In the words of my friend Laura: “Pesto is magical.” I have to agree, wholeheartedly. Pesto, it turns out, I discovered while living in London. I don’t know why I never paid attention to it before, but there I was, wandering around Sainsbury’s grocery store with my new roommate, Christy, trying to navigate the aisles and do currency conversions in my head.
For its simplicity and familiarity, pasta was an easy choice for dinner. I added a box of penne to my cart, along with a jar of tomato sauce, and my roommate grabbed a container of basil pesto.
After a few days, we swapped sauce, and I tried pesto for what was likely not the first time, but the first time I can recall actually paying attention. It made complete sense. I loved basil, and pasta, and Parmesan cheese. It tasted so fresh and clung beautifully to my noodles. I realized, sitting at my little kitchen table, there was no turning back.
BARLEY SALAD WITH BASIL PESTO
Four years after falling in love with pesto, I added a Cuisinart food processor to our wedding registry and became a pesto-making maniac. I love salads like this for their simplicity. They're ideal for picnics, make impressive side dishes, and terrific leftovers for lunch.
1 bag pearled barley, rinsed
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
Pesto (recipe below)
Cook barley according to package directions. Beware: My package indicated a cooking time of 45 minutes. Thankfully, I wandered into the kitchen seconds before the bottom of my pot started to burn. With at least ten minutes to go on the timer, my barley was done, so check on it after 20 minutes, regardless of what the package says.
Pour barley into a large mixing bowl and add the pesto. Toss to coat, then add the cherry tomatoes and gently stir to combine. For serving, slice shards of Parmesan cheese, then place into bowls. Salad can be served chilled or at room temperature.
No formal recipe here. When it comes to making pesto, I just toss in a little of this and a little of that until the consistency and flavors are right. A few things you’ll need:
Pine nuts (optional)
Bunches of basil always come in different amounts, so I just throw what I have into the processor and whirl away. Then, I stream in some olive oil until it thins out and emulsifies. If it’s too thin, you can always add more Parmesan to thicken it back up. If I have pine nuts (and recently, I don’t, since the last time I went to Costco the bag of them jumped from $12 to a whopping $26), I toss them in, toasted, and if not I’m perfectly content leaving them out.
I love garlic, but don’t want it to overwhelm the basil. Using one whole clove, I gently shave some in with a microplane, about half the clove. Salt, of course, and a healthy grating of cheese after it’s been shaved into a bowl. Recently I’ve started adding a pat of butter, about a tablespoon, to the pesto. It melts well when tossed with hot pasta, and adds an extra silkiness to the texture.