Basil and Caramelised Onion Pesto

Now if you’ve ever been to the Ligurian Coast, you know that the absolute hero of the region is pesto.

I always tell people that I left my heart at the Cinque Terre; the flavour of fresh basil, the salty taste of the sea baked onto your skin, the stark contrast of looming lush green mountains cascading down into the bluest water, surrounded by colourful terraced houses perched precariously along the cliff edges. The place is serious candy for the senses!

We’ve been back a couple of times now and I’ve never had a pesto taste the same no matter where I went, despite the basic elements always being the same. Fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and parmesan. Such a simple combination, but when added together in varying quantities of each element, the results are vast.

Thinking back to my time in the Cinque Terre, the best tasting basil pesto definitely came from ‘The Pesto Lab’ in Monterosso al Mare. It was the fresh homemade pesto that caught my senses and has lingered on in my memory, the fresh zing of basil and the sharp taste of garlic, married together with salty parmesan, I mean, what’s not to love? However, this is not where my need to create this recipe came from. While the pesto at ‘The Pesto Lab’ is the best I’ve eaten, I wanted to keep that memory just as it is. Fresh pesto, salty skin, crispy crackers and sweet basil soda washing it all down. That perfect memory needs to remain untouched and carefully locked away with my heart back in the Cinque Terre.

No, the memory that created my need to recreate this pesto came from two experiences. The first experience was taking a cooking class at Monterosso and creating potato gnocchi with basil pesto sauce. There was a large group of us travelling together and we undertook a morning of cooking at ‘The Cinque Terre Cooking School’. We spent the morning picking off leaves of basil freshly harvested from the garden, then pounding them into a pulverised mash in the mortar and pestle. The smell of fresh basil and cooking gnocchi, the laughter and the sharing of the final product as we ate together and enjoyed the quiet serenity really struck a chord with me and whispered to the corners of my mind, ‘you must recreate this back home’.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre
Vernazza, Cinque Terre

The second experience was during dinner at one of the local restaurants in Monterosso, my husband had ordered trofie al pesto and a selection of bruschetta and focaccia and I had ordered a roast vegetable and tomato pasta (they only had spaghetti in gluten free) and a smoked swordfish carpaccio. The food came out (we clearly over ordered) and we got stuck in. It was amazing.

Now, one of the specialities of the area is a caramelised onion focaccia and part of the bruschetta and focaccia tasting board was this little beauty. As I am want to do, I need to try everything, so I pried a few pieces of the caramelised onion off the top of the focaccia and dragged it through the juices of my husbands trofie al pesto and boom, my mind was blown. You know you are tasting something delicious, a flavour marriage made in heaven, when your body starts moving without your control in a sort of happy food dance.

It was at this moment that I thought I could combine both delicious elements into one happy dish.

Now before you go closing the screen and muttering at me ‘but that’s not traditional, how can you go changing a cuisine that’s tried and tested for generations’, please hear me out. I’m not wanting to simply create a pesto recipe, I want to recreate a flavour memory. A memory that sings to my heart and reminds me of lazy summer days and amazing coastal experiences. So, if you do so dare, try my caramelised onion and basil pesto and take a flavour journey with me, or if you prefer the more traditional Ligurian flavour, I’ll also include a traditional basil pesto recipe for you to enjoy… or like the Old El Paso advertisement states ‘¿Porque No Los Dos?’ Why not have both?!’

BASIL & CARAMELISED ONION PESTO
Ingredients:

1 – 2 large bunches of basil
½ red onion, diced
1 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic
Up to ¼ cup olive oil
½ cup pine nuts
¼ cup parmesan cheese
Salt to season to taste

Method:
1. Pick off all the leaves from the bunches of basil and set aside.
2. Place pine nuts in a fry pan and lightly toast on a medium heat for 2 – 3 minutes, or until a light golden brown and set aside.
3. Place red onion and 1 tbsp olive oil into a fry pan and cook until the onion is brown and has become sweet.
4. Place toasted pine nuts, basil, garlic and caramelised onion into a blender and blend until all ingredients start coming together into a paste, drizzle in ½ of the olive oil and the parmesan cheese and continue blending, continue adding olive oil if the mixture is too dry.
At this point it is up to you how far you continue blending your mixture. I personally prefer a slightly chunky pesto over a really smooth pesto, I like to see small pieces of leaves and nuts, nothing large, but the consistency of a paste just isn’t to my personal taste.

BASIL PESTO
Ingredients:

1 – 2 large bunches of basil
1 clove garlic
Pinch salt
Up to cup olive oil
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup parmesan cheese

Method:
1. Pick off all the leaves from the bunches of basil and set aside.
2. Place pine nuts in a fry pan and lightly toast on a medium heat for 2 – 3 minutes, or until a light golden brown and set aside.
3. Place toasted pine nuts, basil and garlic into a blender and blend until all ingredients start coming together into a paste, drizzle in ½ of the olive oil and the parmesan cheese and continue blending, continue adding olive oil if the mixture is too dry.
At this point it is up to you how far you continue blending your mixture. I personally prefer a slightly chunky pesto over a really smooth pesto, I like to see small pieces of leaves and nuts, nothing large, but the consistency of a paste just isn’t to my personal taste.
4. Alternatively, you can place the garlic, a little salt and half of the pine nuts in a mortar and pestle and grind into a paste.
5. Next add the basil leaves and remaining pine nuts and grind until a paste forms (as mentioned above, I like mine a little bit chunky, so I never take it to a smooth paste).
6. Add the parmesan cheese and grind together, adding the olive oil slowly as you grind, brining the pesto together into a delicious saucy paste.

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