This essay was written before 2001, and a lot has changed since then. Details in the Postscript.
People tend to assume, since I live in the country and have a large family, that I grow and preserve all (or at least a good deal) of the food we eat. But the truth is, I really don’t like to put food up, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it. Canning is hot, steamy work needing to be done (usually) at the hottest, most humid time of year. Freezing is not much better, with all that schlepping of blanched vegetables from stove to sink. I leave all that to my eldest son, who has a homesteader’s zeal. But for several days in September, when frost is an imminent threat, I am a slave to pesto-making.
Making Pesto is not for everyone
There are reasons not to make pesto. It is tedious work removing the leaves from the stems. The nuts, cheese, and olive oil are expensive, even if you substitute walnuts for the pine nuts and use domestic Parmesan cheese (which I do). But oh! what a heady aroma, and oh! what a robust flavor, and oh! what an earthy texture. Is there anyone alive who can resist the siren song of this ambrosial concoction? (Yes: I married him.)
Plan ahead: Make pesto in batches
Every year that I labor at this task, I tell myself that next year I will start sooner and do one batch every day. But this is rather unrealistic. For one thing, I normally work in the flower beds, not the vegetable garden. The basil is in the vegetable garden, which is a walk up the hill; in other words, it’s out of sight, and therefore out of mind. For another thing, it can take most of the growing season for the basil to reach harvesting size. And then there is the matter of my schedule. From mid-July to mid-August I am consumed with homeschooling preparations, which often, despite my best intentions, are still going on through Labor Day. And then—comes that change in the air and the clear nights that portend sudden death for basil. It’s always sooner than I expect. And so, the entire crop (which can be large; I have been known to plant 30 seedlings in the spring) must be harvested that evening. Fortunately, pesto can be frozen.
How to Store Freshly Harvested Basil
You may be interested to know that basil keeps best when picked at the end of the day and stored at 60 degrees in perforated plastic bags in the dark. Since I cannot turn all that basil into pesto in an evening, I try to approximate those conditions by putting whole plants into plastic garbage bags with holes poked in them, and putting them in our unheated basement, which may or may not be 60 degrees in September, but is certainly warmer than the refrigerator (where there is no room, anyway) and cooler than any other part of the house.
Types of basil
There are many strains and types of basil out there, and Genovese basil is considered the best for pesto. However, no less an expert than Josephine LaFemina, who I consider to be the epitome of all things Italian (and who happens to be my grandmother) prefers Thai basil in pesto. Not just any Thai basil, mind you, but the Thai basil grown by her daughter-in-law, my uncle’s wife, who happens to be a native of Thailand. Grandma was staying the winter with them in Florida, and sent me seeds from her basil. I find it to be less intense in its flavor, but I am not sure it gets hot enough here for Thai basil to be at its best.
Cooking with Pesto
Whatever kind of basil you use, there are many ways to enjoy pesto. Traditionally it is merely tossed with hot pasta and eagerly consumed. It is a little too intense for some of the younger tastebuds in our family when prepared this way, and pesto is so labor- and money-intensive that we prefer to make a little go a long way. Some of the following recipes are so popular they are requested for birthdays—the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a meal in Purdyville. (This is one instance where I’m glad my children don’t take after their father.)
This particular version is from Jane Brody’s Good Food Book and uses less oil than is traditional. This makes it slightly more difficult to toss with pasta but is fine for all other uses.
3 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt (if desired)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups basil leaves firmly packed
1/4 cup walnuts or pine nuts
½ cup Parmesan cheese
Place basil leaves in food processor with metal blade. Start machine, drop garlic down. When it is finely chopped, pour in oil. Add nuts with machine running. When nuts are ground, add Parmesan. Turn off machine when well blended. Stop machine and scrape sides as needed. Makes about 1 1/4 cup, which generously covers 1 pound pasta.
Note: We freeze pesto in 1 cup containers or 2 tablespoons per ice cube in ice cube trays.
Adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest by Mollie Katzen
2 packages frozen chopped spinach thawed and drained
2 cups minced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil divided
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
2 cups Pesto
4 pounds partskim ricotta cheese
½ cup sunflower seeds, roasted
32 lasagna noodles
2 pounds part skim milk mozzarella cheese shredded
In a large, heavy skillet, saute the onions in 1 tablespoons of the olive oil until the onions are soft (5 to 8 minutes). Add salt and pepper in moderate quantities. Remove from heat. Add drained, thawed spinach. Transfer to a large bowl. Add half the grated Parmesan, the pesto, the ricotta and the sunflower seeds. Grind in some extra black pepper. Mix thoroughly. Meanwhile, boil the lasagna noodles until partially cooked. Drain and rinse under cold water. Coat 2 13″ x 9″ pans with olive oil. Place a layer of noodles in the bottom of each pan. Spread 1/4 of the filling onto the noodles. Sprinkle 1/4 of the mozzarella over the filling. Repeat with remaining filling and mozzarella. Place a final layer of noodles over that. Sprinkle remaining Parmesan over the top. Drizzle with remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Cover with foil and bake at 350º for 35-40 minutes.
Notes: 2 pounds of fresh spinach, cleaned, stemmed, and chopped fine, may be substituted for the frozen spinach. Spinach lasagna noodles may be used instead of regular.
makes about 24
This is a favorite choice for a birthday meal here in Purdyville. It is a lot of work when making so many, but you can halve the recipe easily, or freeze the extras for reheating later. Adapted from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest By Mollie Katzen.
1 ½ batches Speedy Gonzales White Bread (use 9 cups flour)
2 cups Pesto
2 pounds ricotta cheese, part skim milk (4 cups)
Make the dough. After mixing dough, place it in a bowl greased with olive oil and let rise.
While dough rises combine pesto and ricotta. Punch dough down to deflate. Divide into 24 pieces by dividing into 4 pieces, then each piece into 6. Form each piece into a ball. Roll ball into circle about 1/8″ thick. Place about 1/4 cup filling onto one side of each circle. Bring the other side of the dough over the top of the filling, and seal the edges with water and the flat edge of a fork. Prick the top with a fork in a few spots and place on greased baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough balls. When you are about 3/4 done, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bake them for 20 minutes at 450 degrees. Serve immediately. Makes 24.
Speedy Gonzales White Bread
This is what we use for calzones, but you can even use frozen bread dough from the supermarket. For this quantity it would be the equivalent in bread dough of about 1 ½ loaves of bread. Adapted from Fleischmann’s yeast recipe booklet and Abby Mandel’s Cuisinart Classroom
6 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 envelopes Rapid Rise yeast *see Note
2 cups hottest tap water *see Note
Put flour, sugar, salt and yeast in food processor bowl. Pulse 23 times to blend. With machine running, pour hot water through feed tube slowly, till all is incorporated and dough forms a ball. Let process 40 sec. Remove from work bowl. Place on flour dusted surface. Cover with greased plastic wrap and then a clean towel. Let rise in a warm spot till double. Punch down dough by kneading 12 times, then continue with calzone recipe.
Notes: *2 envelopes yeast = 5 teaspoons
* May need 1/4 to ½ cup more water
Other things to do with pesto:
- One cup of pesto amply covers one pound of pasta. Thin it with a little broth, water, or olive oil and it will probably cover two pounds of pasta, but with a less intense flavor.
- Or mix ½ cup pesto with a pound of ricotta cheese and toss with hot spaghetti or macaroni.
- Add one to six tablespoons to a cup of your favorite oil-and-vinegar salad dressing, and use for a salad of greens or pasta.
- Mix three tablespoons with ½ cup softened butter, spread on slices of Italian bread, and bake in the oven as for garlic bread.
- Mix with equal portions of butter and serve on baked potatoes.
- Put a tablespoon into your bowl of minestrone.
- Pesto-Bean Dip (or sandwich spread?): Mash 2 cups cooked white beans, ½ cup pesto, ½ cup cottage or ricotta cheese, salt & pepper to taste, and enough milk to moisten (6TB. for dip, less for a spread). from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.
- Chunk cooked potatoes while still hot and toss with extra virgin olive oil. When cool, toss with pesto.
My eldest son is no longer a teen with time on his hands for canning and freezing. Now my eldest daughter, Talitha, organizes the canning and freezing production crews, including pesto making. And my grandmother, sadly, is no longer with us.