A few months ago I spent some days traveling up the northwestern coast of Italy, along the Ligurian Riviera. Pesto was born here in Genoa during the 16th century.
The heavenly basil leaves, blended with extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan or sheep’s cheese, are grown now in giant greenhouses lining the steep hillsides above the Mediterranean Sea and in the industrial section of the village of Prà. This is considered the spiritual home of the best basil in Italy, though it is not the quaint post- card-perfect place with multi-colored villas you might think of. Rather, it’s a bit less easy on the eyes. Yet inside the sprawling greenhouses, basil grows wall to wall, sea-of-green style.
Wandering around the mercantile of Genoa, basil is on dis- play everywhere, sold in bunches, bundles and in pots to grow on terraces of those picturesque villas, or in urban apartment windows or balconies. Everyone grows basil here; it is the centerpiece of the cultural cuisine.
I didn’t find my way into any of these large grows, but I did enjoy a plate of grilled swordfish smothered in a pesto cream sauce which was definitely in the top three meals during my month-long trip in Italy.
It’s high summer now, and nothing speaks to the potency of sun and freshness of herbs like a batch of homegrown (or at least homemade) sweet Genovese basil pesto. Pile it in a blender, and in a matter of seconds, all of that fresh, aromatic and grassy sweet- ness is suspended and preserved in a blissful, delicate pillow of olive oil.
In Liguria, they actually have their own D.O.P. or “denominazione d’origins protetta,” which is a governing quality control similar to the D.O.C./D.O.C.G. wine oversight. Growers utilize their indoor grows to produce multiple crops of tender, young basil. Each grows for about a month total, or perhaps two in the winter when the sun’s natural light wanes. This ensures basil that is fresh and sweet; no woody stems or leaves that are bitter, strong or spicy.
I must admit that in my ongoing pursuit of basil production, I don’t have the luxuries of container space or year-round full sun. Therefore I must prune frequently, cutting out the woodprone center stalk and allow ing the tender bottom shoots to reach for the sky. This also means frequent pesto processing parties.
I prefer to use my Cuisinart blender; it’s every bit as good as a Vitamix, or any blender or food processor, for that matter. You can control the grade of puree simply by the amount of blending you do. The traditional Italian method is to use a mortar and pestle – a bowl and grinder made of stone used to crush the ingredients.
Contrary to the gentle subtlety of fresh “baby” basil, pestle refers to pestane, which means “to crush or clobber.” If you prefer this more rustic pesto and don’t have a mortar and pestle, the “table-side” or “cutting-board” method can be used. Simply use a good knife to hand chop the basil until nearing the desired consistency, place in a bowl and add pre-minced or pureed garlic, nuts, and/or cheese and plenty of olive oil.
I normally make a base of pureed basil, olive oil, raw garlic, a squeeze of lemon and a pinch or two of salt and pepper. All of this is to your own desired taste-and-texture balance. I tend to forego the cheese until the time when I choose to consume the pesto, and I may (or may not) add the lightly toasted nuts at the beginning, or not at all. Sometimes I use hazelnuts instead of pine nuts. (I do the same preparation with arugula, beet greens and cilantro, too, this time of year, as they tend to grow out of control.)
I resist putting fresh basil pesto to direct heat. Rather, I spoon it over hot pasta, dress grilled meats with it (especially filet mignon) or add to a toasty hummus, pickle and sliced-zucchini sandwich. I definitely stir it into a cream sauce once in a while.
The clear nutritional benefits of basil pesto are often in some confusion due to the high fat con- tent of the olive oil, cheese and nuts. If you like, leave the cheese or nuts or both out and remember olive oil is an unsaturated healthy fat. Remember too that basil is an overall holistic health tonic. It is a digestive aid and is anti inflammatory. It also offers detox to and supports the liver, rids the body of cancer-causing free radicals, clears the skin and is said to counter depression.
To the garden, and to your kitchen!