Hi, everyone. Manlikeman123 asked me to write a guest post on a cheap and quick meal that won’t sacrifice on quality and time. It just so happens that he asked me on the day when I made my own basil pesto for the first time ever.
Since it’s summer, basil should be growing almost everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, so this makes homemade pesto even easier. I had been growing my own sweet basil plant on my apartment balcony for a few months (from seed: $1.30ish for a pack of sweet basil seeds at Wal-mart), but I also am seeing it at local farmer’s markets for around $1.50-$2.00 for a big bunch of it. I also needed to trim the two other basil plants on my balcony, so it was a mix of sweet basil, purple basil (more fragrant than sweet basil) and cinnamon basil (spicier than sweet basil).
Here are the basic ingredients of any pesto (amount of ingredients to your taste):
-Around 1.5 to 2 cups of basil leaves (whichever kind you prefer, but sweet basil is most common)
-1/4 cup to 3/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese (not the kind from a shaker bottle!)
-1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of your favorite nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, cashews…peanuts would be too strong, though!)
-1/3 cup to 1/2 cup of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (yes, it has to be extra virgin because the oil adds flavor, too!
-1 to 3 cloves of fresh garlic
-salt and pepper
I know parmesan cheese can get expensive, but here’s some tips for those on a budget:
- I make do most of the time with the cheap American brands you can find in any American supermarket (DiGiorno or whatever). It won’t suddenly NOT taste delicious just because it didn’t come from Italy!
- You can buy already grated, but it’s actually a better value and the flavor is much better if you buy a block of it. You don’t even need to grate it, really. Just let the food chopper/processor do the work. 1/3 cup grated parm is a chunk of parm approximately 2-inches x 3-inches.
- I’m not going to lie: authentic parmeggiano reggiano does taste so much better (richer and nuttier) than the cheaper, non-authentic stuff. If you insist on getting the good stuff, you might get lucky and find smaller (read: cheaper!) chunks in Whole Foods’ remnants basket (or if you’re lucky enough to have a cheese shop near you, ask them for remnants) in their cheese section. Every Whole Foods has one (trust me, I check!), and I always see parm reg chunks in there.
- It’s also worth asking the people behind the cheese counter if they will custom cut a small chunk of cheese for you. Yes, even at Whole Foods. They might even grate the exact amount you need for you.
Nuts can also be expensive, and I’m one of those people who doesn’t buy nuts of any kind very often. To keep it cheap, I just kept the small packet of almonds that came in my lunch veggie pack. I had already bought the cheap veggie packs for cheap, so this luckily didn’t cost me extra money. Two of the small bags came out to be around 1/3 of almonds. Perfect! If you don’t have this serendipity, try to find somewhere that sells nuts by weight and buy just enough for the recipe. Or look for those small snack packs of nuts at drugstores/convenience stores/wherever. Or hell, you can even pick them out of trail mix or whatever. Do whatever you have to do short of stealing. I won’t judge (well, I will if you steal)!
Once you have all the ingredients, get a food chopper/processor/blender and chop up the nuts, garlic and cheese first. Add the basil and and the EVOO, and just process/blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. It’s that easy. Keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week, or in the freezer for months. Trust me, it’ll taste better than the jarred stuff from the store, and will probably cost less.
To make a simple pasta dish with the delicious pesto you just made:
- Boil up one box of your pasta of choice (spaghetti, linguine, penne and rigatoni work best for the sauce to stick to the pasta). Save at least a cup of the pasta water when you’re draining the cooked pasta. The pasta water has lots of starch that will help create a creamy sauce with the pesto.
- Once drained, put pasta back into the pot (off the heat, please! No need for the stove to be on anymore, anyway!) and add a generous amount of the pesto. At least a 1/2 cup, and you can add more if you really want a strong flavor. Mix thoroughly, then add 1/3 cup of the saved pasta water and continue mixing until the pasta is evenly and thoroughly coated with the pesto.
- If you want to make a heartier meal, add in some frozen veggies and your protein of choice. I always have frozen peas and carrots in my freezer, so I just dumped a whole bag into the still-warm pasta.
- Any protein will go well with the pesto. To prove just how cheap you can keep this dish while still keeping it satisfying, I made mine with a jar of albacore tuna (drained well) that I bought on sale and happened to have in my cupboard. You can keep it veggie-friendly by adding the vegetarian meat substitutes out there. Or fried tofu. Or seitan. For the carnivores, add any cooked ground meat. Or chopped sausage (even vienna sausages!). Or leftover rotisserie chicken bits.
Pasta dishes like this are always a great way to use up food that’s been sitting in your pantry or freezer for longer than you’d like. Or if you have leftovers that aren’t enough for another full meal on its own. Or if you pass that clearance section at the supermarket meat aisle, but don’t have an idea how to use it.
Anyway, I hope this post inspired some of you on a tight budget (like me!) to get creative and eat well while not breaking the bank. And since its summer, this basic recipe won’t leave you slaving over a hot stove all day!