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