Spiced-Up Store-Bought Pesto

One of my favorite foods in the whole-wide world is pesto. Sadly, growing up in an Italian household, I’ve been spoiled by the homemade stuff and I absolutely flat-out refuse to eat any version that’s not fresh or supremely comparable.

Last week le boyfriend and I had an INTENSE craving for some pesto, but we don’t own a food processor and neither one of us have yet to receive a paycheck since we’ve been in Boston. One day le boyfriend tried making a rustic pesto with a mortar and pestle (except we don’t own a mortar and pestle, so it was more like with a bowl and a spoon). I wish I had taken some photos of that. It was certainly a sight to behold.

Aside from our one rustic attempt, we’ve had to resign ourselves to the store-bought stuff. This displeases me. You would think a good pesto wouldn’t be that hard to make and package. Its basic ingredients are basil, olive oil, parmesan cheese, pine nuts or walnuts, garlic and salt. You don’t even need a recipe, you can just combine all the ingredients until you get the right proportions. Not that I’m not advocating a recipe, which is obviously handy if you want to save yourself some trouble, but I’d say most good pesto is 95% intuition and 5% stellar recipe.

There are myriads of store-made pestos out there, but to be honest they all sort of suck. Most store-bought brands skimp on the cheese (too perishable), the basil (too expensive and not always in season), and the pine nuts (too uncommon), leaving the sauce over-oiled, bland and filled with random additions like lemon, vinegar or sugar too keep the pesto on the shelves as long as possible. My very biggest pet peeve is the use of canola oil instead of EVOO. What can these people possibly be thinking?! Canola oil!? Give me a break.

So what’s an urban foodie to do if she doesn’t want her pasta to taste crappy but doesn’t want to shell out $10 for a 4 oz container (i’m not joking) at the farmer’s market? Learn to salvage store-bought pesto, of course! Here are my steps for buying and spicing up bland, store pesto:

  1. Buy your pesto in the prepared foods/refrigerated aisle. That crap sitting next to the red sauces in the pasta aisle is just awful. Pesto is about freshness… canned foods is none of these things. My personal choice is Trader Joe’s pesto from the prepared food section. It’s about half as cheap as the stuff at most grocery stores and is a good base to work with. In general, look for the following things in the ingredient list:
    1. Olive oil. There should be NO other oil used. Not canola oil, not safflower oil…no no no, only olive oil.
    2. The simpler the better. Stick to the basics: olive oil, basil, cheese, nuts, salt, and garlic. There shouldn’t be any fancy chemical names, other spices, or stuff that clearly doesn’t belong like lemon or lime. All those additions are usually to preserve the color and make it look pretty so you’ll buy it.
    3. Should go without saying, but expiration date… make sure it’s as fresh as possible.
  2. Now that you picked out a sauce, it’s time to spice it up! This is best done before you put it on the pasta (duh). First, shake the package well, then open the top and immediately pour out the excess oil… there will probably be a lot.
  3. Start with the key missing ingredient: cheese. Throw in a tablespoon of parmesan and see how it tastes. You should be able to detect the cheese but not have it overpower the flavor. Continue adding cheese to the sauce until you achieve this.
  4. Next, you’re going to need to add some dry basil to buff up the taste. Sprinkle in teaspoon by teaspoon until the basil tastes prevalent. Remember, it’s the star of the sauce, so it should be highly detectable, but not gritty. Don’t let it takeover the texture, but definitely spice that puppy up.
  5. Finally, crush a garlic clove (or use a pinch of garlic powder) and stir it in. The result should be tangy, a little spicy and powerful. If it’s too overwhelming, add a little more cheese.
  6. If the final consistency looks a little clumpy (or even if it doesn’t), mix in 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Toss in a little salt and you’re good to go (though, be warned, many store-brought brands are already swimming in salt).

Spiced-up store bought pesto was the star of my most recent recipe, inspired by the beautiful foods at the farmer’s market and the early fall heat wave we’ve been experiencing. Take some twisty pasta, some pesto, cherry tomatoes and sweet onions… what have you got? A beautiful, delectable, easy, fast, fun and cheap dish! Take a look:

Mmmmmmm! Makes me wish I could eat it all over again! Here’s the recipe:

Pesto Pasta Topped with Cherry Tomatoes and Onion

  • Half a pound of your choice of pasta (rotini is fun!)
  • 1/2 a small carton of cherry tomatoes (about two dozen), sliced in half
  • Half an sweet, red onion, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 carton of spiced up store-bought pesto (or if you happen to have the homemade stuff, go for that)
  1. Cook the pasta according to directions, until al dente (or a little chewy)
  2. While the pasta cooks, rinse the sliced tomatoes and onion in a colander, drizzle with the olive oil and salt and toss well.
  3. Spread the tomatoes and onions out on a baking sheet and stick in the broiler for five minutes. Set aside to cool.
  4. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the pesto and mix well.
  5. Garnish in individual serving plates or bowls with the broiled tomatoes and onions.
  6. Eat!

Colorful and fun! Buon Apetitie!

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