Basil is funny to grow. It starts as a spindly plant, often with just a few leaves, so few in fact that to take any feels wrong. To snip a couple off for a tomato salad makes me worry that I might kill the plant. In the beginning I always straddle the line between wanting to taste and not wanting to kill. More times than not in early summer I skimp on the basil leaves or I (ahhh!) buy basil.
Then late summer rolls around and my basil plant has turned beast. There are so many leaves that I don’t know where to cut. And then I see them. The seed pods and flowers, inching their way out of the top, getting ready to turn my basil into a bitter compost addition. Not on my time.
Basil, you’re about to get whacked.
The scissors emerge from the kitchen. I grab the entire basil plant and cut it off at the ankles. Brutal to be sure, but necessary because it is at this moment, when the heat of the late summer is overbearing and I am praying for rain as if I live in a desert that I know it is time to make pesto for the winter.
To learn about the history of pesto is to free yourself from recipes and proportions and rules. The word itself is from the Latin word pestle, which mean to pound and to crush. Historically, pesto is a herb sauce made from crushed basil and cheese, but the possibilities are endless. Play with different herbs and seeds and nuts and oils to create a pesto that tastes amazing for your palate. Here is one possibility.
- 1/4 pound of garden fresh basil
- A few sprigs of mint (they were in the fridge and I didn’t want them to go to waste)
- 1/2 cup of toasted pumpkin seeds
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Honey to taste (I started with a tablespoon)
- Enough oil to make it smooth
- Salt to taste
- Thai chili peppers (please see point 2 in the directions)
1) Some people might want to strip the leaves off the basil plant. I chose not to. I just threw the whole clump of basil into the blender with the mint, garlic, honey and some oil. You might be wondering why I am using a blender considering my obsession with tradition and authenticity. Well I had a quarter pound of basil to get through and I have rheumatoid arthritis in my hands so modernity won this battle.
2) Previous to making my pesto I had been making my latest batch of chili paste to ferment so instead of washing out my blender I decided that spicy pesto was the order of the day. It was a win-win situation, less clean-up for me and more flavour for my pesto!
3) You will be adding a lot of oil to make your pesto blend properly. Just be patient and once the blender stops blending productively (the pitch increases because it’s not blending anything), turn it off, open up the lid and press the basil leaves back down onto the blades using a wooden spoon. Don’t do this while the machine is on please. I know it can be tempting.
4) As I am blending up the leaves and oil, I am toasting my pumpkin seeds. Some recipes call for pine nuts, but to be honest, they are really expensive and I had pumpkin seeds on hand. Once the nuts are toasted and the basil is of a nice consistency, add the nuts and keep blending. Blend until smooth but not necessarily perfectly smooth. Imagine the texture that an old Italian Noni would approve of, I think she would raise an eyebrow and perhaps a tut-tut at a perfectly smooth pesto. Go for rustic over elegant.
5) Taste and adjust for salt and honey. Now pour your pesto into a clean ice cube tray (thanks Auntie Kathleen for this idea) and freeze. Once the pesto cubes are frozen, pop them out of the tray and into a ziploc freezer bag. Use whenever you need a hit of summer.
- Uses: on pasta, on veggies, on bread, on sandwiches, in dips and spreads
- If you want a lower fat version, substitute broth for some of the oil. Make sure you taste before adding extra salt because most broths are quite high in sodium.
- Be warned that pesto is used a symbol of love in Italy, so be careful who you serve your pesto to… Think of it as a garlic laced cupids arrow.
History of Pesto