Pesto Party


Pesto Party

Monday, August 9th, 2010

I so wish that it could be called Festo Pesto but that would not be correct Italian (Festa Pesto is accurate). I did use that once for the party invitation because I thought that it was cool and few, if indeed any, of the participants knew any Italian at all. I call them participants because this is not your typical party. We make pesto of the best known basil variety. We make a LOT of pesto –  more than 5 gallons on one occasion. Let me start at the beginning. Over 20 years ago I was down at the local supermarket sometime, probably in early August, and found that bundles of basil were ridiculously cheap because it was at the peak of the season. So I thought “Why not give pesto a try?”. I bought handfuls of basil, some pine nuts, garlic and olive oil. Armed with my trusty cuisinart I cranked out lots of pesto. Great stuff. Reading further I found that if you don’t add the requisite cheese the stuff freezes magnificently. Being a little, well, lazy (pigro) and also a little cunning (furbo) I decided that I could get people to help out on this and benefit at the same time. Kind of like Tom Sawyer and painting the fence except with more benefits to the participants. So I invited a bunch of people over with the following proposition. Bring a one quart wide mouth jar and a quart of olive oil. Wide mouth is important because it’s going to get filled with pesto. I highly recommend that people divide it later at home into smaller jars because once defrosted and opened it will not last forever in the fridge. A jelly jar is about right. The quart of oil needs to be decent extra virgin olive oil. Nothing fancy smantsy but not the el cheapo of questionable origin. If it’s really cheap there’s probably a reason. I provide food, buy basil, garlic, nuts etc. We all make pesto. I wind up with plenty for the freezer and hopefully some left over olive oil to help defray the costs of the whole operation.  Oh, yes, I feed people too. I always have two pastas, one with last year’s pesto if available and usually a non basil sicilian pesto. There always some snacky things too – cheese, fruit, chips, etc. The success of the party has waxed and waned over the 20 successive years that I’ve had the party. That’s quite a milestone. The last few years there have been lots of people, usually 25-30 so that’s a lot of pesto. And that lazy part? Well this is really a lot of work both in the preparation and the cleanup so that didn’t work out so well but it’s a fun party to have. During these years I reserve lots of basil at produce purveyors to restaurants and markets and pick it up early on Saturday morning for the party later that day. I’ve had as many as 3 big boxes of it – 30 pounds. The photos below show the start of the process. The table set up with tools for production  – nice and clean at this point. The basil pickers starting to strip leaves off of the stems and the Dr. Squeeze who always provides the music.

I keep records from year to year to try and estimate the amount of each thing that I need to buy. It always varies some, especially depending upon the quality of the basil. Since I buy by the pound you never know how lush or scrawny the plants will be. I also have switched from pine nuts to walnuts because the walnuts work adequately and pine nuts just became ridiculously expensive. I bought a second cuisinart at a garage sale and various bowls and measuring cups for each cuisinart station to make the process easier. Some people like to pick basil leaves off of the stems and put them into containers for transport to the production area. Some people do the production duty –  the cuisinart crew.  At the end of the day a cooking funnel and ladle move the finished product into jars to take home (or go directly into my freezer). More photos below . The first cuisinart crew. This usually rotates as people volunteer or are “coaxed” into that role. Age is no limit as Sylvia (probably about 12 at the time) demonstrates. Hey, where did those flamingos come from. Next, the final product (over 5 gallons this time around) is being put into jars.

A work party is a lot of fun. People don’t just stand around and talk to people that they know because there is work to be done and they get to know each other pretty well after picking though a few pounds of basil, taking their turn at the production table and enjoying the wine and music. The question now is whether to continue the party. This year it just didn’t work out for various reasons but people have emailed asking when it is so I know that it a popular item. One more year and it will be an official adult. At the end of the day people are feeling good and we just need to toss out the stems – well, recycle.

What follows is a recipe for approximately 5 gallons of pesto. If that it a bit much then I recommend the first Marcella Hazan cookbook which is the basic recipe that I have used over the years.

Basil 30 pounds (4 cups per cuisinart load)

Walnuts 4 pounds ( 1/4 cup per load)

Galic 2 pounds (4 cloves per load)

Salt 5 ozs (1 tsp per load)

Olive oil until we run out of basil or oil (1 cup per load)

— add when dressing the pasta — combination of grated parmigiano and pecorino cheeses

Add the ingredients to cuisinart bowl and puree until smooth. Dump in bucket and repeat – a flexible spatula helps. A note on the salt. I find that 1 tsp is just slightly too much so after a while stir up the bucket contents and taste. If too salty don’t put in the salt for a while. When it starts to taste like it needs salt resume adding it.

Once you are ready to eat some of the fruits of your labors, you start cooking the pasta. You will need some grated cheese. Marcella says that it is best with a mix of about equal parts of pecorino and parmigiano, You know, she’s absolutely right. Leave out the pecorino and you have a suboptimal dish. I put pesto in a measuring cup and a little of the pasta cooking water just before it’s done. Also it pays to keep a little of this water around in case the concoction is too dry after you add the cheese. I have added one small refinement. In season I roughly chop some nice tomatoes and put them in the colander. I pour the cooked pasta and water over the tomatoes. They don’t cook but kinda get loosened up. The pasta and tomatoes go into a bowl, add the cheeses, mix, moisten if needed and feast!

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I would really be interested to know of other pesto experiences as well as other interesting themed parties. You can let me and others know with a comment.

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4 Responses to “Pesto Party”

  1. Bernadette Says:

    Multi bene, Guiseppe. Reliving the Pesto Party via blog is almost as good as the real thing. You bring that experience to life vividly. I know you needed a break. Maybe once every 5 years would be a possibility. As the cowboys (in spaghetti westerns?) used to say, “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em”.
    Ciao, Bernadette

  2. Joe Says:

    Bernadette,

    I’m glad that you liked it. It was fun to write and sort through the photos that would have the right balance. I’m enjoying the blog and have some interesting posts queued up. Hope to hear from you again soon. Maybe next year – the 21st Festa Pesto.

    Joe

  3. Kristine Says:

    Truly we mourned during those years when my teaching schedule required us to travel around the time of the annual pesto party and, oh, how are hearts and stomachs sang when we were in town.

    The whole concept works beautifully, especially as a temporary community. I always enjoyed meeting new people and reacquainting myself with previous years’ participants. Collaborating on a project, especially one that can get messyish, moves folks beyond the formality of typical cocktail-party talk and establishes an informal, open atmosphere. Plus, we get a big, honkin’ jar of pesto…and John’s music.

    Perhaps a casual sign-up for set-up and/or clean-up as well as pitching in for the ingredients would inspire another round, Joe…

  4. Joe Says:

    Kristine,

    Well, I’m seriously considering a 21st for next year. I’m glad it brought back fond memories. Check out the new post on the opera “Carmen”.

    Joe

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