On occasional summer mornings as a child, I would pad into the kitchen and notice that the dining room table in the next room was wallpapered with basil leaves. My heart would leap and I knew instantly that my mother planned to make pesto that day. It was a special event. She always used the incomparable Silver Palate Cookbook recipe (walnuts, romano and parmesan) and we savored every precious mouthful. I still do. It’s the only recipe I have ever used.
But last week, faced as I was with an extraordinarily plentiful garden full of basil, I decided it was time to experiment.
As you may know, the origin of the word “pesto” refers to the “pestle” used with a mortar in the original Genoan dish. Since I am such an old-fashioned girl, I have for some time wanted to experiment with this method of preparation.
At the urging of a dear friend and food lover, I stepped away from the comfort of the Silver Palate and tried Marcella Hazan’s recipe, which uses pignoli nuts as well as butter. Butter.
As you can observe, the resulting pesto had an entirely different texture than the batch I made in my food processor.
But did this method impact the taste?
It may be sacrilegious to my Italian heritage to say this, but I found that it did not. But the texture of the pesto made with a pestle…… pure visceral pleasure. I tasted with delicate specificity the tiny pieces of basil leaf – the slight crunch of the pignoli nuts – and the buttery creaminess of the sauce. It was not as “neat” as the version I made in the food processor, but like the bliss of eating a lobster or an artichoke, the extra “work” of eating it added to my enjoyment.
Next, I returned to my beloved Silver Palate recipe. I made two (food processor) batches using two different types of garlic. One was plucked from an anonymous basket at my local grocery store. The other I purchased at my local farmer’s market- freshly picked and aged, I had to brush dirt off it before I peeled it. There was a large difference in the taste – the local garlic gave its pesto a more subtle, balanced and nuanced flavor. I don’t think I will ever make pesto with garlic that hasn’t been grown miles from where I live.
Which pesto recipe ultimately incited my passion?
There are purists who believe that pine nuts are the truest and only way to make pesto. But I prefer the sweeter taste of walnuts. And so although I really love Marcella’s pesto and its sweet addition of butter, my heart still belongs to Sheila and the Silver Palate.
Now, a little departure.
As you may recall, I was lucky enough to be a judge two weeks in a row at the recent Bring Back our Music concerts at Harkness State Park, along with the lovely Linnea Rufo of the Bee and Thistle Inn and Spa.
I was smitten by a very special pesto created by concertgoer Patricia Kirmayer. A self-proclaimed “foodie,”
Patricia and her friend Nancy Codeanne went all out with their Harkness picnic spread and the star was a mint basil pesto that Pat used in a variety of ways- spreading it on fresh bread- and even as a base for a delicious homemade gazpacho. The taste is clean and bright- the mint is the star and melds perfectly with the basil and oregano.
Pat ‘s children affectionally refer to it as “Green Gold.” It is a lovely variation on traditional pesto (I added extra mint and olive oil, and let it sit a day before spreading with chèvre over bread.)
PATRICIA KIRMAYER’S “GREEN GOLD” MINT PESTO
5 garlic cloves
4 oz. Asiago cheese, cubed
2 cups walnuts ** Use pine nuts if you’re a purist, but they’re far more expensive and have a chalkier texture.
2 cups olive oil
7 cups basil leaves (any variety or mix will be fine)
1 cup mint leaves**
1 1/2 cups oregano leaves **
** Any combination of mint, oregano, parsley and/or chives works – with basil predominating.
Blend the first 5 ingredients until smooth. Add herbs in batches and pulse until smooth. Add more oil to adjust texture to your preference.
Makes 4 1/2 cups.
Patricia says “I freeze pesto in 4-6 oz. plastic or glass jars or ice cubes trays (Transfer to sealed baggies when frozen.) and hoard it thru the winter. It’s great on baguettes, tomatoes, pasta, grilled chicken, shrimp or fish, etc…you get the idea.”
My basil leaves are dwindling as I stockpile my freezer with variants of basil pesto. I know that when I use my last container next spring, it will be a sure sign that it is once again time for the summer to begin.