Discerning Diner...with Elan Head
Presto: Pesto!

I was all set to begin this column with another complaint about the heat, but reviewing previous issues, I see that Iím getting predictable.

Itís hot outside--big news. (If it werenít hot, now that would be a story.)

So instead of mentioning the suffocating weather that has me slouching around my apartment in a heat-induced stupor (it wouldnít do to dwell on it), Iím going to draw your attention to some happy byproducts of summer: basil and, by extension, pesto.

Is it possible to get sick of pesto? I have a friend with a luxuriant basil garden who tells me it is.

But Iíve never approached that state myself. If you rely, as I do, on farmersí markets and stores like Trader Joeís and Whole Foods for your fresh basil, itís hard to get enough of the stuff to get tired of it.

Basil is the most indispensable of fresh herbs--at least I think so.

Fresh herbs are always superior to dried, of course. But unlike, say, dried rosemary, which bears some resemblance to its fresh self, dried basil is so completely removed from fresh that they hardly deserve the same name.

Youíre certainly not going to make pesto from dried basil. And that means that pesto has a season: itís primarily a warm-weather treat.

The classic use for pesto is on pasta, particularly on long noodles like fettuccine and spaghetti. For one pound (four to six servings) of pasta, youíll need about two packed cups of washed fresh basil leaves.

The easiest way to make pesto is in a food processor, though with more trouble and oil you can pull it off in a blender (and, with more time, in a mortar with pestle). For the purposes of this discussion, Iíll assume you have a food processor.

In addition to the basil, youíll need two cloves of garlic, pressed or finely chopped; one-third cup extra virgin olive oil; and three to four tablespoons of pine nuts (which you can pick up at Whole Foods or Trader Joeís when you buy the basil).

Youíll also need a pinch of salt and one-third cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese. And no, the granulated stuff in a can wonít cut it.

Put the pine nuts, garlic, salt and basil in your food processor and pulse three or four times to chop and combine. Scrape down the sides and pulse again.

Now add the oil and pulse until the pesto is creamy, yet still has some texture. The basil should be very finely chopped, but you donít want it pulverized.

Add the cheese and pulse very briefly to combine. Taste the pesto and add more salt or oil if you think it needs it.

If the pesto seems thick, itís perfectly OK to add a little water in lieu of oil. (And for a reduced-fat pesto, you can reduce the oil to a few tablespoons and use a seeded, peeled tomato for moisture.)

Thatís it! Stir it into hot pasta, or use it to make my favorite pesto sandwiches: crusty bread, pesto, sliced tomato and sliced fresh mozzarella.

Basil pesto will discolor with exposure to air, so if you have any pesto leftover, pack it into a dish and press a piece of plastic wrap onto its surface. Stir before using again.

Canít find fresh basil? You can make a different ó but still delicious ó pesto by substituting fresh parsley, cilantro or arugula. None of these herbs will discolor.

You can also use almonds or walnuts in lieu of pine nuts; theyíre tasty and much cheaper.

The very best thing about pesto? It doesnít require any cooking. Now, if youíll excuse me, I have a heat-induced stupor to return to.