This past spring, Beryl manned the Sunseed Farm booth at the Ballard Farmers' Market selling veggie starts. Nick, the owner, stocked 6 different kinds of basil plants: Genovese, Italian large leaf, purple petra, lemon, thai, and cinnamon basil. Beryl came home with all varieties but the lemon basil and planted no less than eleven basil plants. I would have thought it was going to be overkill, but just today I was commenting on how I actually don't think we have too much basil.
So now, as the basil plants come into full production, seems as good of a time as any to talk about pesto. Until a couple years ago, we were frustrated by our homemade pesto. Like most 21st century cooks, we made ours in a food processor, resulting in a pasty green substance with flavor, sure, but still lackluster and lacking in texture. The "duh" moment came when we read about the traditional method of hand-chopping pesto and gave it a shot. It really does make a difference. We recently gave a batch to a friend and explained our method, whereupon she gave a quizzical (though appreciative) response suggesting: "is there any other way?" There is not.
The purpose of this post is to entreat you to take 30 minutes next time you find yourself with a glut of basil, and hand chop yourself some pesto. Sure, it takes some elbow grease, but the fresh bite of the garlic, the smooth crunch of the pine nuts, and the exciting variation in each bite makes it totally worth your time. You don't need an exact recipe for this one, but here's an outline:
Be sure that your knife is sharp, or you'll bruise the basil like your processor. Take a large bunch of basil (maybe four loose cups) and divide it into two groups. Next, roughly chop about 4 large cloves of garlic. Take half the garlic and half the basil and chop chop chop, until nearly minced. Then add the rest of the basil and the garlic and chop again until roughly minced. Add a half of a small handful of pine nuts, chop a while, then another half of a handful (you want about a handful in total) and continue chopping. Finally, add a large handful of grated parmesan cheese (to taste) and continue chopping. At this point, you're shooting to get the pesto to the consistency of a cake that will stick together with compressed, but fall apart reasonably easily if squeezed.
At this point, if you are going to serve the pesto, place a square cake of it in a bowl and add olive oil to taste: maybe a couple tablespoons (depending on the size of the cake). Give it a stir and assess whether you've added enough oil. One reason I like doing it this way (adding the oil last) is that it allows me to add different amounts of oil depending on the purpose. If I am using the pesto as a dip for fresh bread, I will add more oil until it is a rather oily consistency. If I'm using it for another purpose like a salad or pizza, I'll keep the oil to a minimum. It's up to you.
If you are not going to eat it right away, divide the pesto into separate cakes and place each cake in a sealable sandwich bag. Add enough olive oil to coat, remove the excess air, and freeze it. Pesto in the winter!