delicious.

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For lunch, we didn’t even try finding a little restaurant, but went directly to Mercado San Miguel, where we feasted on paella, jamon Iberico, Manchego cheese and what closely resembled small salami. We ate more jamon in this trip than I can honestly reveal, but let’s just say that I am perfectly OK with not eating it for a while.

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For dinner, we asked for recommendations and we ended up eating one exquisite meal – meat paella full of chicken, lamb, beef with a mountain of bell peppers, peas and mushrooms. I even drank an alcoholic digestif! Cream of chocolate with cherries. I went to bed happy.

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This trip has taught me not to take life so seriously. Enjoy the good, the bad and the in-between, because all we experience makes us that much richer. Hasta luego Madrid, we’ll see you soon!

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