Monday, October 4, 2010

Presto Pesto

Each spring, I have been lucky enough to get beautiful 10-inch pots of basil from our local IGA grocer, who gets them from local growers. They each have roughly 6 stems of basil, and when I put them in the ground are already substantial plants, reaching in excess of 8 inches in height. I have an area of my garden that is bare year 'round, except for basil season, and I plant them 3 feet apart, as they bush out like mad if you give them space.

And then I leave. I go off for ten weeks and they are occasionally watered by a loyal friend if there is drought -- although they seem to like it dry. When I come back, they have expanded to fill their half of the garden, reaching for the sun in all directions, contorted around each other like a big game of herb Twister, the leafy stalks more than two feet tall. If I leave them too long,  the ends can go to seed fast,  the leaves nearest the stalk brown, or, as this year, become bug snack.

But it almost never matters, because there is so much basil that I generally cannot get it all in before the frost. Green basil, purple basil, Thai basil -- each with its distinctive leaf and smell -- to grind into pesto or chop on tomatoes that are also clamoring to get off the vine.

When I do cut, I cut back from the bottom, half the plant at a time. Luxuriously, I am able to pick only the finest leaves from the stalks, the leaves that are whole and healthy, not marred by blight or bugs. I nip them off just at the bottom of the leaf, leaving the stem and unworthy leaves for the compost. They collect in the barrel of the salad spinner until it's full, rinsing occasionally, and then I spin the water off, as dry leaves make better pesto.

This is a recipe for a very dry pesto, with about the same spreadability as peanut butter, which I freeze in 4-ounce canning jars. For a few reasons: I like to have the pesto spreading texture for sandwiches, paninis and rubs. It is easy to thin down if necessary: with water from the cooked pasta to make a sauce, with vinegar and or oil for dressings and marinades.

There are a lot of theories on how to keep pesto green. From the chef at Sistina in NY, I learned that mixing a small amount of parsley in will keep the pesto from turning. Others swear by a few drops of lemon juice. Nothing ever works for me. The pesto does turn where it is exposed to air -- but stick in a knife and there is fresh green pesto beneath. I find the turning does not affect the taste one bit.

Like most of my standards, this recipe is one that I adjust each time I make it. I don't measure, I ballpark, and then I taste. Sometimes it needs salt, sometimes pepper, sometimes nothing. When you like it, it is ready for your kitchen. The recipe below makes about 2 cups; I generally double it in the same food processor and just keep feeding in the leaves.

Basil Pesto

1 cup Parmegiano, Reggiano or sheep's milk Pecorina-romana if you are lactose intolerant, grated
1 cup pine nuts
10 cups basil leaves, rinsed and dried
4 cloves of garlic
juice of 1/2 lemon
olive oil
salt and pepper

Toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown. In a food processor, process peeled garlic cloves until smooth, then add pine nuts, process until smooth. Add parm, process again. You may grate the cheese  in the food processor as well, but do in a separate step or they all clunk together in a lumpy mess. Been there.

When your base is as smooth as smooth peanut butter, start adding basil. Pack the barrel with leaves and start grinding.  I generally add about a Tablespoon of olive oil and the lemon juice to keep the leaves processing.

Now taste. If it is bitter, that generally indicates you need salt, despite the massive amount of salty cheese. Go slow, a pinch at a time, and process in completely before making another decision. Freeze in small batches for later use, but be sure to leave one in the fridge for current use. We always have a jar open, just next to the butter. And we probably use it just as much!


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