Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Fresh Pesto with Garden Grown Basil

Grow Your Own Number 11 - Fresh Pesto made with garden grown basil

Last week I gave some beautiful Thai basil from my Tecolote Farms basket to my chef son. He used it as part of an amazing looking grilled prawn dish that he blogged about here. As I was reading his post, and admiring his results, I began to consider my GYO prospects for June.

As I stared hungrily at the basil garnish on his plate, it dawned on me, we'd gotten basil for two weeks in a row in our CSA baskets. I strolled outside and took a good long look at how vigorously the basil plants in my own garden were growing and noted they were beginning to set flowers. I knew it was time to start harvesting my own plants.

Some aspects of growing food crops require expertise and experience. Other aspects only require observation. Even as a somewhat entry level gardener, I know this much - big basil plants plus the beginnings of basil flowers equals time to harvest.That bumper crop decided for me that my GYO for June would have something to do with basil. I'd bought pine nuts knowing that a batch of home made pesto would be in the works at some point. However, I also have tomato plants. I figured I could get some some fresh mozzarella from the market and make one of those amazing salads with mozzarella, basil leaves from my garden and beautiful slices of my own home grown tomatoes. A GYO double header. Very appealing.

However, while the basil is growing great guns this year, my tomato plants are apparently taking a hiatus from setting fruit.They look great, they are producing wonderful healthy leaves, loads of flowers, but I'd just harvested the one last smallish ripe fruit. To top that off, there was a tomato recall from a large grocery chain locally for salmonella tainted tomatoes so supplementing my one small remaining tomato with store tomatoes was suddenly very unappealing.Grow your own...salmonella? Uncheck! Mozzarella/basil/tomato salad went off the list.

This past Monday had rolled around with the appearance of Romano beans in my CSA basket and a suggestion from the Tecolote folks in their newsletter that they'd be great "cooked with new potatoes and coated with pesto". That meant beans and potatoes with pesto were very likely going on our dinner menu for the week to come.

Pesto! Yes! I had a nice supply of pine nuts laid in last week, just in case, so I was ready.

I started with this basic preparation from Simply Recipes. If you are a home cook with certain holes in your repertoire, as I most definitely am, this site can be a fabulous starting point whenever you are venturing into new territory.

Because, ladies and gents, home made pesto is new territory for me. This was going to be my first batch.

2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts or walnuts
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Special equipment needed: A food processor

1 Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. (If you are using walnuts instead of pine nuts and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first, before adding the basil.) Add the garlic, pulse a few times more.
2 Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Makes 1 cup. Serve with pasta, or over baked potatoes, or spread over toasted baguette slices.
I was excited to get to use my own home grown basil in this deliciously simple, and "new to me" fashion. Before I unveil my results however, please allow me to share with you one reservation I have about the cavalier use of a term such as "packed into cups" in a basic recipe.

When I pack brown sugar into a cup, for instance, it stays packed. I know when to stop because the cup won't hold any more.

Basil leaves, however, are an entirely different proposition. Apparently I can pack a more than ordinary amount of leaves into a cup. I am not bragging here, it is simply a fact that somebody like me who types a lot and hand pulls weeds frequently, is going to be able to stuff a lot of helpless green leaves into a cup.

But they won't stay there like brown sugar will, neatly packed into the cup. As soon as the pressure is off the top they start springing back up out of the cup, trying to be independent leaves again. This led to a bit of indecision on my part as to when that cup was really "packed"...

So when I tell you I ended up with more than the stated yield of one cup of pesto, you will understand why I might be wondering if I took things a little far with my basil leaf packing step. All I am saying is that I would have appreciated a little more help for a first time pesto maker as to how I would know "when" a cup is "packed". A very minor point really and obviously not a problem for everybody. Onward.

Taking two liberties I felt were justified by the comments provided after the recipe on the web site, I added extra garlic, used my super-toasted pine nuts (see related post here), and otherwise followed the rest of the recipe as written.About halfway through processing the most amazing aroma began to waft up from the food processor. This answered, before I could even mentally formulate the question, of whether my fresh pesto was going to be worth the smidgeon more of trouble it takes than picking up a container off the store shelf.

Pesto is apparently like guacamole or margaritas in that everybody has their own tweaks and favorite ways to make the "best ever". But however you might personally categorize what makes the "best" pesto, I suppose fresh is just always going to taste better than preserved. One taste of my own results today and bingo! Color me an instant convert.

Now that I am a (caff caff!) experienced pesto maker, I will turn soon to the task of finding some natural way to work the pesto into our dinner plans. As previously announced, my plan from afar, always subject to change, is to prep the Romano beans and new potatoes from my weekly CSA basket and coat them liberally with pesto, as is reportedly "traditionally" Italian. I figure that dish, with some left over roasted chicken, good bread and a nice glass of wine, will make for a really lovely dinner.

With delicious and easily prepared pesto in the refrigerator, the abundantly productive basil plants in the back garden now look a lot less like a culinary threat, and a lot more like a wonderful resource for future meals in the bag. Or jar.Because fresh pesto, as it turns out, is delightfully quick and easy to make. 6 ingredients, maybe 15 minutes (or longer if you aren't a really pushy/packy type like me) of prep time, and et voila, you are in the pesto biz. If you haven't tried making pesto and you've wondered if fresh would be better? It is. Try it and see for yourself.


Andrea's Recipes (Grow Your Own) said...

Good for you! We make pesto every year with our fresh basil and freeze it in small containers. It's great to pull out in the dead of winter when summer seems far away. Sun-dried tomato pesto is also yummy. Thanks for sharing your pesto experience with us, and as always thanks for supporting Grow Your Own!

Natashya said...

Wow! Your basil plants are huge. I am moving to Texas. I can only grown small basil plants in Canada as we have a short season.
Great job on the pesto, extra garlic is always a good thing.