Nothing says summer to me like fresh basil.
Living in Florida, I have pots of it growing on my patio most of the year, but basil never really gets going for most of the country until summer. Then lookout! Basil galore.
Going through the farmer’s market, you can smell it before you approach a table full of greens and fresh herbs. Buy a plant and get a good, big basily wiff as you brush against the leaves on your way home.
A good BLT might be the BEST thing about summer, but basil runs a close second for me.
Of course, loads of fresh basil means Pesto!
Pesto, officially means a sauce of ingredients that were originally mashed together old school-style using an mortar and pestle. Although you see many varieties of pesto today…spinach, arugula, using walnuts, artichokes, sundried tomatoes, the list goes on and on…pesto in its most perfect form uses basil and lots of it.
Here’s what you need:
Fresh Basil, Pine Nuts, Garlic, Lemon, Olive Oil, Parmesan or Romano Cheese, Salt & Pepper (not pictured).
Hey, wait a minute. That’s not my kitchen. There are no nosy cats on chairs begging for chicken.
As many of you know, I’m spending part of my summer in Minnesota playing for the spectacular Mill City Summer Opera. I’m here for almost a month and my dear, generous, and incredibly patient to put up with the likes of me, friend Karl is hosting me in his fabulous guest accommodations.
Karl is a clarinetist and all round Renaissance man. I like to think of him as the male Martha Stewart. Only hairier. And with a Harley.
Karl cooks (yes, that is the Viking stove I have been known to fondle when no one is looking), gardens, brews beer for which he grows his own hops, plays music…. His garden gives definition to the phrase a “riot of color.”
And this is just a small sampling of the many, many flowers. There is no lawn…just flowers and vegetables galore. It’s paradise to a garden lover like me.
But back to the pesto. I bought 2 big bunches of basil at the farmer’s market.
If you have fresh basil, PLEASE don’t put it in the refrigerator or it will turn black. You can store it for several days in a glass or vase of water just like flowers.
I like to toast my pine nuts. Put the nuts in a dry pan over low heat and let them turn very slightly golden brown. If you can’t find pine nuts, walnuts are a great substitution.
Keep and eye on these and give the pan a good shake or two. Unwatched, they will go from toasted to burned very quickly.
Pesto is most quickly and easily made these days in a food processor or sturdy blender. If you are using a blender, be sure to put some oil in the bottom of the blender FIRST so you don’t burn out the motor trying to grind up the basil.
If you have a salad spinner, now is the time to use it to spin those basil leaves dry. Any moisture on the leaves will make your pesto a bit watery. Not the worst problem in the world, but if you make extra pesto to freeze (and you should make extra pesto to freeze…it keeps for ages), the texture won’t be quite as nice. Remove the basil leaves from the stems and discard any brown or damaged leaves.
Put the basil leaves in the bowl of the food processor. Chances are you have more leaves (I had about 4 cups) than your processor can hold. Rather than make 2 batches, I just partially grind down the first batch of basil to make some room and then add the rest.
Add some garlic – 1 – 2 cloves minced, or more if you’re feeling the love, and squeeze in the juice of 1 lemon.
With the food processor running, slowly pour in 1/4 – 1/2 cup of olive oil.
Pesto is not an exact science. Feel free to alter the amounts to suit your tastes or to accommodate the amount of basil you have on hand.
I tend to like my pesto a little more chunky and less oily so I’m probably using closer to 1/4 cup of oil. If you want super smooth pesto, add the oil a little at a time until you get the consistency you desire.
When the pesto is almost all processed, add 1/2 cup (or more) of finely grated Romano or Paremsan cheese and 1/2 cup toasted and cooled pine nuts.
Season to taste with salt & pepper and give it a whirl until it is smooth.
Note: sometimes when I know that I am freezing the bulk of my pesto, I leave out the cheese. Then when I thaw it out, I add the cheese for a fresher flavor. Karl, who is a pesto making machine, freezes his pesto cheese and all. He also makes a combo basil and tomato pesto that is amazing.
4 cups of basil makes well more than 1 cup of pesto. I have more than enough for a big bowl of pasta and also this 8 ounce container for eating or freezing later.
Boil up some noodles and add the pesto to the cooked pasta. Don’t heat the pesto on the stove or it will turn dark and lose its vibrant color and flavor.
Toss it together and top with a little extra cheese. Sometimes I also add sliced cherry tomatoes and mushrooms on top for more veg and more flavor. A few grilled shrimp or slices of cooked chicken are also great additions.
And pesto isn’t just for pasta! Use it as a spread on a turkey sandwich instead of mayo. Add a spoonful to oil and vinegar for a zesty salad dressing. Add some pesto to bread crumbs and stuff a fresh, ripe tomato then bake until tender.
Take a big bowl outside and eat in the garden!
What’s your favorite way to use pesto?
Here’s the recipe: