116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I don't do very well with the heat when summer begins. I do love spending time outside whenever I can, though. June heat means adjusting my routine to get myself acclimated. Tending the garden in the morning, napping in the afternoon, grilling in the evening, and waking up in the middle of the night when the world is quiet and beautiful.
Most of the plants in the garden aren't going to be edible for a while yet. The tomatoes are flowering, and I saw a couple of tiny fruits starting to form. What is doing really well right now are the herbs and the light greens. They are flourishing.
That means it's pesto season. Now, the classic version of pesto has all the great Italian restaurant cliches: basil, garlic, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts. It's incredibly easy to put together. Honestly the hardest part is shelling out the money to buy the pine nuts and fresh basil.
This is where pesto gets interesting. Pesto gets it's name from a mortar & pestle, "pestello" being the Italian name for the stone age hammer used to crush herbs into the stone bowl that acts as an anvil. Pestare means "to pound or crush."
That definition doesn't actually say anything about what you are pounding and crushing. So that gives a lot of room to play around. I cut my teeth in restaurants learning from chefs who followed the Italian model, as opposed to the formal French methods. The Italian model encourages you to adapt to whatever you have on hand and to play around with it. Make it personal, make it your own, like how a musician who plays music actually plays music. The French style is heavy handed, formalized and rigid. It's more like seeing a cover band working through an imitation of somebody else's music.
Pesto is a perfect vehicle to work through what's popping up in the garden right now. It also freezes very well, which makes it an excellent preservation method for all the bright fun and funky flavors in your herb garden. Herbs are some of the cheapest and easiest things to grow, but some of the most expensive to buy in the store.
I like to fill an ice cube try with batches of pesto and then pop the flavor cubes into a sealable freezer bag, once they have set up. Come next winter, a freezer full of verdant garden flavors is a great friend to have on your side. Just make sure you label them well, or it's going to be Russian roulette whenever you pull a cube out. I once mixed up a Thai green curry ice cube, thinking it was pesto. Man, that did not go over well. Labels are your friends in freezer town.
So instead of sharing you a "classic basil pesto" cover band recipe, let's look at it like "choose your own adventure" and break it down into the different categories. At the end of the day, there are a few core elements that help keep the pesto intact as an emulsified paste. Pesto uses garlic, nuts and cheese to bind it all together. In this way it is rather different from it's Brazilian cousin, chimichurri, which, although it has similar ingredients, is more of a very thick vinaigrette. The paste aspect of pesto makes it more of a spread. Let's keep that in mind while we play with it.
I made some parsley and arugula pesto last night to dress a grilled potato salad to go with some pork chops. It was fun. Thought I was going to write about grilling potatoes, but then the pesto stole the show and I fell right down that rabbit hole. Maybe we'll grill potatoes next month.
Makes 2 cups of concentrated flavor. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled, and will still fit in a 2 quart food processor.
Tools needed: a food processor, or a mortar and pestle if you want to go barbarian.
1 1/2 pounds herbs and greens (Any combination of fresh leafy herbs like basil, Italian parsley, arugula, sorrel. Wild foraged greens like nettles (wear gloves) or lamb's quarter. Don't use dried herbs, unless you want to go viral on a "don't do this" social media bender.)
1 tablespoon nut butter or 1/4 cup whole nuts (Pine nuts are traditional, but I really love roasted walnuts, pecans and almonds in a pesto. Almond butter is fairly easy to find these days, and sometimes comes in single serve packets. I've used peanut butter in a pinch.)
3 to 4 cloves of raw garlic or 1/4 cup roasted garlic paste
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup aged cheese, finely shredded (Other hard aged cheeses work well too, like Asiago. Personally, I wouldn't splurge for a very fancy Parmesan like Reggiano because the other strong flavors will drown out it's nuances.)
If you are using a foraged green herb, blanch it lightly by briefly plunging them in hot water then ice them. Squeeze out any remaining moisture. This also will neutralize the stinging from the nettles.
Peel the skins off the garlic. I like to skewer and grill them for a minute or two, to deepen the flavor and make those skins come off easily. Roasted or braised garlic is also fun, but has a more mellow flavor, so put in a bit more than you would if you were going with raw garlic.
Put the olive oil, nuts and garlic in the food processor and blend it into a slurry. Small batches might have trouble grabbing the blade, so blend in short bursts and scrape the slurry back down toward the blade until it is fairly smooth. these are the emulsifiers and we want them to get sticky, like peanut butter, so they can hold the rest of the paste together.
Cram as much greens as you can fit in the bowl of the food processor and run it for a few seconds. They will shrink a lot as they pulverize. Push them down, and add more greens as they blend down. Keep doing this until the greens are finely granulated, like wet sand.
Add the cheese and run the motor until the cheese is also finely granulated.
Taste it and add salt if you can't taste it on the back of your tongue. Once it's blended, you want to stir with a spoon so it doesn't lose it's cohesion.
If you don't eat it all right away, you want to get it in the fridge or freezer right away. In the fridge or on the countertop, it will oxidize fairly quickly. Meaning it will turn brown on the surface and the sweet flavors will turn unpleasantly bitter. If you are storing it in the fridge, it's good to pack it into a small container so there is less air contact. You also can press a piece of plastic film down onto the paste itself, inside the container, to reduce air contact.