I made pesto yesterday. Pesto is a substance which we have found to be indispensable in our kitchen. It is rather expensive to purchase, although at least it is available. But the stuff you buy in the store is nothing like what you can create at home given the time and inclination.
I’ll just note here that when we make pesto, we use the best ingredients we can find, including Parmesan Reggiano for the parmesan requirement. Our philosophy is that the food you make is only as good as the ingredients in it, and that includes raw materials for what is a staple at The Havens.
Of course, the first step is to grow some basil, garlic, and oregano. It would help if there was parsley around too, but we almost never have parsley at a harvestable stage at the same time that there is basil, so we usually leave parsley out of the recipe. It is our opinion that the large quantities of parsley called for in most pesto recipes are there because parsley is so much cheaper than basil if you are purchasing it, and therefore calling for parsley makes the recipe less expensive to make.
We say that by the time you have acquired the parmesan cheese, the extra virgin olive oil, and the pine nuts, diluting those with cheap parsley is probably an economy that is superfluous.
The basil plant is in the lower right corner in this shot of the vegetable garden. I will just point out that the picture I am using to illustrate the basil was taken several weeks ago. It was even larger, bushier and more unruly when I cut it this morning.
So I went out and whacked it off, leaving a few leaves at the bottom so it would grow some more branches. I got me a sink full of basil off that one plant.
Ideally I would have cut this back probably last week, but it doesn’t really matter. You just have to spend a little more time stripping the leaves away from the flower stalks when you are preparing it if you have neglected the harvest too long.
Stripping the leaves off of a bunch of basil like that one is likely to make you realize that it isn’t really a plant, but a micro-ecosystem. There was a lot of outrage expressed regarding my activities as I stripped the leaves off the stalks of the plants.
This little jumping spider was quite perturbed at me, especially after I noticed it and started trying to get a good picture of it. I don’t know how well spiders can see, but this one DEFINITELY knew that I was pointing my camera at it.
I have a whole slew of very blurry pictures of this spider, as it was quite busy scurrying to and fro, and had no qualms about leaping from leaf to leaf in its quest. In the next shot, you can see how it has left “safety lines” behind as it jumped back and forth in the basil top.
You can also see how it is not wishing to turn its back on the big horrible monster who was annoying it.
So, what do spiders this size eat, you may ask?
Tiny soft bodied sucking insects. The one above is perched on the edge of my counter, so that gives you an idea of the size. The next shot is also of the counter top, where there is a very tiny sort of black beetle and on the dried up basil flower in the middle there is another very young spider. I would imagine this spider is only a few days old.
Little tiny black beetles like that one will eat your plants full of holes, and the green sucking insects can really play havoc with the health of your plants. So as far as I’m concerned, the little spiders are my friends. I tried not to crush too many of them during my task of removing the leaves from the stalks.
I pull basil leaves off the stalks from the bottom up, and I’m sure the tiny arachnids felt like they were being driven up up up out of their cozy homes low on the plant. Quite often the first time I would notice the inhabitant of the branch I was working on was when it launched itself precipitously off the flower head as my operations closed in on it, desperately rappelling to safety. Generally I’d just move the branch I was working on over the pile of denuded ones I had finished with to allow the descending spider a safe landing spot, and then it would scurry down into the mass, anxious to get hidden somewhere less traumatic.
I have no idea how many spiders rode out to the compost heap on that pile of basil branches when I was done, but it was a considerable number.
Anyway, when I was done terrorizing the spiders, this is what I ended up with:
That is 12 ounces of high grade basil leave. Notice how healthy and un-holey those leaves are. I’d say the spiders have been doing a championship job of keeping that plant bug-free.
So, then I mixed all that wonderful basil with the ingredients in my pesto recipe** (minus the olive oil) and ran it through the fine plate of my Kitchen Aid food grinder. (I will just interject here that we agonized over the purchase of our Kitchen Aid mixer back in 1984, and it is probably one of the best ways we have spent money. Ever. Well, the Vitamix blender runs a close second.) After it was all ground up, I mixed the resulting paste thoroughly with the olive oil in the recipe and then put the pesto into ice cube trays to freeze for future reference.
When it is all frozen solid, we pop the cubes out of the trays and put them in a zip lock bag, storing them in the freezer for use on pizzas, in spaghetti sauce, and any where else the flavor of basil might be considered of use. I had a little extra left, so I mixed it with a bit of olive oil and spread it on some of the house bread.
2 C (packed) fresh basil leaves (6 ounces)
1 large handful fresh parsley (I usually leave this out)
1 t. fresh oregano ( I just pick a bunch of sprigs)
1/2 head of garlic, minced
1/3 C pine nuts (or walnuts), toasted
1/4 C olive oil
1/4 lb. parmesan cheese, finely grated
salt and pepper to taste
Toast nuts. Place all ingredients except olive oil in large bowl and toss. Then run the whole works through the fine plate of your food grinder. When all is ground finely, add olive oil (you might want to add a little more than just the 1/4 C called for — use your own judgment), and mix well. Freeze in ice cube trays.
If you would rather, you can put all the ingredients including the olive oil into your food processor and pulverize them in there.
We use the grinder because the processor is only large enough to do one batch of pesto at a time and usually we have enough basil to do at least two batches. Last year we had 6 basil plants and when I harvested the basil we had enough leaves to do four batches. The grinder is fast and does a fine job.