On Saturday my friend Margit and I walked through the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. I had been the week before and bought my first Brooks cherries of the year, walnuts in the shell, brown mushrooms. Stone fruit is beginning to come in: I saw apricots and bought a couple of baskets of cherries from Kaki Farms. Strawberries continue strong. Blueberries are here. Some vendors had bins of summer squash and the first beautiful broccoli was beginning to peep its heads out of baskets. But the thing that made me happiest was the bunch of basil I bought for two dollars.
Ah, basil. I didn’t even like the stuff when I was a child: it was just another mysterious seasoning in a Spice Island jar, dried and weird. It didn’t remind you of turkey stuffing like sage or pizza like oregano. Fresh basil was not seen or smelt at my house.
All that has changed now. All late spring, summer and early fall, I buy basil by the bunch and set it like a bouquet in a glass of water on the kitchen counter next to the olive oil. I chiffonade it over green beans and steam them, tuck it into ears of corn before roasting them, add it to Greek salads, put it in turkey meatloaf or burgers. It is probably the herb I use most during the summer. Today and many other days will find me sitting at the breakfast room table, pounding torn basil leaves, salt, garlic, walnuts and grated cheese in my large Vietnamese mortar with a little olive oil.
Did I say walnuts? I did. Classic pesto is made with pine nuts. I have nothing against pine nuts except the cost. If I lived in New Mexico or Italy I might make pesto with pine nuts. Since I live in California I make it with walnuts and have come to love the combination of bitter and sweet freshly cracked nuts with pounded basil leaves and garlic (I also use walnuts to make a cilantro pesto, flavored with lime).
The first pesto I tasted was served in a restaurant (I no longer remember which one). When I lived in San Francisco I used to buy little plastic tubs of Armanino pesto. Then for awhile I made my own in a blender, until my friend Leila mentioned that pounded pesto had a superior texture. Because our blender is old and cranky I was spending lots of time mincing basil and garlic before feeding its maw and I decided to get a mortar and pestle.
My friend Elaine and I went mortar hunting in Oakland Chinatown and I brought back not one mortar, but two: I have a small marble mortar that I use to crush spices and small amounts of nuts and I have my big wooden Vietnamese mortar for pesto duty each summer.
I start in the kitchen, smashing garlic cloves with the side of a knife and peeling the skins away. The garlic goes directly into the mortar and gets a sprinkle of kosher salt, which helps the pestle break down the garlic fibers. Then I take a utility bowl, my basil bouquet and the big mortar and pestle into the breakfast room. I inhale the spicy green scent of the basil as I pick leaves, discard stems, and tear each leaf into smaller pieces. I pick and tear for awhile, then I pound for awhile, then pick and tear another layer of leaves. The aroma gets richer. When I have torn and pounded every last leaf I take the basket of walnuts and nutcracker from the sideboard and start cracking and shelling. There is no measuring involved: the pesto comes together and is done when its taste and texture suits me — the size of the bunch of basil is the determining factor: I will add enough other ingredients to blend with it, to complement it, but the basil is the star, so I start with garlic and salt, add all the basil, then add walnuts. The last step is grating Parmesan or pecorino with my microplane and stirring in a little olive oil.
If I need a break while I am pounding basil I will pour a little olive oil over the top. This helps keep the color bright. I do not care for oily pesto and have a light hand with the oil: I am not too fussy about whether the final product is bright green: I know it will be delicious and we are going to eat every spoonful and scrape the jar besides.
I never get tired of pesto. When the basil really gets going in mid-summer I try to make enough of it to freeze to last all year. I am never successful because if I have fresh pesto on hand I want to eat it on pasta, on sandwiches, in salad dressing, on green beans, on broccoli, on broiled portobello mushrooms, dolloped on the top of a pizza just out of the oven, or added to a winter vegetable soup. Every year I manage to freeze a few small jars or a bag of pesto cubes made in an ice cube tray, but I am dipping into my stash practically as soon as basil disappears from the Farmer’s Market. At the same time, I have days when I wonder why I have bought yet another bunch (or two, if they are on sale), condemning myself to a few more hours of sitting at the table, pounding away when I could be walking or swimming or reading or whatever else it is that people do on long summer days, instead of inhaling basil fumes and oil of walnut rising from warm wood.
We ate our pesto with whole wheat rotini, fresh sugar snap peas and some roasted red peppers from a jar.
Food notes: You can, of course, make pesto with any fresh leafy herb and any nut. Some people use seeds instead — pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Margit is allergic to walnuts and pecans so she can make hers with almonds. Elaine has used Brazil nuts successfully. Pine nuts are delicious. You can make pesto from arugula or from soaked sundried tomatoes. Some people make it with spinach or kale. You can mix herbs, too: basil, cilantro and mint is nice, or arugula and mint. You can make it in a blender or a food processor if you have one.
Blogging notes: Susie of SusArtandFood very kindly nominated me for another blogging award, the illuminating blogger award. I love it when people read The Kale Chronicles and I love it when they like it and I really like it when they find something useful here for themselves. What I don’t like is posting blog award patches on my site — I don’t think they look nice. And while I’m happy to let you know what blogs I enjoy reading I am not much good at making lists of them on the spot: I do have lists of links, although I probably should update them — perhaps at my one-year anniversary. You will find more details about me and my life in the posts than you perhaps want so I don’t think you need to know that my favorite color is green or that my favorite ice cream is coffee ice cream. My emphasis is seasonal home-cooked food. I’m quite happy when you read and comment on The Kale Chronicles and I do my best to respond to every comment I receive. Thank you all.