(This post first appeared at Beekman1802.com, May 2010)
Growing up in the Midwest, the flavoring of food in my family never really went much further than the alphabetized glass jars of spices lined up on two small shelves in the local grocery store and the blue Morton Salt girl.
It was a magical transition when I moved from home to attend college in a major city and began to cook for myself. I grew up in the kitchen, and it was a joy to take the many family dishes and foods that my mother had also grown up with and make the handed-down recipes all my own. I quickly discovered the enhanced flavors and many uses that fresh herbs and spices could add. Basil grew to become my first love.
During those post-college summer months Saturday brought trips to the farmer’s market in Lincoln Park, Chicago and the purchase of a large bunch of sweet basil for a dollar. Some of it I would cut up and freeze with bits of water in ice cube trays for later use in the many winter stews and soups Chicago’s frigid winters demanded. Others would be torn up and added to a bowl of sun warmed tomatoes, mozzarella cheese and sea salt for lunch. And a few of the big rich green leaves would be added to a bouquet of brightly colored asters and sat next to the window where the breeze would fill the small studio apartment where I lived with that wonderful pungent sweet clove-like aroma.
It has been written that in Italy, basil is a symbol of love. A woman only needs to put a pot of it in her window to symbolize that she is ready to receive suitors. The Italians, in my opinion, always had it right in their belief of the importance of combining food and love. Today’s kitchens have come a long way from sprinkling a little dried basil from one of mom’s Durkee tins in the Wednesday night pasta sauce, and I for one, look forward to combining my own mix of food and passion with the herbal flavor I love so much.
I was surprised to learn that pesto, is actually a relatively new addition to the U.S. food scene. While it was quite popular in Italy during the 1800’s it wasn’t until 1954 that the New York Times published an article that mentioned an imported canned pesto paste and it took another two years for Angelo Pellegrini, author of books about the pleasures of growing and making your own food and wine, to publish a recipe for pesto in Sunset magazine. 40 years later, the sauce began to gain popularity on American menus.
With the recent rise in pine nut prices I started experimenting with various flavors of nuts - - I found that if you roast the walnuts in the oven (350 degrees, 5 minutes, shake pan, another 5 minutes) before making the pesto, the walnuts add a deep rich flavor to this summery sauce.
basil walnut pesto
3/4 cup finely chopped roasted walnuts
4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1 1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
1 1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano
4 cups of packed Italian or sweet basil leaves
1 cup of loosely packed fresh lemon basil leaves
1 cup of loosely packed fresh parsley leaves
3-5 tablespoons high quality olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional), black pepper (optional)
Place basil and parsley leaves, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, walnuts, garlic and salt in food processor. Blend until thoroughly combined. Add cheeses and blend 5-10 seconds more. If you need a little more moisture add additional bits of olive oil until Pesto is the consistency of molasses. Let the pesto sit for half an hour to an hour for flavors and fragrance to blend and come out in the sauce.
Pesto will store in the refrigerator for several weeks. In addition to adding it to both hot and cold pasta dishes, I’ve also spooned some on to baked potatoes, warm French bread, grilled fish or shrimp and used it as a base coat for homemade pizza.