Buried in basil? Pesto to the rescue

August 15, 2007|By ROB KASPER

This summer, I am blessed with basil. My plants are growing faster than zucchini, sprouting new leaves as rapidly as mayoral candidates spout promises.

I have so much of the fragrant foliage that I am trying new tricks with it. The other night, for instance, I dropped a few basil leaves on the barbecue grill. This maneuver was supposed to keep mosquitoes at bay. It was semi-successful. No mosquitoes buzzed the barbecue. But when I wandered away from the aromatic fire, a few of those pesky Asian tiger mosquitoes chowed down on the back of my bare legs.

I also hung a bunch of basil on the back porch to keep flies at bay. It was not nearly as effective an insect deterrent as the roll of flypaper that was hanging in another corner of the porch. The aroma of basil might make flies move, but sticky flypaper stops them in their tracks. Mostly, this summer's surfeit of basil has translated into plenty of pesto sauce.

The kind of basil I grow, sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), makes a pleasing pesto.

My wife and I have a tried-and-true pesto recipe. It comes from Marcella Hazan, the Italian cookbook author who is so venerated we almost feel the need to genuflect when we pick up her books.

We do, however, take some liberties with Marcella's classic pesto recipe. Instead of pine nuts, we usually use walnuts. Walnuts are cheaper than pine nuts and we always seem to have some on hand. We also use only one cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and skip the Romano that Marcella recommends.

Still, it is one fine sauce. In the summer, we make batches to freeze in plastic bags. On gray winter evenings, the bags are pulled out of the freezer to brighten up dull meals.

Basil also goes well with fresh tomatoes, and the other day I tried a new pesto recipe, one that folds tomatoes into the sauce. It came from Joanne Weir's You Say Tomato. This is a cookbook that we use in August. It has tomato stains on its pages; that is a good sign.

Out in the garden under a sweltering August sun, I picked several fistfuls of basil leaves. The basil plants, I noted, were about the only items in the garden that the critters - rabbits, birds and a groundhog - had not nibbled on.

This recipe also called for pine nuts. Because this was the first time I had made the recipe I felt obligated to follow the author's instructions, even if it meant shelling out more money. I carefully toasted these prized pine nuts in a skillet. I did not want to burn my investment.

A true pesto, I am told, is made by using a mortar and pestle. The word pesto comes from the Italian word pestare, meaning to pound. In most instances, I honor tradition. But when it comes to making pesto, I avoid the mortar and embrace the food processor. It is so fast.

I tossed four cups of the freshly picked basil leaves into the food processor along with some minced garlic, olive oil and the pine nuts. The machine's pulsing motor, rather than a muscle-driven pestle, made short work of the leaves. The green mix was slightly chunky when I added the cheese, and then I tossed in what was for me a new pesto-sauce ingredient, crushed red-pepper flakes.

This was pesto sauce from Sicily, the cookbook advised, where food can be fiery. Next came the chopped tomatoes, another unusual pesto ingredient.

The sauce emerged green, like our tried-and-true version, but the tomatoes gave it an interesting texture and the pepper flakes added zing.

The sauce was good on some penne pasta and also would do well, we agreed, on a pizza.

It was a functional backup pesto, one to roll out when we got bored with the old favorite. You can never have too many pesto sauces, especially when you have too much basil.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Sicilian Tomato Pesto

Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1/4 cup pine nuts

4 cups fresh basil leaves

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1/8 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes

2 large, ripe red tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped, drained

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a small skillet over medium-high heat and add the pine nuts. Cook, stirring constantly, until golden, 3 to 4 minutes. Immediately remove from the pan.

Place the basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts and olive oil in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Stop and scrape down the sides. Add the grated cheese and crushed red-pepper flakes and pulse a few times to make a thick paste. Transfer to a bowl and fold in the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

From "You Say Tomato" by Joanne Weir

Per tablespoon: 27 calories, 1 gram protein, 3 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 1 milligram cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium

Tried-and-True Blender Pesto

Serves 6

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, 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.

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

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

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