Suburban Illinois in the 1980s wasn’t a terribly cosmopolitan place (not that it is now either). When it came to food, the most exotic thing I ate was fettuccine Alfredo in the local Italian restaurant, and the first time I had pesto, it was from a dried packet mix. It was a sad, dusty, lifeless version of itself, dehydrated to death. It would be years before I had the real thing and realised what I’d been missing out on all that time.
A few weeks ago, I stood ankle deep in basil in the fields in Piedmont, Italy, that supply Sacla with the basil used to make their pesto. As you approach the fields of the Amateis family farm, passing the peach trees and cattle sheds and a field of wheat dotted with poppies opposite the basil, the scent rises up on the warm air and wraps itself around you. For someone who started a garden just so I could have a non-stop supply of basil (though it didn’t quite work out that way), it was like all my American summers rushing back at once.
There’s enough basil in a one-hectare field to make 145,000 jars of Sacla pesto, and since the plants are cut four times by an elegant custom-built harvester, it means that in one season, one field grows enough basil to make a whopping 580,000 jars of pesto that get exported to over 50 countries around the world.
Pesto is a relatively new import to Ireland — Clare Blampied, MD of Sacla UK, is called the ‘Pesto Pioneer’ for her success in introducing it to the UK and Ireland in the early 1990s (probably right around the time I had my first encounter with that dried packet). These days, we don’t just use pesto as a pasta sauce, but on pizzas, in sandwiches, soups and salads, as a dressing (like in the recipe below) or a garnish (or anyone for pesto panna cotta?). It’s hard to imagine that something we take for granted now, as much a part of our everyday kitchen lexicon as Bolognese, bruschetta or biscotti, was once such a novelty.
A jar of pesto is now one of my store cupboard staples, handy for a quick-fix pasta supper or to add a boost of vibrant flavour to an otherwise dull dish. Now, every time I reach for that jar I’ll remember those acres of basil on the Amateis family farm on a sunny summer day in Italy — a memory of what pesto is meant to be, and a far cry from my first taste of it all those years ago.
Dorcas says this is a quick and easy family dish, and it’s a new favorite in my house. She also says that the cod can be easily replaced with any white chunky fish or good-quality frozen cod fillets (just increase the cooking time by about 10 minutes). This recipe would also work well with chicken breasts, in which case everything should all be cooked together for 30 to 35 minutes.
1 lb (450 g) cherry tomatoes
6 oz (150 g) chorizo, cut into large chunks (not too small or it will burn)
4 or 5 large garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1 red onion, cut into wedges through the root
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 heaped tablespoons good-quality pesto
4 cod fillets
salt and freshly ground black pepper
green salad, to serve
crusty bread, to serve
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F).
Place the cherry tomatoes, chorizo, garlic and red onion in a large casserole dish or baking sheet. In a separate small bowl, mix together the olive oil and pesto to form a loose dressing, adding more olive oil if it needs to be thinned further. Drizzle the pesto over the ingredients in the dish, reserving some of the dressing to drizzle over the fish at the end. Toss everything together so it all gets coated with the pesto. Place in the oven and cook for about 15 minutes, until the tomatoes have started to burst and release their juices and the onion is softening. Remove from the oven and place the cod fillets on top. Season well with salt and pepper and return to the oven for a further 15 to 20 minutes, until the cod is cooked through. Divide between 4 shallow bowls and drizzle the remaining pesto dressing over the top of the cod. Serve with a green salad and plenty of crusty bread to mop of the juices.
Here are some more pesto recipes from my other blog, Dinner du Jour:
- Butternut squash lasagna
- Fish with edamame pesto
- Pesto Trapanese
- Spaghetti alla Genovese
- Spaghetti with red pepper and toasted almond pesto
- Turkey pesto meatballs
- Walnut kale pesto
And here are 10 other ideas for how to use pesto from The Kitchn as well as a round-up of articles and recipes from issue #140 of Saveur.