Sunday, October 14, 2007

Profumo di basilico

The scent of basil reminds me of a great many things. It's heady aroma is a comfort whether it is wafting out of a slow simmering sauce, released from the torn leaves and small stems tucked into jars for the stewed tomatoes, or in this classic, pesto.

Now I won't get political here, it isn't my place. This isn't a southern dish nor is this version autentico by a long shot. If you are a devout purist when it comes to your basil sauce, don your green cape and have a look here.
Nevertheless, I've got basil aplenty and the means to make a fragrant coating for some hearty rustichella d'abruzzo linguine. By 'means', I'm referring to a mortar and pestle.

In these days of flash kitchen gadgetry, I love the fact that I can still use this age old technique to pound, grind and pulverise away the days frustrations and get something tasty as a result. I also prefer this method because, even though it is a bit violent, it seems a more gentler process somehow. Using a mortar and pestle (the latter, preferably wooden) doesn't over work, or worse, liquefy the pesto. Again, not authentic, I like it with a bit of texture.

Before the frost claims the last basil of summer, I'm going to make hay (well, pesto) while the sun shines. Or at least as long as there are still tender leaves remaining from the second planting of basil (most of it ended up in sauce). I'll also be bringing in a pot for the winter as it isn't a favourite dried or from the freezer and although I'm not an advocate (I have frozen pesto, omitting the garlic only to add it fresh at the time of preparation for serving), I wouldn't freeze it but for short periods of time. This sauce is simply at it's peak when the ingredients are fresh.

I make small batches because that is what fits in the mortar. About 2 handfuls of basil.. say 50ish of smallish leaves, less if they are large or a few more if you are using the small tender buds. All the leaves require at this point is a gentle rinse and to be left drying on a tea towel.

Pesto is also about garlic, so a large clove goes in the mortar first along with a good pinch of sea salt. A couple of turns with the pestle and the garlic is a wet paste in no time. The basil goes in next and is worked until it is almost creamy in consistency. Then the pine nuts. Crush them slightly but make sure none are left whole. This nice coarse grind will provide a little body to the pesto. For a measure, I scoop some out of the bulk container by hand. What fits in my gargantuan mitt might be a bit more than yours, I'll guestimate about 50 grams.

The final ingredients, cheese (already finely grated) and a nice olive oil (about 60mL of your best), can be incorporated with some gentle stirring. This passive treatment prevents it from being overheated in a blender and from the basil becoming a puréed soup. The beauty is that it can be made coarse or creamy to anyone's preference.

A quick word about the cheese. I grind all Parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino as I need them. It is better this way. I'll spare you my tirade about the benefits of fresh ground cheese as opposed to the nastiness of ready-ground sawdust reeking of baby vomit. However, this is no place to use inferior cheese. Get an authentic Parmigiano and a good Pecorino, preferably Sardo (I love this pungent, tangy cheese and the bite it provides) but Pecorino Romano (although quite similar, I find it to be less complex) will do as well. I use 3-4 tablespoons, a 50% mix of each which is easily adjusted to taste. Use more Parmigiano if you find the pecorino too salty.

Pick a sturdy long pasta or something with a few grooves to be coated with this wonderfully flavoured mixture. This makes a generous amount to dress a 500 gram package of dried pasta. Simply toss pesto with hot pasta and serve.

Mangia!

2 comments:

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

here here!! regarding using proper Parmigiano, I try to get my customers to understand that new world parmisans are not the same as real parmigiano. Grana, Parmigiano or Pecorino never taste or smell of baby vomit.

Mary said...

Hi Kieran,
You are absolutely right and it's rewarding to see the expressions of people who say they dislike 'parmesan' but are floored when they try the real thing. Those acrid, butyric, enzyme enhanced notes in the domestics is oddly & unappetisingly described (even in sensory panels) as baby spew. I should have been more specific, I was referring to the domestic brands!
It is difficult, if not impossible to recreate old world cheese styles by taking shortcuts. The (seasonally variable) colour, taste and aroma of real Parmigiano Reggiano is the delicious result of a long aging process and respect for the raw material. There is simply no comparison.
On another cheese/beer note, I've been meaning to mention your enviable beer cellar, specifically the Old 95. Love to hear your cheese recommendations to accompany that.
cheers,