An experiment in pesto

12 August 2012

If you do a Google search for pesto, you’ll find a deep schism regarding how the perfect pesto should be made. On the one side is the purist crowd, which claims that real pesto must be made with the instrument after which it was named: a mortar and pestle. On the other is the modern crowd, who swear up and down that pesto made in a food processor tastes just as good and is much faster to make. Then there are a few rebels who like to make pesto with a knife, usually a mezzaluna, and those people also think that their method of making pesto is the best. For my purposes, I’m going to lump the knife crowd in with the food processor crowd — using the knife is more time consuming, but the end result should be pretty similar since the ingredients are still being cut with a sharp implement rather than smashed with a blunt one.

I have long followed the blunt crowd, making pesto by hand in a mortar and pestle. But I’ve never had pesto made with a blade before. It is not good to dismiss things out of hand without testing them just because some people on the internet say it’s bad, so I devised a small experiment to see if there would be any discernable difference between the two.

Click on the cut following the picture for more about the experiment, as well as a recipe for mortar-and-pestle pesto.

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It used to be that I hated potatoes with a burning passion. My parents never made them, so thankfully I was safe at home, but it seemed like every time I went to a friend’s house for dinner there would be piles and piles of this tasteless white froth, and having been raised to be polite at the dinner table (and above all not picky), I would always feel obligated to take a few scoops, as small as I could make them.

That changed very suddenly in my third year of university. I was working in a French restaurant at the time. Normally we ate omelettes, quiches, salads or steak with steamed vegetables on the side for our staff meals. But once, just once, the chef brought out a giant bowl of mashed potatoes. “Ugh,” I said to myself, but since I was starving and the only other thing to eat was steak and I was vegetarian at the time, I reluctantly took a few scoops. It was, of course, delicious.

Since then, armed with the chef’s one piece of sage advice — “Il est impossible d’ajouter trop de beurre” — I’ve probably tried about 30 ways of making mashed potatoes : with milk, without milk, with cream, with different flavourings, with peel, without peel, cooked whole, cooked in bits. I think I have finally picked out the few rules for making mashed potatoes that even a picky potato-hater like me can eat.

1. There really is no such thing as too much butter. One gram of butter per 10 grams of potatos, really, should be the minimum. That’s about 1/4 cup for 4 smallish-medium potatoes. And it has to be butter, not margarine.

2. You can use whatever liquid you like, really. I mean, I guess using heavy cream will make the potatoes taste better if you’re low on butter, but as long as you follow the first rule, it tastes fine even with just plain water, though sometimes I also add in a bit of chicken stock or dashi.

3. A tiny dash of freshly grated nutmeg (really, tiny, less than 1/4 tsp per 4 potatoes if you’re using the freshly grated stuff) adds untold depths of flavour.

4. If you have to eat mashed potatoes while on a diet, please consider reducing the serving size instead of trying to make it low-fat. Mashed potatoes just aren’t supposed to be a low fat food.

Growing up in a Chinese family in North America was a mixed blessing. I hated it when I was still living with them, but now that I am older and wiser, and with years of hindsight to guide me, in many ways, it was a boon. For example, Chinese people are way more sensible about foods than North American white people. As recently as 50 years ago, China went through a period of terrible famine. Many Chinese people who are alive today, my parents included, lived through it. As a result, they developed a very valuable food philosophy: if it’s chewable and won’t make you sick, you can eat it.

Chinese cuisine, and that of most countries in Asia, contain ways to cook anything imaginable: the fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, and roots of any plant that grows there and isn’t poisonous; cows’ tripe, lambs’ intestines, pigs’ ears, chickens’ feet… dogs? It’s not generally considered very economical to raise carnivorous animals for slaughter (hence why Chinese people don’t really eat salmon), but if you were slowly starving to death and there happened to be a dog around, wouldn’t you eat it, too?

Eugh, gross, I’ve heard so many times from white kids at school when they saw what I was eating. Yeah, well, I think your oil-sopped pizza and can of caffeinated aspartame are gross, too, so I guess we’re even, except that I’m not rude enough to say it out loud without provocation. Oh, and also I will live longer, be healthier, and have nicer skin. I think I got the better deal.

Here is one example of something that made the other kids say “gross” : watermelon rinds. To most people, watermelons are just the pink part in the middle. You eat that and throw everything else away. But some hungry Chinese person looked at a watermelon one day and thought, “Hey, that white part’s chewable, though somewhat tough. It doesn’t make me sick, but it’s not very tasty… I wonder how it could be made more palatable?” And so the watermelon rind became a real food in Chinese culture.

Pickled watermelon rinds

a small watermelon, with the pink innards all eaten
2 cups water
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
optional: 2 tsp chili flakes

To prepare the watermelon, the thin, dark green, tough outer skin should be removed and discarded. The paler, thick part of the rind should be cut into slices. The thinner the slices, the faster it will pickle.

Add the other ingredients into a bowl and leave alone for 4-8 hours. If the watermelon rinds are still tough to chew, it needs more pickling time.

Meet the newest member of my family:

We combed through most of the stores in Chinatown before finding it: an 8″ solid granite mortar and pestle. There was a sticker on it that said “Made in Thailand”. All of my readings pointed to Thai granite mortar and pestles as being the most well made, economical and effective method for grinding spices. Being in Canada, “economical” is a somewhat relative term — this guy costed me $45 plus tax, while similar sized granite mortars and pestles allegedly go for $20 in American Chinatowns. But a suribachi costs $70 here (plus ~$8 or so for the surikogi) and the Bay sells a Cuisinart blade coffee grinder for $50, about twice what it retails for in the U.S., so I guess $45 is pretty good.

With this in our kitchen, I am finally able to venture into a new cuisine that I’ve been wanting to try making at home for a long time: Ethiopian food.

Berbere paste recipe 

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