There is a row of massive basil in the kitchen garden. It is time to make pesto! Pesto is basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmesan cheese all minced together to make a sauce. It's delicious tossed with pasta, to add a little kick to soup, as a spread on sandwiches. A roasted vegetable pesto sandwich is amazing. I'll have to make a post about that soon!
I was first introduced to pesto in high school by my cool and mysteriously artsy friend, Erika, whose mother threw pottery and made pesto for after school snacks. So I still think of pesto as earthy and chic, but now I know how easy it is to make. This is the time of year in the Midwest when those basil plants have grown to shrub size proportions, so get out there and do some pruning! And if you don't have any in the garden, check your farmer's market or local CSA.
In the garden, start by removing any flowers. You don't want your basil plants to waste their time making flowers, leaves are what you want. Unless you want to collect seeds and in that case flowers are necessary. I'm just thinking about the pesto here.
Basil will not survive a frost. On the night of the first frost I usually run out and pick all of my herbs and then dry or freeze them to keep through the winter. (I should do a post on that too!) We aren't quite there yet so I only harvest enough basil to make four batches of pesto.
Only four batches... okay I realize that does sound like a lot, but you have to understand how huge the basil plants are; I probably only picked 4% of the leaves out there. The great part about pesto is it freezes well. And as long as you are making one batch you might as well make four and only do the dishes once. See there is a method to my madness. Then on busy nights I can just make some pasta and toss it with the pesto for a quick dinner.
I use Cook's Illustrated's recipe for pesto. They suggest throwing in some parsley with the basil to increase the green color. Basil by itself turns a very deep almost black green, while the parsley stays a nice true green. It does change the flavor slightly, I like the addition of the parsley, but you don't have to add it.
Cook's Illustrated also recommends bruising the basil to release the oils and hence more of its flavor before putting it in the food processor. Traditionally the pesto is ground in a mortar and pestle which is a lot of work. I've got a short cut. I'll tell you more about how to do that in the recipe.
Classic Basil Pesto
1/4 cup pine nuts (you could also use walnuts or almonds)
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons fresh parsley leaves (optional)
7 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon salt
1 pound of pasta
Step 1: Toast the nuts in a small heavy skillet. Don't add oil, just do it dry. Pine nuts in particular will go from toast to burnt very quickly so use low heat and mix them around frequently until they are golden brown and fragrant. It shouldn't take more than 4-5 minutes. Set the nuts aside to cool.
Step 2: Using the same skillet brown the garlic with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
Step 3: Pick all the leaves off the stems. (Check out my water bath canner doubling as a basil vase. I was completely out of bowls.) All you want are nice tender leaves.
Next bruise the basil and parsley to bring out their flavor. Place the basil and parsley in a large zip-lock bag and seal it most of the way. You want to leave a little opening for air to escape. Now the fun part, use the flat side of a meat pounder or a rolling pin to bruise the basil. You will know when you are done when all the basil has turned a darker, wet looking green color.
Step 4: Combine the pine nuts, garlic, basil, parsley, 1/2 teaspoon salt and the remaining 6 tablespoons of olive oil in the food processor. Process until smooth. You can also use a blender for this part. Or if you are really dedicated do it the old fashioned way with a mortar and pestle. Once everything is smooth transfer your basil mixture to a small bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese.
Step 6: Bring four quarts of water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add the tablespoon of salt and the pasta to the boiling water. Cook until the pasta is al dente. Then reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. I used thin spaghetti because I like that it cooks in just 7 minutes but use whatever pasta you fancy. Rotini is particularly nice because it has lots of nooks and crannies to hold the sauce.
Step 7: Stir in 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water in with the pesto, then toss the pasta with the pesto. Add a little more of the pasta water if needed to get the pesto to distribute evenly. You can serve this hot or let it cool to room temperature.
If you want to feel like you are dining at a chic cafe serve the pasta in swirls by twirling it around a fork before placing it in little nests on the plate. Cluster three or five swirls together and top with a sprig of basil and serve.
I threw on some partially dehydrated cherry tomatoes which really helped balance out our meal. You could also mix in shredded chicken, sautéed veggies (think onion, mushroom and zucchini). Pesto is a lovely base and is lots of fun to experiment with and it will make your whole house smell like Italy. I hope you try it.
I've been dehydrating cherry tomatoes about once a week since the beginning of August. I can never have enough! They go with everything. In the winter I use the olive oil packed sun dried tomato and basil. Follow the links for recipes and instructions. This is the last post in my series on cooking with garden fresh tomatoes. Check out all the recipes together here: Tomato Recipes and Ideas. Up next I'll be looking at winter squash.