Summer in Iowa always brings the same delightful dilemma: what to do with all that basil.
Few herbs are as surrounded by mythology and folklore as basil. Its origins are debated, but most seem to think it came from India where besides its innumerable culinary uses, a devout Hindu has a leaf of basil placed on his breast when he dies, as a passport to paradise. It is famous in Christian history as well as the herb Salome used to cover the smell of decay from John the Baptists head. In Haitian Voodoo practice the herb is a powerful protector, and a Romanian man is engaged when he accepts a sprig of basil from a woman.
All this trivia is of little use though, when faced with bushels of the stuff that we all pull out of our gardens the afternoon before we expect the first heavy frost of autumn. Get a jump on that by beginning your "puttin' up" now.
You can blanch and freeze it all with a quick dip in boiling, salted water followed by an instantaneous plunge into ice water - then drain, pat dry and freeze in Ziplocs, but that only postpones the inevitable pesto, and pesto is best with fresh leaves. A voluptuous pesto is of course a good way to reduce the volume quickly and have something everyone loves to show for your efforts.
Abundant harvests like this one are a great way to bring family and friends together around the rituals of food. It can take time and several hands to pick over a large amount of basil, separating the leaves from the stems. Don't throw away those stems by the way, they can be used to flavor an oil or vinegar, added to a stock, or trussed to your next roast.
A word about authenticity: the word "pesto" simply means "paste," and refers not necessarily to the basil and garlic concoction we all know and love, but to the method used to make it correctly -- with a mortar and pestle. Preferably, use a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. The reason this makes a difference - the reason you should shun the food processor when making pesto - is that a good mortar and pestle will tear the leaves gently, releasing the flavors. A food processor cuts the leaves, blocking the veins from releasing flavor. It also produces heat, which causes the aromatic oils to oxidize, adversely altering the flavor.
One can make a pesto out of just about any combination of herbs and oils that you can imagine. The earliest record of something we would recognize as pesto was mentioned frequently by Virgil, and used parsley rather than basil. The real deal though, what everyone thinks of when they think of pesto, is Pesto alla Genovese, from the Ligurian port of Genoa. This is best made with Genoa basil (the one with the small round leaves), extra virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and a combination of Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses.
Make it in individual batches, then combine if you like. It's best fresh, but freezes well if you wait and add the garlic, cheese and pine nuts at time of service. Freeze it in ice cube trays, and then turn the cubes into a Ziploc and return to the freezer for convenient use in small amounts later.
Once you have mastered this genuine recipe, feel free to experiment with other ingredients to discover interesting new flavors.
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2 cloves of garlic, very fresh
4 cups (packed) of fresh basil leaves (preferably Genoa)
1 teaspoon of coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons of oven toasted pine nuts (some contest this inclusion, but I like them)
3 tablespoons of Pecorino cheese, not too strong
3 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 cup of olive oil
Put the garlic, the washed basil leaves, the salt (which helps to preserve the green of the leaves) and the pine nuts into the mortar
Slowly mix with the pestle and add the mixed cheeses a little at a time.
When the mixture is smooth and creamy, add olive oil to taste (to the texture you prefer) and stir to incorporate.
To dress your pasta with the pesto, always dilute the pesto with a little of the cooking water from the pasta.