July 28, 2010
Every year I plant culinary herbs. Some years I have an excess of one or the other. The first time I planted basil from seed, I ended up with enough to supply all the cooks on the block who used it as a seasoning – I must have had a dozen plants ready for harvest at the same time. I tried drying some to store for use in the winter but I was soon running out of spots to hang it in the attic. That’s how I discovered pesto.
Traditional pesto is a thick sauce made by combining fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic and oil with a mortar and pestle and adding grated cheese. I use a food processor. It makes a delightful lunch or dinner entree without heating up the oven. Just combine with fresh pasta and toss.
Pesto requires no cooking and keeps for a week or more in the refrigerator, longer if frozen. It can be combined with mayo for a sandwich spread with a little oomph or with cream cheese to spread on crackers. I’ve seen it thinned with cream sauce but don’t recommend it. If the pungent taste of fresh basil is too much for your palate, substitute fresh baby spinach leaves for half of the basil.
Basil grows well with tomatoes, so I usually plant them together. This year, my “lasagna composting” (layer of kitchen scraps, layer of newspaper, layer of dirt) apparently did not completely compost before I planted my basil in March. Included in the kitchen scraps were the remains of small tomatoes that I buy still “on-the-vine” during the winter. Encouraged by the basil, a few seeds germinated, so I have small gourmet tomatoes growing among the basil. Tomato and basil combined with mozzarella or feta cheese and dressed with fresh vinaigrette makes a lovely side salad.
Pasta with Pesto
1-3 cloves garlic (this is very much a matter of taste)
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ cup olive oil
2 cups firmly-packed fresh basil leaves*
¼ cup pine nuts or English walnuts
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a food processor, combine the garlic salt and oil until smooth. Add the basil and nuts and blend until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in the Parmesan cheese. Serve at room temperature over hot pasta as a main dish. Add a little extra olive oil before tossing. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Garnish with springs of fresh basil, julienne strips of red pepper or toasted pine nuts.
* Make pesto from green basil, the color is part of what makes it a classic. You can substitute 1 cup of firmly-packed fresh spinach for 1 cup of basil.
Serving suggestion: We like to lightly sauté sliced mushrooms and strips of red pepper in olive oil, adding strips of smoked Virginia ham toward the end and toss with vegetables to warm. Serve this over the pasta with pesto.