Late-Summer Grilled Pesto Bites
David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite’s Culinaria and author of The New Portuguese Table, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. David provides occasional posts for CHEFS in which he shares his experience about everything from champagne to Welsh food to high tea to being a super taster for publications including the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, and others. His website, which he created in 1999, is a two-time James Beard Award-winning site.
Vitamix, Vitamix, Vitamix. It seems that’s all I’ve been hearing this summer. Something must have gotten tangled up in the ether, because I haven’t been able to go to a party, an event, or even my inbox without someone waxing rhapsodic about the Vitamix (or, to the initiated, the V-Mix).
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been inclined to get one. I always thought it was just a blender on Terminator-like steroids. A tool for the food-processor challenged.
So I when I agreed to give it a test drive, it was with little pomp and circumstance that I hauled it out of its box and set it on the counter. In fact, so unexcited was I that The One moved it to the hall closet without my even noticing.
Then I hit the start button.
Using a V-mix is like going to the Indy 500. I suddenly understood all the rabble’s babble about it. In one day—one day—I made peanut butter, homemade Nutella, a smoothie, and gazpacho.
So, I started looking for more things I could toss in there and obliterate into a paste, powder, or emulsion. This morning I found a few hunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano that I blitzed into grated cheese in just a few seconds. Wicked.
That’s when it hit me: pesto. Now, I know you’re thinking, ‘This guy is all about basil,’ especially after my earlier basil ice cream post. And while I do love basil, necessity is what drives my cooking decisions. To wit: I innocently planted six tiny basil cuttings that I hoped would reap me at best a Caprese salad or two. But instead I have a phalanx of knee-high Ocimum basilicum plants that look like stunt doubles for The Little Shop of Horrors.
With my new V-mix, I could now buzz through my garden forest—basil, chives, tomatoes, kale (two kinds), beans, and peas. I cast about for ideas. I recalled that not too long ago I went to a summer cookout where beer-can chicken, perfectly cooked sliders, and the most amazing pesto bites—grilled bruschetta smeared with pesto and topped with slices of mozzarella and tomato—were served.
So I grilled the grill master, Mamie, not about her chicken or burgers, but about the bites. She shared with me that the pesto was drier than the kind used on pasta and it didn’t contain garlic, which made sense. We all have a social, ethical, and moral responsibility to others not to chomp raw garlic while holding a glass of wine trying to act witty and whispering nuggets of gossip into another’s ear.
Serving the bites
With Mamie’s tips dancing in my head, I tore into the garden, gathered up as much basil and as many tomatoes as I could carry, and went to work. Well, I wouldn’t call holding down a button for 15 seconds work. Done.
These days The One and I have taken to serving food on slate tiles—pulled right from the old walkway. Impeccably scrubbed and washed, of course. When warmed in the oven they hold heat beautifully, keeping steaks, burgers, and grilled meats hot. And when chilled in the fridge, they keep appetizers, crudo, and antipasto cool. I heaped a bunch of washed and sliced tomatoes, mozzarella, and grilled bread on cold tiles, and plunked down a small jar of the pesto paste.
While the remainder of my basil plants sat watching—revenge coursing through their vegetal veins—a good time was indeed had by all.
Late-Summer Grilled Pesto Bites
Makes about 1 3/4 cups paste; enough for 4 dozen bites.
For the paste
- 4 1/2 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano, cut into several cubes
- 4 cups fresh basil leaves (about 5 ounces), washed
- 2/3 to 3/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 3 small garlic cloves, peeled and smashed (optional; completely verboten if on a date)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the rest
- Baguette, cut on the bias into 1/2-inch slices
- Drop-dead ripe tomatoes, sliced
- The freshest mozzarella you can find, sliced
- Sea salt
Drop the cheese cubes into the Vitamix, snap on the cover and blitz at speed 10 until just roughly grated.
Add the basil, 2/3 cup of oil, pine nuts, garlic (if using), lemon juice, salt, and pepper to the canister, cover securely again, and blitz until as smooth as your tastes demand. (Sometimes I like a chunky pesto, with visible bits of pine nuts.) If you want the pesto looser, add up to a total of 3/4 cup of oil.
Scrape the paste into a bowl, press plastic wrap onto its surface to avoid discoloring, and set aside. If the pesto is made without garlic, it can last up to a week in the fridge.
Fire up the grill. When it’s blazing hot, slide the baguette slices on the grate with long-handled tongs—and don’t move. These little suckers burn in no time, so keep your eyes peeled. Some charring is great and adds flavor, but you don’t want to have carbon-dating specimens.
Turn the slices to toast the other side. Transfer to a plate.
Smear the bread slices with a generous dollop of pesto, top with a slice of cheese, and a slice or two of tomato.
Here’s the hard part: Let the pesto bites sit for 30 minutes or so for the bread to soak up all that pesto perfection. Right before serving, sprinkle with sea salt.
Here’s where the fun begins:
- Swap out the pine nuts for almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, or a combination thereof.
- Likewise, substitute up to half the basil with cilantro, Italian parsley, or watercress leaves.
- A small handful of mint tossed in can shake things up a bit.
- Using half Parmigano Reggiano and half Pecorino Romano cheese is lovely. If you go this route, go light on the salt.
- Instead of slices of tomato, peel, seed, and dice as many different types and colors of tomatoes as you wish and pile each bruschetta high. A bit of minced shallot stirred would be mighty fine, too.
Your turn: What’s your favorite thing to make with a Vitamix? Or, what would you like to make?