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David Lissner
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Eat this! Pesto, the essence of summer

Harry Caray's grilled, pesto-marinated vegetable stack

Harry Caray's grilled, pesto-marinated vegetable stack.

What it is: An intensely flavored Italian sauce or paste, pesto is typically made with fresh summer herbs, a goodly amount of garlic, grated hard cheese, olive oil or butter and nuts. The most well-known version, pesto alla Genovese, traditionally includes basil and pine nuts — and the Genovese would like to reserve the term exclusively for pesto made from Ligurian-grown basil — but pestos can be made from almost any herbs or vegetables. The French call their variant pistou.

Where it comes from: Although a similar herb and garlic paste called moretum figures in ancient Roman poetry, including that of Virgil in the first century B.C., the classic pesto alla Genovese, featuring basil, was first documented in Genoa in northern Italy in the 19th century. Giovanni Battista Ratto’s 1863 cookbook, La Cuciniera Genovese, gave the recipe that has become more or less definitive: “Take a clove of garlic, basil or, when that is lacking, marjoram and parsley, grated Dutch and Parmigiano cheese and mix them with pine nuts and crush it all together in a mortar with a little butter until reduced to a paste. Then dissolve it with good and abundant oil.”

Paul Katz

Paul Katz

The name pesto comes from the Italian word pesta, (to pound or crush), which in turn stems from a Latin root meaning “pestle.” That alludes to the original, laborious process of making the sauce: hand pounding the ingredients in a mortar. Connoisseurs claim that method still makes the best pesto, but most cooks today use a food processor or blender.

What to do with it: Pesto makes a wonderful sauce for pasta or gnocchi; a spoonful or two also adds zest to soups. It goes well with grilled meats and fish and forms an excellent enhancement for vegetable dishes. At Harry Caray’s steakhouses, Chef Paul Katz uses a basil and spinach pesto to marinate stacks of summer vegetables for grilling.

Harry Caray’s grilled, pesto-marinated vegetable stack
with balsamic reduction and crumbled blue cheese
Chef Paul Katz

Balsamic reduction:
4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 cup light brown sugar

2 ounces pine nuts
2-1/2 ounces fresh basil leaves
2-1/2 ounces fresh spinach
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 cup olive oil
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Vegetable stacks:
2 red bell peppers
4 portobello mushrooms
1 medium eggplant
1 zucchini
1 yellow squash
8 carrots
12 asparagus spears
4 ounces blue cheese crumbles
1/2 plus 1 tablespoon cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 thyme sprigs
4 sage sprigs
Salt to taste

Preheat the grill.

Make the balsamic reduction: In a medium saucepan, combine the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. Over medium heat, bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until volume is reduced by two thirds. Let cool, empty contents into a bowl or squeeze bottle and reserve for later use.

Prepare the pesto: Place the pine nuts on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven. Roast the nuts for 2 to 3 minutes, until golden brown, checking frequently. Let cool.

In a food processor or blender, blend all pesto ingredients on high speed. Place the pesto into a large bowl.

Cook the vegetables: In a 450-degree oven, roast the red bell peppers until the outer skin is blistered and black. Place the roasted pepper into a metal bowl, cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 15 minutes.

Afterward, remove the skin from the peppers, cut in half, de-seed and lightly rinse under cold water to clean. Place the halves into the pesto to marinate.

Next, clean out the gills of each mushroom cap and place into the pesto marinade.

Slice the eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and carrots about 1/4-inch thick lengthwise and place into the marinade. Brush the asparagus spears with olive oil and season with the salt.

Remove all the vegetables from the marinade and grill 1 to 2 minutes on each side (2 to 4 minutes for the portobellos). Let all the vegetables cool.

Assemble: Stack the vegetables on the center of each serving plate in the following order (bottom to top): Portobello mushroom cap, 2 zucchini slices, 2 carrot slices, 1 eggplant slice, 3 asparagus spears, 1/2 roasted red pepper and 2 yellow squash slices.

Drizzle each plate with balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil. Top with the crumbled cheese. Garnish with the sage and thyme sprigs. 4 servings.

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