Preparing pesto: green sauce for grim, gray winter

September 28, 2005|By ROB KASPER

ALTHOUGH LATELY IT has been looking as tall and vibrant as Geena Davis, my basil plant will soon slump. It is a weather wimp. The moment that autumn turns the least bit chilly, that plant will hit the ground faster than a Ravens quarterback.

As soon as the frost gets even reasonably close to sitting on the pumpkin, the basil leaves - once green and fragrant - wilt, then turn ugly and useless.

The key is to pick these leaves when they are still green and luxuriant. Then you can make them into a pesto sauce that will carry you through the Maryland winter.

It used to be that I used the beginning of baseball's World Series as the signal that it was time to start the pesto-making season. But, like a lot of Oriole fans, I seem to have lost track of the exact dates that the October classic is played.

Baseball in late October has become an activity that in the past 10 years or so happens in other cities, not Baltimore. Now I use the last Oriole homestand of the season, which is this week, as a landmark to remind me to start making pesto sauce.

I freeze most of the pesto sauce. The solid packets of green sauce help get me through that grim, gray period known as winter. When the words "wind-chill index" are on everyone's lips, there is nothing to lift your spirits like a taste of the basil leaves of summer.

As is true in making many kinds of sauce, once you get set up for business, you might as well make pesto sauce in volume. The pesto recipe that we use at our house comes from Marcella Hazan, the well-known author of six seminal books on Italian cooking. Marcella, now 80, is a woman of strong opinions. In her books and in person she spells out strict procedures that must be followed when preparing authentic Italian dishes.

That is why I feel nervous when writing about this pesto recipe. Even though my wife and I worship Marcella and her cooking, when we make her pesto sauce, we sneak in a few changes. I am sure Marcella would not approve, and somehow I feel Marcella's disapproval every time I fiddle with her pesto recipe. But, hey, it works.

One change is that we substitute walnuts for the pine nuts she calls for. We made the change the first time because we did not have pine nuts in our pantry. When that pesto sauce turned out tasting fine, we stuck to walnuts. They are cheaper and easier to find than pricey pine nuts.

Another change is that we dropped the 2 tablespoons of grated Romano cheese from her recipe. The only cheese we add is the Parmigiano-Reggiano, 1/2 cup of the high-quality parmesan cheese that Marcella insists on using.

Again, the drop-the-Romano pattern was started by necessity. We did not have any Romano on hand one night when we were making pesto. But again, we liked the results.

The trickiest part of the pesto-making process - other than picking the basil before the frost gets it - is making room for it on the bottom of the freezer. That is where the sauce goes, in 2-cup portions sealed in thick plastic bags to solidify.

The bags of pesto sauce lie flat on the freezer bottom so that when they harden, these flat bags of sauce can be easily stored, like file envelopes, in other parts of the freezer.

When we are preparing pesto sauce for freezing, we make a few additional adjustments to the original recipe. Unlike pesto sauce that is going straight to the table, pesto destined for the freezer does not get a dose of cheese and melted butter. Instead these ingredients are added later, when the sauce comes out of its deep freeze and has thawed. The sauce works better that way.

And so these days as I harvest my basil, I think of how good these pulverized leaves are going to taste when they show up on a January pizza or a steaming plate of February pasta.

But as I make the sauce, I can't help looking over my shoulder for Marcella, the Italian grandmother, shaking her head in disapproval.

Try the pesto sauce, but don't tell Marcella.

Blender Pesto

6 servings

2 cups fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons walnuts

2 cloves peeled garlic, lightly crushed with a heavy knife

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

3 tablespoons butter, softened to room temperature

Put the basil, olive oil, nuts, garlic cloves and salt in a blender (or food processor) and mix at high speed. Stop from time to time to scrape down sides with a rubber spatula.

When the ingredients are blended, pour them into a bowl and beat in the cheese.

When the cheese has been evenly incorporated into the other ingredients, beat in the butter.

Before spooning the pesto over pasta, add a tablespoon or two of the hot water in which the pasta has boiled.

Note: If freezing this pesto, blend the basil, olive oil, nuts, garlic cloves and salt in a blender and freeze.

To use, thaw the pesto mixture and then add the cheese and butter.

Per serving: 259 calories; 4 grams protein; 27 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 2 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 21 milligrams cholesterol; 531 milligrams sodium

Adapted from a recipe in "The Classic Italian Cook Book" by Marcella Hazan (Knopf, 1978)

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