It seems to be the way of things for the Western world to appropriate ingredients from other cultures and make them their own. As Anthony Bourdain said in Parts Unknown, "The story of food is the story of appropriation, and war, and mixed marriages, and, you know, it constantly changes."
Our eagerness to conquer new ingredients means they often end up misused. In some cases they get over-used and end up being discarded in favour of the next trend, like sundried tomatoes in the 1990s.
Pesto seems to have survived the whims of food fashion (though some highly dubious iterations have been spawned), largely by virtue of its name and meaning. The word comes from the Italian verb "pestare", which means to crush or pound. Traditional Ligurian pesto is made by pounding basil leaves (the best come from the coastal town of Pra), with coarse salt, garlic, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil, Italian pine nuts and grated parmesan cheese. Pesto alla Genovese has the DOP (Protected Designation of Origin) label, which means that only pesto made this way, and with these ingredients, can be called Genovese, after the capital city of Liguria.
But thanks to the name pesto, a variety of sauces made with ingredients other than the classic Ligurian recipe can be found throughout Italy and the world. In Italy alone you will find pesto made with herbs including marjoram, mint, parsley, sage, oregano and rocket, and vegetables such as eggplant, chicory, peas, fennel, broccoli or zucchini. While pine nuts are traditional to Ligurian basil pesto, pesto is also made in Italy with almonds, walnuts, pistachios and hazelnuts.
In Emilia-Romagna, they make pesto Modenese with lard, rosemary, garlic and parmigiano reggiano. When we lived up the coast from Trapani, in western Sicily, we would often eat fresh busiate pasta — little pieces of pasta dough rolled around a knitting needle —with pesto alla Trapanese, which was made with basil (sometimes a little mint), tomatoes, garlic, almonds and olive oil. In some places they would add ricotta, which made the pesto creamier and gave it a gentler taste.
Another lovely pesto I discovered in Sicily uses almonds, basil, orange zest and capers. This makes a great topping for grilled fish. The Sicilians also do a great pistachio pesto, which has a wonderfully verdant green colour. It's made by pounding or blending pistachios with a mix of mint and basil, pecorino, garlic and olive oil. If you don't like nuts or you want to cut down on costs, you can leave out the nuts entirely or just use a few — this version is called pesto povera.
Summer basil is still growing in profusion but as we move into autumn, the basil harvest will come to an end. If you haven't made it already, now is the time to make basil pesto. It freezes well in ice cube moulds, so you can bring it out later in the year when the weather is grey and dull and bring to the table a perfumed, intoxicating flavour that's redolent of summer.
Summer Basil Pesto
Ready in 5 mins
Makes 1½ cups
This pesto is quite runny, so it's perfect for drizzling over a soup or salad, stirring through pasta or spreading into a sandwich. If you want it thicker, add more nuts or reduce the oil. Purists will tell you that a mortar and pestle crushes the ingredients and so releases their flavour more fully than the chopping action of a blade in a food processor but blitzing works perfectly well. Remove all the tough stems from the basil as these make the pesto brown.
2 packed cups basil leaves, tough stems removed
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1¼ cups olive oil
¼ cup grated parmesan
½ tsp salt
Ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup pine nuts or almonds, lightly roasted
Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and whizz until smooth. Store in the fridge for up to a week, covered with a thin layer of oil to prevent the top from oxidising and going brown, or freeze in small containers.
Yvonne's pick: Congratulations. You are at least contemplating making pesto yourself — and that makes you a kitchen god or goddess in my book. Celebrate your culinary ambitions by pouring yourself a glass of the Saint Clair Dawn Marlborough Methode Traditionelle 2015 ($49). Neil Ibbotson had wanted to make a classic sparkling wine ever since he first grew grapes back in 1978. However in 2012, when his mum, Dawn, was about to turn 100, the decision was made to finally do it. The 2015 vintage is very much like its namesake, vibrant, crisp, slightly nutty and packed with personality. It's a finely-tuned fizz honouring the life of a legendary lady who passed away in January at the age of 105. saintclair.co.nz
Ready in 25 mins
In the south of France everyone makes their own version of this classic soup. I usually dice the vegetables into 1cm pieces but if you prefer them chunkier you can chop them bigger. Using boiling stock ensures the soup remains bright and fresh. You can also add some cooked pasta to make it a more substantial meal.
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 potatoes, peeled and finely diced
1 large onion, finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 large handfuls green beans, trimmed and quartered
2 zucchini, peeled and finely diced
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
6 cups boiling vegetable stock
2 tomatoes, cored and finely diced
2 cups peas or peeled broad beans
½ cup basil pesto (above)
½ cup grated parmesan, plus extra to serve
Toasted rustic bread, to serve (optional)
Heat oil in a large pot over a medium-low heat and cook the potato, onion and carrot for 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the beans and zucchini and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper, add boiling stock, tomatoes and peas or broad beans and boil rapidly until the potato is cooked through (about 5 minutes).
During the last minute of cooking, stir in pesto and parmesan. Taste and adjust seasonings as required. Serve in warmed bowls with extra parmesan and bread, if desired, on the side.
Yvonne's pick: Pair this vege-tastic, bean-stacked, potato and pesto-packed soup with the shiny, new, Jules Taylor Marlborough Chardonnay 2019 ($24). Its roasted stone fruit and grilled citrus notes on the nose merge like a zip with soft nougat and brulee flavours in the mouth, making it a creamy, silky chardonnay that'll soothe the throat and clear the nostrils nicely. Not overtly oaky, and definitely soothing, it's ballerina-balanced and will easily please the crowds at any occasion.
Greek-style Lamb Salad
Ready in 20 mins
Thinning pesto with a little oil is a great way to make an instant dressing for this easy salad meal. You can use grilled chicken in place of the lamb if preferred.
4 lamb leg steaks
1 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
120g (5 handfuls) spinach or rocket leaves
2 spring onions, finely chopped
200-300g cherry tomatoes, halved
2 Lebanese cucumbers, sliced
400g green beans, lightly cooked, drained and refreshed
2 Tbsp capers
10-12 pitted kalamata olives, chopped (optional)
Zest and juice of 1 lemon, finely grated
60-100g feta or goat's cheese, crumbled
¼ cup basil pesto (above) thinned with 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Rub lamb with oil and season with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy frying pan over medium-high heat and sear lamb for about 4 minutes each side until cooked to your liking (for medium-rare it should feel quite soft when you press the centre). Remove from pan, cover with tinfoil and a clean tea towel and allow to rest.
While lamb rests, make salad by placing spinach or rocket, spring onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and capers in a salad bowl. Slice lamb thinly across the grain and add to salad along with meat juices from the board and lemon zest and juice. Toss to combine then sprinkle with feta or goat's cheese and drizzle with thinned pesto to serve.
Yvonne's pick: Ex-Whitehaven winemaker Simon Smail has let loose on his own label with the Sea Level Nelson Pinot Noir 2015 ($27.95), and the results (when paired with lamb) are nuts-good, really showing what Nelson's capable of delivering on the pinot noir front. Gorgeous aromas of wild strawberries, herbal tea, cherry, hints of fruitwood smoke, rhubarb leaf and concentrated cranberry characters make it a new favourite sip for me. The tannins are juicy and elastic, and the finish is long and earthy. sealevelwines.co.nz
Annabel's duo of Essential savoury and sweet books (Annabel Langbein Media, $65 each) create a beautiful compendium of her best-ever recipes and cooking tips. Alone or together, they make a wonderful gift or treat for yourself, and are on sale now at all good bookstores or online at annabel-langbein.com. Follow Annabel Langbein on Facebook or Instagram to find out more.