Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gee, Genovese Basil is Great!

J and Mel and I picked up a happy little basil plant a few months ago at the farmer's market. I tried to pick out the strongest, healthiest, fullest looking one they had. Little did I know that 3 months later, that little basil would be growing like Audry 2.

Lucky for us, though, this one doesn't feed on human flesh... just water and sunshine. When J walk pasts her and brushes her leaves with his side, the whole dining room fills with the sweet aroma. I've even caught him tearing off a leaf and rubbing it behind his ears.

Fresh basil is great in all kinds of dishes from pasta and tomato sauce to fresh Vietnamese salad rolls even to muddled summer drinks. The little plastic packages you get in the supermarket are expensive and almost always go rotten before I've used it all up.

So do yourself a favour and pick up a potted herb or two this summer. Give them room to grow by transplanting to a larger pot when they start to outgrow the one they came in.

And now... fresh basil pesto!
This recipe is easiest if you have a food processor or blender or bullet but if you're really determined all you need is patience.

Start with 2 packed cups of basil leaves, washed.

Chop 2-3 cloves of peeled garlic.

If you're using a food processor or other device, you can just keep adding things to the bowl. If you are doing this by hand, well, good on you. You'll need a separate large bowl to add each ingredient to as it is prepped.

Next, chop up the basil - to a coarse consistency. The key to a nice pesto is that there are still recognizable components. You don't want to turn your pesto into a runny mess.

Pesto can actually be made using all kinds of ingredients. Though the traditional method calls for basil, as the Italian variety comes from Genoa,
Sun dried tomatoes, grilled red peppers, olives, mint, and arugula are often found in variations on the traditional pesto alla genovese. As well, the traditional method of making pesto calls for a mortar and pestle, not a food processor... in case you were wondering. Pesto actually comes form an Italian word meaning "to pound". Sounds like a lot of work to me...

The next two ingredients are some of the most delicious things on the planet. Luckily for us, we have almost all had a chance to try fresh Parmesan cheese. I don't mean the powdery stuff that comes in a green cheese silo with "Kraft" emblazoned on the side. That stuff doesn't even need to be refrigerated. Real Parmesan is hard and grainy and grated so delicately it covers your pasta like a gentle snowfall.


So add a half of a cup of grated Parmesan (or grana padano or pecorino romano) to your bowl and combine.

The other ingredient that is a bit harder to come by is a third of a cup of pine nuts. At more than five times the price of most other nuts at the bulk food aisle of my grocery store, heed this warning and only buy as much as you need. Otherwise, you'll be shocked when you reach the checkout.

Once all these things are added to the bowl you can give it a few pulses in the processor. If you're doing this by hand, better to chop the nuts as finely as you can before adding it to your big bowl.

At this point there is only one or two things left to do, so you'd better have a big pot of water on the boil by now. If not, now is the time to get that organized. Don't forget to salt the pasta water!

To complete the pesto, you need a steady hand or a partner in crime. If you are using a food processor, slowly begin pouring in a half a cup of extra virgin olive oil as you continue to blend the mixture. The slow pour is essential to ensure proper emulsification (i.e. to make sure all the oil binds to the mixture rather than settling on top). If working by hand, may I first salute you as I waited to try this myself until I had a food processor of my own. Now, Either stirring or possibly even whisking, begin slowly pouring in the oil with your assistant's help to stabilize your bowl, pour the oil or mop your sweaty brow.

It's okay if you stop pouring for a bit to make sure everything is mixing together properly. Better to do it slowly than all at once because then it's already too late and there's not much you can do. It's kind of like salad dressing. But this is not one you'll want to just throw out and start again. So take your time.

Our first time making pesto was a bit of an adventure. This is one kitchen caper that definitely required two of us to go off without a hitch. Even with our careful pouring, we still got some oil pooling on the top of the bowl at the end. So don't be discouraged if that happens to you. It'll still taste amazing...

When your pasta water is boiling pour in your pasta of choice. Smaller shapes are often good with sauces that have a lot of stuff because when fully incorporated, the sauce gets trapped in all the little hidden nooks and crannies in the pasta shapes. Things like fusilli and cavatappi work great.

We used what we had on hand, which as luck would have it, was a package of fresh frozen roasted red pepper cavatelli. They are short, thick noodles that sort of look like hot dog buns because of the crease in the middle.

*** Remember - when making pasta sauce from scratch you should always conserve a cup or so of water from the pasta pot - it's called grey water and it's full of salt and starch and things that will make your sauce taste even better when a little is splashed in at the end. It will also help thicker sauces coat all the pasta evenly. And always cook your noodles to al dente. With a little bit of chewiness to them you can put them back on the heat of the stove to cook together with the sauce before it's served.

1 comment:

  1. yesss! and from my experience, genovese is really the only one worth growing! though I did visit a farm last week that had a few interesting varieties like lemon basil and lettuce leaf (huge!).

    and to get bigger, bushier plants (read: more pesto from less plants) you can pinch off the growing tips as they come up.