Yesterday was definitely Pesto day.
Basil is an amazing, but also finnicky plant. Its wonderful fragrance and taste is due to its volatile oils that depend on heat and strong sunlight. If you leave it too long, or the conditions aren’t right, it will become bitter and not terribly usable.
Last year I tried growing it on my rooftop deck, with little success. This year I tried starting it from seed. While the seeds sprouted, the resulting plants did not exactly take off. I have so much to learn about gardening! What I found myself doing was buying these ‘living plant’ basils – the ones that are sold with their soil starting medium – and planting these as soon as I got them home. Most of these worked out well, at least in terms of their growing.
However, it has not been a hot summer. Sun has been so-so. The soil I was using at the start of the season was before I started to figure out how to do my compost, and so that too was not optimal. I had tasted the leaves from time to time and sadly they were on the bitter side.
Yesterday was our big September heat wave day in Toronto – sun, humidity and 35 degree temperatures. Yesterday- – yesterday afternoon in particular – was the day – if I was going to capture any of the good of these volatile oils.
My experience yesterday was bittersweet. On one hand, it was a special and unusual experience for me to be able to harvest from the living plant and then right away process the final product. I haven’t done that before. That part of it was incredibly rewarding.
On the other hand, I was aware that the basil had that bitter side to it, and I was understandably concerned about making it a success. This meant more salt. I’m still not sure how it will all turn out. This batch is in the fridge for a couple of days while I let the flavours mingle and settle, then I will see. I’m prepared for it to be a failure, but I have confidence in the recipe – its been tried and true for over 20 years.
The original recipe came from an old cookbook that has been around our house for years: Romagnoli’s Meatless Italian Cookbook. This recipe has weight substitutions for volume (as I am want to do in order to obtain some precision). Also the order in which ingredients are added is really important, as is how long you food process each ingredient as it is added. The longer you process, the more of a puree it becomes.
This version of the recipe is for 100g of dry leaves, about 1+ packed cup. The idea here is that you base your quantities on the amount of basil available to you and do the math. In my case, I wanted to do a series of smaller batches as I had basil in a variety of pots, different varieties, different plantings and I wanted to see the difference.
In this order blend:
1 large garlic clove
6g salt – 2 three finger pinches- (or start with 6g and adjust up at the very end)
65g pine nuts
12g grated parmesan
12g grated Romano
100g fresh basil
Top up with olive oil to prevent oxidizing (yes even in the freezer!)
Here is the final outcome…. with my scrawly labels to indicate the pots they came from – not that this will be important in the long run….
several large bowls
knife and cutting board
250ml mason jars
Finally, a word on costs: The basil was free – sort of. buying these ‘living plants’ and potting them in good rich soil right away is a wonderful and economic way to keep a supply of fresh herbs.
The big cost here is the pine nuts. At $45/kilo, they contribute half of the $5.60 or so cost of a 250 ml jar. I’m also insistent on using real, freshly grated cheese – not the fake crumbs that are sold as parmesan cheese-like product.
On this particular batch, I did – and do – have concerns that I may have squandered these expensive ingredients on a final product that may in the end be questionable. I don’t know if I will be making more basil from what is at the markets. I’ll have to see how this works out in a few days.
One thing for sure – I’ll be tasting it before I buy!