THE LATEST HEATWAVE FORCED THE BASIL into flower, so before things go too far: pesto. Apparently, it’s in the air. My friend Deb Puchalla of Everyday Food magazine and the Dinner Tonight blog was about to make a batch, she said the other day…and then a second later, we both thought: Hey, let’s collaborate. Let’s talk pesto with our garden- and food-blog friends. Let’s have a Digital Pesto Fest. Care to join in?
I cook by feel, and my recipe books don’t get off the shelf much. With pesto, in particular, it’s all “to taste” in my kitchen, and to texture: Too little oil, and the blender or Cuisinart can’t process it; too much, and it won’t really freeze nicely. For me, freezing’s the main point. I don’t want to OD on pesto in high summer, but want a steady supply year-round.
I make a lot of pizza, crust and all, and I smear the unbaked crusts with olive oil, my pesto, and roasted garlic before I layer on homemade tomato sauce (stored frozen beside the pesto) and the cheeses.
An “ice cube” or two of defrosted pesto also makes a welcome spread on baguette or crackers with olives and cheese and other snacking things, when guests stop by. Nothing’s easier as a seasoning when making minestrone or pasta e fagioli, than to drop a cube into the bubbling broth (or garnish each serving with a teaspoonful).
My ingredients never vary: basil, peeled garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, grated parmesan and pine nuts, combined to taste and feel (usually in the blender). I like to go heavy on the garlic, but maybe you don’t. Substitute walnuts for pine nuts, and so on. There is dispute about whether to put the nuts and cheese in now, then freeze, or add them at the time of use. For me, the answer’s easy: I’d never use the pesto if I had to process it again, so I risk slight deterioration in flavor and add them now.
If you want real recipes, to avoid the worry of my kind of guesswork, Deb and Everyday Food have them. Tell them Margaret sent you. I think it’s the smartest food magazine there is. Its mission is simple: great food fast. What’s not to like about that?
Kathy Purdy at Cold Climate Gardening has a recipe, too. It was Kathy who got me and Deb really going in this direction the other day when she innocently “said” on Twitter that her kids had just made more than 6 cups of pesto from basil she’d grown. (Don’t know Twitter? Come and find me, and see what it’s about.) Apparently the Purdys use New York Times writer Jane Brody’s recipe, which you can find on Kathy’s blog (along with a vintage Kathy essay about, you guessed it, her family pesto ritual, at basil-harvest time).
Or maybe you don’t have basil at all and instead want to make a pesto from cilantro or spinach. Maybe garlic scapes (thanks to Kitchen Gardeners) or walnuts and sage (thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl) or even pistachio nuts with basil (like Leslie Land has shared in summers past).
Another tip: I hate buying parsley in the offseason, so to have the fresh flavor on hand I make a looser-than-pesto slurry of leaves with a bit of water and freeze that as cubes, too. Or you could make a parsley pesto, with garlic and oil and all the other ingredients.
Now, about the freezing: I have several plastic ice-cube trays reserved for this use only, sparing me garlic-flavored cubes the rest of the year. I spoon the thick pesto mix (or the slightly looser parsley slurry) into cubes, then freeze a few hours, and knock the individual green ice cubes out into double freezer bags to keep them from burning effects. Freezing large containers makes no sense, as once defrosted, it doesn’t keep. If I were serving multiple portions of pasta with pesto, I’d do some 4-ounce containers, along with my cubes.
It’s time to sow another row of basil seeds, by the way, so that when your fall-ripening tomatoes come in, you’ll have a crop of fresh, tender leaves to mix them with…and to make more pesto from.
Please feel free to share your recipes, or links to blogs both horticultural and culinary where you have found good ones. And join us on Twitter, too, so that next time Kathy gets me and Deb and the rest of us all talking, you’ll be right there, ready to chime in, too. After all, it’s supposed to be a Digital Pesto Fest, isn’t it?