Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pesto: Not Just for Basil Anymore

What I'm about to say will likely astound some of you, particularly any of you young whipper-snappers who've know little or nothing of the days before burrata, Neapolitan pizza, foie gras carts as common as hot dog stands, and free-range artisan single source heirloom poultry in every pot, but here goes: I was there when pesto was invented. Well, maybe not "invented," but I do recall very well those days when basil pesto arrived in a great fragrant tsunami on these shores. That was also the time, not surprisingly, when rare and exotic foodstuffs like real parmesan cheese, prosciutto, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil were first becoming known here. Funny, huh? Before that time, all we knew of food started at Hamburger Helper and ended at Shake N Bake chicken. This was a mere twenty years ago. I know that many of you recall those innocent days as well as I.

The reason I'm taking this trip down memory lane is to help explain why I don't really like basil pesto anymore. The reason: so smitten was I with this rarified blend of fresh basil, garlic, cheese, pinenuts, and olive oil, I gorged on it until, frankly I was sick of it. I burned out on basil pesto in the mid-90's, and I've never really recovered. That tragic occurence also took away a lot of my enjoyment of basil itself. I mean, I don't dislike basil, but I'm really much more of a thyme guy.

My solution for getting back into the pesto game after my disillusionment with basil is this here mixed-herb pesto, which allows me to put away some summery herbal freshness without the Genovese flashbacks. Interestingly, basil is the main herb in this mix, since it's the most abundant in my garden right now, but it recedes under the influence of the other greenery. To the basil base I always add plenty of thyme, a good amount of mint, parsley, and some cutting celery.

Poking around my Saint Paul garden at this time of year is really a sort of domestic foraging, and while I was wending my way through renegade squash vines, I spied some neglected carrots, and grabbed a few sprigs of the freshest green tops to add to my pesto. I also pinched off a few tomato leaves, which are indeed edible, and bring that appetizing savory quality. I also came across some rather sad, underachieving fennel plants that I planted mid-summer. No bulbs to speak of, but I was able to glean a few feathery, anise-scented fronds. Add some sorrel, and a handful of chives. I think that's all of it. Rosemary and tarragon I avoid--they'd be too assertive in the mix; well, maybe just a little of each, but be careful.

Rinse and spin, jam it all in the FP. I added also the juice of one-quarter lemon and a couple good pinches of salt, then about a quarter-cup of olive oil to start. Start blending, and add more olive oil as needed to make the emulsion. This herb base can be amended later with cheese, garlic, nuts, or used as is.

How I will use it: drop a cube into the soup pot just before serving; smear on lamb chops, chicken, or fish pre-broiling; stir into a wine-stock pan sauce for a steak or chop; melted into hot polenta, or rice pilaf; or on pasta, of course, with the traditional additional flavorings.

Conveniently, one FP-load of herbs made enough to fill one ice cube tray. Knock another fall chore off the list.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


Nancy @ rivertreekitchen said...

Brett, I agree about pesto: Even if I'm making "basil" pesto, I also throw in at least a bit of parsley. This summer it was all about basil-parsley-thyme-mint; last summer marjoram was part of the mix. So much more interesting.

s said...

Good ideas. I'm kind of "off" the basil pesto this year too, and was just eyeing my big parsley patch for a similar project. One of my favorites is garlic scape pesto, which is awesome on a pizza, or for super-easy garlic bread.

Basil is just SO seasonal, I love it celebrating the high summer meals, but I can live without it mostly in the wintertime.

el said...

I think a whole raft of us came of age with The Silver Palate and gawd am I glad that era is over! Basil pesto gets to be one of its victims.

Tomato leaves though? Wow, I would *really* have to be hungry.

I'm with Nancy and Sara: I could not live without parsley, and don't have to thanks to the greenhouses. Parsley's too boring to go into or out of style. My kind of herb.

Macaroni said...

I have never tired of basil, chopped tomatoes, salt, garlic, and olive oil...on crostini. Nor have I tired of pesto itself... I just thought I'd mention it. The real debate begins when we consider whether basil has a long "a" or a short "a". I agree with Julia Child and the Greeks...a sort "a."

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Nancy: I find it really interesting how different herbs interact in a mix like that. The thyme and mint always come to the fore in mine, and other herbs tend to recede to a general "herbiness," though the basil fragrance is still often prominent. Marjoram! An herb I love, but haven't grown for some time. Thanks for reminding me.

Hey, Sara: I made a ramp and watercress pesto last spring--cresto, I dubbed it! Smeared on a butterflied trout and broiled, it was great. I think you really hit it, re enjoying basil in season. It was working through the endless supply of frozen pesto that turned me off.

El, did you look at the link that talks about tomato leaf pesto? That, I think, would be a bit much. But don't you find the aroma of tomato leaves appetizing? I do. "The New Basics" used to be a go-to book here; not so much anymore, but it was an influential work. And, I, for one, do not find parsley boring.

M. Macaroni: I didn't mean to start a round of basil bashing. It is indeed a delight in its season. I always favor a BBT over a BLT, basil taking the leafy role. My problem (well, one of 'em), is that even though it's years since I put away a winter's worth of pesto, I still grow a dozen or more plants in my garden, and then they start to flower and go to seed, I think I ought to do something with them, I feel guilty, and I lash out. It's really not the basil's (long or short 'a') fault. "Julia Child and the Greeks" would be a good non-sequitur-type name for a punk band.

Cheers, all~ Brett