Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More Comfort Food: Basic Pesto Sauce

Pasta is definitely one of the foods I crave on a regular basis.  And pesto is my comfort food sauce.  To be honest, there are so many great ready-made sauces available from local cafes and markets (and Walter does NOT like pesto) that I seldom make my own.  But I was feeling a little guilty about my gorgeous basil plants that were about to be zapped with frost, so I decided to make a batch… or two… or three… or actually five.  I was on a roll.

I grew Perpetual Pesto basil this year.  It is beautiful in the garden and on a plate.  The leaves are variegated, soft green with ivory edges, and the scent is much more like pesto than other basils.  Also it never flowers, or at least mine didn’t from March until October.  Even after seven months, only the main stem became woody.  The minor stems remain soft and the individual leaves are small and easy to pluck.  This variety can grow very tall, 24-30”, and kind-of Christmas-tree-shaped, which is useful in flower beds.

I planted two Perpetual Pestos in my “bulb bed”… a summer herbaceous border planted over hundreds of spring bulbs… mainly for foliage and fragrance.  It’s just lovely to brush against the basil while I am weeding and working.  And they mingle well with pastel daylilies, various coneflowers, peonies and a few yellowy-orange cosmos.
I didn’t want to destroy my pretty plant combinations, so I only picked basil leaves that had reverted to solid green.  But they taste exactly the same as the variegated ones.  I used the basic Pesto Sauce recipe from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook.  I own the 1990 edition.
The New York Times Cookbook is an excellent reference and my go-to resource for uncomplicated dishes in all their variations: all sorts of stuffed vegetables, salad dressings and dips; seven different pancake recipes and six potato salads, plus classics like Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Lemon Sauce and Buttered Nuts.

Pesto Sauce makes about ¾ cup and reads as follows:

2 cups (about 2 ounces) basil leaves, stems removed
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons pine nuts, preferably lightly toasted
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt to taste

Rinse the basil leaves in cold running water.  Drain and pat dry with paper toweling.  Pack them compactly inside a 2-cup measure.  Press firmly without crushing the leaves.

Put the leaves into the container of a blender or food processor.

Put the garlic cloves between 2 sheets of wax paper and smash them with a flat mallet or the bottom of a clean metal skillet.  Scrape the garlic into the blender or processor.

Add the pine nuts, cheese, oil and salt.  Blend thoroughly until the sauce has a liquid consistency.  Use immediately or scrape the sauce into a 1-cup jar with a screw top lid.  Seal and refrigerate until ready to use.  It will keep for 1 or 2 weeks.  Or freeze the sauce.  It will keep indefinitely.
I basically follow the recipe exactly, except I don’t really understand the part about smashing the garlic.  I just press each clove with the broad side of a chef’s knife, like I would normally.  It crushes the clove nicely to peel off the skin.  Also, pine nuts are so tasty whether you toast them or not.

The New York Times Cookbook recommends two variations:
Pesto Sauce with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Prepare the basic pesto sauce, but add 3 (about 1 ounce) packed-in-oil sun-dried tomatoes or home-dried tomatoes.  Add the tomatoes while blending the basil and oil.

Pesto Sauce with Anchovies
Prepare the basic pesto sauce, but add 3 flat anchovy fillets or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste, while blending the basil and oil.

As I mentioned, I got a little carried away with all the beautiful basil, so I ended up making 5 batches of Pesto Sauce… one for immediate use and the rest I froze for the holidays.  Here’s the deal: I would serve Pasta with Pesto Sauce as a side on Thanksgiving, a starter at Christmas or as the main course for lunch with friends.  It’s gorgeous.  And I can brag that I grew the basil myself.

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