My husband hates pesto. In fact, I believe he may have infected me with his ill-will toward this otherwise pleasing ingredient, because I’m not sure how I feel about pesto anymore either. But that doesn’t stop me from mixing up a gigantic batch of it every year.
Pesto was once one of those epiphany foodstuffs for me (ala sushi, ala Lychee martinis, ala Sriracha sauce), where once I tasted it, life seemed a few iotas better than it was the day before. Now I wonder if pesto is ultimately more like a kid-food…yummy like mac and cheese but not much more.
I dunno. Maybe I had one too many California Pizza Kitchen pesto creations. Maybe what once seemed exotic and special to me went too far downmarket. The jury’s currently out for me and pesto.
But I think the real reason I make pesto is the same reason I dry chiles, make pickles, whip up jam and simmer sauce. It’s my desperate attempt to hang on to what was once living, vibrant and beautiful in my garden. In pesto’s case: my rolling hills of late summer basil.
I am a sucker for seed catalog descriptor paragraphs, therefore I grow all sorts of basil. Too many sorts, too much of my garden real estate. Anything that says “big, serrated leaves” or “heady, licorice aroma” or “lemon-scented heirloom” and I eagerly fork over the $3.95 and wait at the mailbox, shovel in hand, for my seed packets to arrive.
And I plant it all. Don’t hold back. I’m an herb-growing-glutton.
Basil takes a while to poke its nose out from the ground. Sometimes I just cuddle up with a good book (Easy Composters You Can Build for instance) under the tomato plants and wait for ages for my basil to germinate. And sometimes, impatient as all get-out, I clip those lil’ 1/8″ sprouts and add a handful to my salad (Thai basil makes for a perfect micro-green).
Soon thereafter, once those sprouts begin to take hold, the basil moves in. I have to walk through a thicket of it just to pluck an eggplant I remember planting behind it.
And round about August, when the days have grown long and hot and the upstate ticks have grown fat and happy, my forest of over-zealous basil planting begins to take over like Justin Timberlake on a Saturday Night Live episode – I forget anyone else was ever in the cast. I’m focused and smitten.
It is then that every meal in the house consists of tri colore salad, every bouquet on the table includes an armful of colorful basil, and every grilled chop is garnished with a full Afro of green. “It’s edible landscaping…very trendy,” I assure the family.
And so, whether I love it or not, I crank out pesto.
Sure enough, in the dead of winter, when the hot chocolates have been had and the chicken is roasting, and the lettuce is long gone, and the semi-vegetarians-except-for-bacon are clamoring, I am thankful that I have had the good sense to put my basil up.
Pesto always screams summer.
My favorite types of basil:
Thai – a gorgeous, aromatic, micro-green with a pretty purple flowers for bouquets when it matures.
Genovese – that big, hunky, Italian, pesto-y kind of basil. I grow way too much.
Tulsi – holy basil from India. Intoxicating, sweet scent. Makes for beautious bouquets.
Bush Basil – when you are sun-challenged or have less than ideal conditions, go bush.
Mrs. Burns – any basil with a formal prefix and I’m in. Lemony.
Dark Opal – for color more than anything. As dark as bulls blood.
SO THIS IS HOW YOU DO PESTO
Pesto can be made with any leafy green herb, really. Parsley pesto is luscious on roast chicken (I had a boyfriend who wooed me with this combo once). Mint pesto is to lamb what mint jelly….well, what mint jelly is supposed to be to lamb. And basil pesto is entirely different using different types of basil. I’d like to make Shiso pesto too…maybe this summer.
The idea with pesto is that you’re making a paste with some combination of leafy herb + flavorful oil + nut + optional Parmesan. I don’t add garlic to the pesto itself, which is potentially a crime, but I think it quickly gets overwhelmed by the raw-garlicky taste. Instead I finely chop or make a paste and add it separately (and sparingly).
You can Google search a thousand precise recipes, but I think pesto is more about mixing, matching, adding and taste-testing to your specs on that particular day.
Basil (or parsley or mint)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (you can try other flavorful oils here, like pumpkin or hemp)
Pine nuts (or walnuts or almonds)
Parmesan is optional, but I always use it in basil pesto and never in parsley pesto. I grate or chop it finely beforehand.
Sea salt (salt is a key ingredient and too little is a disaster – constant tasting is key)
I use a food processor fitted with a blade. As usual, I’ve tried to cheat and make pesto with a blender or an immersion blender only to be left with a depressing mess. I hate that haste makes waste, because I adore haste – but alas, ’tis true.
1. Get as much basil as you can muster. This may be a package from the store or an armful from your garden. Pick off the leaves and compost (yay!) the stems. Clean and dry the leaves as well as possible.
2. Stuff all the clean, dry basil leaves into the food processor and begin adding oil slowly down the chute as you click the process button. If I’m adding parm, I’ll do so here. The basil will begin to mash down into a paste as you add enough oil.
3. It is at this point that I start adding a few handfuls of nuts. I usually use pine nuts for basil pesto and walnuts for parsley pesto. Do I want it thick or thin? Nutty or herby? Hmm…what is my meal in the mood for?
4. I add some salt. Then more salt. Then I taste it. Usually it still needs even more salt (but admittedly I’m a fiend). Then I decide if it should be thinner or stay like it is. More oil. More nuts. More salt. I keep going until, like Goldilocks, my bed of pesto feels just right.
Now, here’s where it gets kind of Martha Stewart-y….
PUTTING MY PESTO UP
5. Then, yes, I have special pesto-only ice cube trays. I plunk globs of the gunk into the trays and freeze it. WHY? Because an entire 1 quart block of pesto is a pain in the buttsky; little dainty cubes of pesto, on the other hand, are eminently usable.
6. Once frozen, I scoop the pesto cubes out and seal them in packs. This may seem ridiculously QVC of me, but sometimes these sorts of appliances and goofy techniques are called for. Believe me, a freezer full of sealed, labelled packs of summer veggies, pesto ice cubes, and pre-marinated pork chops is a thing of beauty.
And in winter, when Mrs. Burns is at the bottom of the compost heap, when the mittens are hanging in front of the fireplace and the ground is far from green, I pull my pesto cubes from the freezer and squeeze a few out onto a piping hot bow of bow-tie pasta.
While my husband is right and pesto may not be the be-all-end-all of what the culinary world has to offer us, it is the second life for my summer basil bounty. I’m happy that food lives on in this way – not as fanciful or as heady as it once was, but still a precious reminder of what was and what is still to come.
Take your boots off before you come in here!