WITH the knowledge of how to make some basic, commonplace cold sauces, every cook can transform what could be an otherwise uninspiring dinner into a memorable one. I suggest you get to grips with the following three and add in different flavourings to complement the dish you are serving them with.
I was lucky enough to be shown how to make pesto the classic way, in Liguria, Italy. And although many of us here (and in the Mediterranean) now sling everything into the food processor and whiz, locals believe that since basil should never be cut with a metal knife (as this causes the leaves to discolour), it is best made in a mortar, preferably with a wooden pestle. There is also the danger that a food processor will ‘cook’ the delicate basil leaves as the machine heats up. Still, for the frantic chef, the electronic option is a godsend - just be sure to process only briefly or use the pulse button.
For pesto, the traditional method is to put basil leaves into the mortar before adding a fat clove of garlic, then some local olive oil and a handful of pine kernels. Once these are amalgamated, parmesan cheese is added, and salt and pepper according to taste. Once the pounding (pestare means to pound) is complete, all that is needed is some freshly cooked pasta and a dressed salad.
Traditional salsa verde is made in a similar way to pesto, but is also suited to a quick blast in a food processor.
Mayonnaise is also easily done this way, but occasionally I enjoy the satisfaction of making it by hand. It is essential that you have the oil in a drip-proof jug or bottle with a nozzle on the spout, for if you pour in more than a drip at a time initially, it is likely to curdle. Extra hands are welcome - one to pour, one to hold the bowl, one to whisk madly - so if you can enlist help, do so.
What is never mentioned in the recipe books is what painfully hard work it is making mayonnaise, whisking continually as the yolk and oil mixture slowly and almost imperceptibly changes into a thick, lustrous mass. It can take several minutes to complete the mayonnaise, by which time your whisking arm will feel dead. Rather like childbirth, however, one tends to forget the excruciating pain and delight in the end result.
As well as the traditional version with basil, you could try making a more unusual pesto with rocket or watercress. For a more exotic, eastern taste, use coriander, but with less cheese, and use cashew nuts instead of pine nuts.
75g (approx) basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
50g parmesan, freshly grated
25g pine kernels, toasted then cooled
125ml (approx) extra-virgin olive oil
Place the first four ingredients in a food processor with a pinch of salt, and process until combined. Then, with the machine still running, slowly add sufficient oil to transform the mixture into a thick paste. Season to taste.
You can add many flavourings to mayonnaise, from grated citrus zest or roasted garlic to freshly chopped herbs or lemon grass. For home-made tartare sauce, add some finely chopped parsley, capers and gherkins.
2 medium free-range egg yolks
1 level tsp Dijon mustard
freshly squeezed lemon juice
300ml (approx) oil (half sunflower, half olive)
Place the yolks, mustard and a teaspoon of lemon juice in a food processor with plenty of salt and pepper. Blend together for a few seconds, then very slowly dribble the oil through the feeder tube - drop by drop to begin with. Once an emulsion has begun to form, you can increase the dribble to a thin, slow stream.
Spoon the mayonnaise into a bowl and add half a tablespoon of boiling water to thin it down a little. Taste again and add salt and pepper - and perhaps some extra lemon juice.
This recipe, adapted from Mary Contini’s book Dear Francesca (Ebury, 7.99), is served with frittata in Vincaffe, the wonderful new Valvona & Crolla venture run by none other than dear Francesca. The sauce is good served with roast chicken, steak or grilled fish.
2 large handfuls flatleaf parsley, leaves removed
2 large handfuls basil, leaves removed
2 tbsp capers, soaked and rinsed if salted
3-4 salted anchovy fillets
half a clove of garlic, peeled
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
10-12 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Chop the first five ingredients roughly and mix with the vinegar. Blend in the oil, enough to make a thickish, coarse consistency. (You can use a pestle and mortar or a food processor, but if you choose the latter, use the pulse setting.) Season to taste with Maldon sea salt.
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