Pesto to light up your winter months
Here in New England seasons often change in the blink of an eye. We had all been getting used to a lovely warm September, warmer than usual, and probably thinking that we would be basking in the glow of colourful sunsets and still wearing shorts and sandals until December. Ah, the joys of global warming. Alas, along came October.
It started raining on the 1st and it hasn't stopped yet. Along with the rain about the second or third day came the cold. I had already started filling the greenhouse with my plants that live in its warmth all winter, the rosemary, my bonsai olive tree, jasmine, mandavilla, miniature pomegranate trees, bay tree, two blue plumbago, three pots of lemongrass, two cactus, a Castor bean, a Meyer lemon tree and a partridge. Alright no partridge, but don't you think that would be cool?
I also had a basil plant that I had been nursing along all summer. Pinching the ends to make it bushy, moving it occasionally to catch more sun. I knew from past experience that if I just moved it into the greenhouse it would soon just drop all of its leaves and just become a dead twig in a pot. I'm not sure why it does this, but I wasn't taking any chances this year.
Sue had asked me recently if I had any recipes for pesto and this summer my Mom had called one day from Maine. Our garden up there had produced an overabundance of basil and she needed to know how to make pesto. She also planned on freezing some for later. I wasn't too sure how that would work, but surprisingly if you aren't a stickler about color (it turns a bit blacker) it does work. One could pull out a bit of summer from the freezer in February and here in New England that could be a real boost on those days when the sun is only available for what feels like 5 hours.
I really wouldn't call this a recipe per se because it really depends on a few factors that will vary every time you make it.
How strong is your basil?
There are dozens of different types of basil plants. How it is grown, how old it is when it finally reaches you in a supermarket or Farmer's market, how it was been watered and fed, are all factors in the final taste of the herb.
How salty is your cheese?
I have found that Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Sure they all must be made from a certain region of Italy to be called by those names. They also must follow traditional methods as well. But the sheep and cow's eat different pastureland at different times of the year, the milks have to vary, how old it is when you buy it will mean that it could be drier and a bit more salty as a result.
How cheesy do YOU like your pesto?
Taste, of course, is a personal thing so use this list of ingredients and technique as a guide to make your own.
Pesto doesn't require many ingredients, but other than the basil the ingredients can be on the pricier side.
Pesto also means paste in Italian. True pesto is made in a mortar and pestle and it takes a l-o-n-g time to add the olive oil a little at a time to achieve the correct consistency. I'm not that anal. Using your food processor, correctly, will yield a pretty close approximation, however if you have a mortar and some time one day, try making a batch in one, it really is a very different texture when done this way.
Traditional pesto from the coastal Liguria region of Italy, should always have Pecorino Romano or Pecorino Sardo cheese. Pecorino is a sheep's milk cheese and is a saltier sharper cheese than Parmigiano Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese from the Emilia-Romagna region. When I make pesto I use both Parm as well as Pecorino.
Next you will want Pignoli or pine nuts. Don't buy a large quantity unless you can store them airtight in a fridge or freezer. They can go rancid quickly.
The two primary tastes in pesto are the basil and the Extra Virgin olive Oil. Don't skimp here, buy the good stuff. This recipe will make 2 - 3 cups of pesto and will last a long time, it's worth the expense.
You will also need a clove or two of garlic and some kosher salt or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
First thing is fitting the grating blade to my processor. I grated up half Pecorino and half Parmigiano to a total of about 1 cup of cheese. You can do this on the fine side of a box grater or with a rasp grater, but since it is a large quantity of cheese and you will be pulsing it again it was easier to utilize the food processor for this.
Next I fit the spinning blade in the processor.
In a dry saute pan on low to medium low heat I toasted the pignoli nuts (about 1/3 cup). You could do this in a toaster oven or in the oven if you want. Pignoli nuts are very oily so they will burn fast. Do NOT turn your back on them when toasting them or you will be throwing some money in the trash. Trust me here. I just toss them in the pan until they start to brown and smell fragrant. Once they are ready, set them aside to cool.
Then I started pulling the leaves off the plant, making sure nobody had created a home in any of them and since I grew it and knew that there were no pesticides or chemicals it went straight into the bowl of my food processor.
This bowl is packed pretty tightly with leaves. My mixer is a 9-cup Kitchen Aid.
That was about half of the plant you saw in the photo on the top in leaves.
The best way to add garlic to pesto is as a paste. I happen to have a mortar and pestle so I just add two cloves of garlic and some kosher salt and pound it until I get a nice paste.
But you could use a knife and a cutting board with some salt. Sprinkle the salt over the cloves and mince it fine. Then using the knife on an angle drag it across the minced garlic several times until it forms a paste.
Now you are ready to make the pesto.
Put the toasted pignoli nuts on top of the basil leaves in the processor.
Add a few glugs (maybe 2 - 3 TBS) of the olive oil and pulse the mixer about 10 1-second pulses until it looks like this.
Now add 2/3 cup total of the two cheeses, the mashed garlic and a few more glugs of olive oil. Pulse 8 more 1-second pulses. Now add 1/4 cup of olive oil and the last 1/2 cup of the cheeses. Pulse once or twice and now taste it. This will not taste like the final pesto because the flavours will need to mingle for a bit before the final taste comes through, but you are tasting here for salt. I added 1 tsp of salt and a few grinds of fresh black pepper here. I also added another 1/4 cup of olive oil. Pulse a few times to blend.
In the end you are looking for the consistency of oatmeal so it may take anywhere from another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of olive oil to achieve this. Add it a few glugs at a time and pulse once or twice to blend before checking it.
Taste it again and adjust your seasonings now. I added a little more cheese and more black pepper but it didn't need any more salt.
To store this, I put it in freezer containers and pour a bit more oil on top, just a thin layer, to prevent the basil from turning black. Some people put it in ice cube trays and then pop them out into a freezer bag when they are set. This lets you use a small quantity whenever you want it. I tend to store it in 1-cup quantities.
I had to make a second batch to use up the rest of that plant. I ended up with 5 cups of pesto in the end! Enough for a long cold winter in New England.