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Monday, June 21, 2010

Chronicles of a New Garden: pesto from home-grown basil

by Francesca
FuoriBorgo

Today I noticed my basil had grown enough to allow me to make the first pesto of the season. Below is the traditional Italian recipe for pesto from home-grown basil, which I originally posted on FuoriBorgo here.

trofie al pesto


Few foods embody the Mediterranean summer better than pesto, a traditional Ligurian herb paste and pasta sauce that perfectly blends the diverse fragrances and flavors of this land. Pesto can be made very easily - and cheaply - at home. You can adjust the flavorings to your own tastes, and even grow its chief ingredient - basil - in your garden or in pots on your terrace: just 6 to 10 basil plants, planted correctly, will grow into bushes that yield a nice weekly crop, enough for a weekly supply of pesto over the summertime.



Traditional pesto is made with ingredients that are the essence of the Italian peninsula: the leaves of basil, a Mediterranean aromatic plant (there is also a very local Genovese basil variety); garlic; extra-virgin olive oil; Parmesan or pecorino cheese; and the seeds of the Umbrella Pine, a Mediterranean evergreen.



Pesto is easy to make, and is the perfect summer sauce for pasta and lasagna, as well as a tasty spread on bread. It keeps for several days in the refrigerator, and can also be frozen. Homemade pesto doesn't have the emerald green color of store-bought pesto, because what you buy in stores has added antioxidants. Basil, in fact, oxidizes easily, but with a few precautions you can reduce its natural darkening.



~ HOW TO MAKE PESTO FROM YOUR HOME-GROWN BASIL ~



40 fresh basil leaves
1 handful of pine nuts
1 clove of garlic
5 tbsp grated Parmesan (or 4 tbsp Parmesan and 1 tbsp pecorino)
salt
extra-virgin olive oil



(Quantities are from a recipe from this local cuisine book. Once you've made pesto a few times, you'll find that you really don't need to refer to a recipe at all, and can start improvising based on your own tastes and ingredients.)



~ Growing and harvesting basil - 40 fresh basil leaves

basill leaves


Growing Season:
Basil is an annual aromatic pant, and can be grown surprisingly easy at home, if you follow a few basic rules. Basil must have a full-sun exposure, and be sheltered from wind. Also, it doesn't do well if nighttime temperatures dip below 50F (10C), so if you grow it outdoors, plant it well past the last frost date, and harvest it when the summer temperatures begin to decline.



Spacing:
Basil can grow into a fairly tall, bushy plant, but it needs space - 6" (15 cm) between plants - and if you buy it in pots you must divide the little plants before transplanting them.



You'll find more information on how to grow basil from seeds and/or indoors here.



Harvesting:


harvesting basil

top of basil after harvesting


Harvesting basil when it reaches a height of 4" (10cm) strengthens the plant. Always cut off the top of the plant and of the larger branches when the little side leafy shoots start to appear - this encourages the growth of more leaves, and soon your basil plant will become a vigorous bush.


basil flowering


Whenever you see a flower beginning to grow - green at first and shaped almost like little leaves - prune it immediately. Flowering will inevitably happen by the end of summer, but you want your plant to grow and produce leaves as long as possible!



When you plants have grown to about 8" - 20cm long, and have become generous bushes with lots of side branches, you can start harvesting the larger leaves as well.



Washing and storing leaves:
Wash and dry basil leaves, handling them gently because they bruise easily. If you don't use them immediately, you can store them for a couple of days in the refrigerator in an air-tight container, a damp paper towel placed at the bottom for moisture. (Otherwise they wilt.)



~ Pine Nuts - one handful

pine cones and nuts


Umbrella pines produce roundish pine cones full of oblong little nuts. They are small, with a soft, buttery texture, a delicate aroma, and an almost sweet taste. They are expensive in stores, but are an essential ingredient in pesto. (I've had pesto made with other nuts - cashews and walnuts are a common substitutes - but they just aren't as good.) You only need a handful to make pesto; refrigerate the rest or they may go rancid. (You do not toast pine nuts for pesto!)



~ Garlic - one clove


garlic



~ Parmesan - 5 tbsp grated


parmisan



~ Extra-virgin olive oil


A little olive oil goes into the pesto as it's being made, but mainly the oil is used in storing the paste, and drizzling over the pasta at meal time.



~ Making pesto


mortar


Traditionally, pesto was made by pounding the ingredients with a wood pestle in a mortar of Carrara marble (available here). There is a reason for this: pounding tears up the leaves and releases the essential oils in the basil, bringing out its full flavor.



Mixing ingredients:

pesto paste


Otherwise, though, use an electric mixer - not so traditional, but much handier. First grind the pine nuts finely. Then add grated Parmesan (I actually add it in little cubes and let the mixer do the grating), garlic, basil, a little olive oil, and a pinch of salt, and mix until you get a thick paste.



Storing:
You can either freeze your pesto, or store it in an air-tight container in the fridge. In the latter case, press the pesto down into the container so no air bubbles are left inside it, and pour over enough olive oil to cover it completely: the oil helps prevent oxidizing and acts as a natural preserving agent. Pesto keeps up to a week in the fridge.



~ Trofie al pesto


trofie


Fresh trofie, a thin and twisted shaped pasta, is the traditional accompaniment for pesto. Whatever pasta shape you use, just before you drain it, scoop out some of the cooking water with a ladle and stir it into your pesto paste, to make a creamy sauce. Stir this pesto sauce into your drained pasta, drizzle olive oil over the top, and serve it up hot!


eating trofie

Buon appetito!

8 comments:

Michelle said...

I am now hungry. Looks fabulous! :)

Laura Jeanne said...

Oh wow, this post is scrumptious...my mouth is watering. I love pesto, but unfortunately I'm the only one in this house who does, so I don't get it very often.

Ken Toney said...

Wonderful post with great pictures. I've grown basil before, but I now learned how to properly harvest basil to encourage it to grow more. Thanks

anna said...

mm such a yummie post, definetely going to make the pesto for my guests coming week. Great way to celebrate summer!

Barbara said...

What a marvelous post, Francesca! Is there anything tastier that homemade pesto? And with your own home grown basil too. Lovely photos.

Sense of Home said...

Thank you for this post. I noticed this weekend that my basil is growing too tall and I need to prune it back so the base is wider. I also have all the ingredients on hand so I can make it tonight. I am glad to read that I can freeze the pesto as well.

I have to grow my basil in pots since it gets so cold here in the winter. Wish I could grow it to the heights you talk about. I bring mine inside in the fall, but so far I have not been able to keep it alive past one season.

Excellent photos as well!

-Brenda

Dia said...

I first made pesto with a friend ~ 20 years ago, it's great to have fresh pesto! I have been making it with nettles earlier in the season (lightly cook the nettles first, a minute or two, then process like with basil!) YUMMY early spring option!
& fun to see the number of gluten free pastas now available - I love pesto on rice crackers or mixed into veggies . . .

Melissa @ HerGreenLife said...

If you have a large basil crop, you can easily freeze the leaves and make fresh pesto all winter. We're still trying to use our frozen stock before the new crop really takes off. Also, we regularly substitute walnuts for pine nuts, and I don't notice much of a difference, other than the cost!