Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ocimum Basilicum and the Art of Pesto

Basil, the King of Herbs, part of the mint family and quite possibly one of the oldest cultivated plants known to mankind, its use in medicine and food can be traced back 3000 years.

Given the plant’s extraordinary heritage it is not surprising that many superstitions and beliefs surround it; it is ‘herb royale’ to the French, a sacred plant to Indians and a symbol of love to Italians.

The divine basil plant is grown very widely across the world and features in many cuisines like Italian, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian. Commercially it is grown chiefly in the Mediterranean area but is believed to have originated in India. It is I suppose most closely associated with Italian food but its global spread and use by so many different people is a glowing testament to its enduring appeal and to its utter deliciousness!

Some cooks say you should only ever tear the leaves and never cut them with a knife, a belief probably stemming from the ancient Greek tradition that only a King could cut the plant using a golden sickle. Obviously complete bollox but quite fun nonetheless. There is also some tradition in Liguria that the plant should only be harvested (or planted…can’t remember which!) during a full moon. In ancient Greece and Persia basil was associated with the underworld and was often planted on graves. The ancient Romans believed that to produce a really fragrant plant it was necessary to shout and swear whilst sowing its seeds. I wonder if this will work whilst making pesto!

Anyway enough of the foodie lesson, I have a big pot of basil growing on the window sill of the kitchen and it is getting completely out of hand. This morning I decided that it was time for a harvest and ending up with a rather large pile of basil leaves I thought that a quick fix would be a gorgeous green gloopy pesto.


40g fresh basil leaves
50g pine nuts
50g grated parmesan cheese
1 garlic clove (more if you want a bigger hit)
75-100ml really good quality EV olive oil.

The purists will tell you that the only way to make a pesto is to use a mortar & pestle (it’s back to that knife thing again) but ignore them and throw into your whizzer the garlic, cheese and the pine nuts. Give them a good blast and then drop in the basil leaves. Slowly add the oil with the motor still running until it is all pureed and mixed in and you have reached the consistency you want. Personally I like my pesto quite sloppy but you might perfer a rather more dry version.

Pour out the pesto into a plastic container with a tight fitting lid and keep it in the fridge. Unfortunately pesto won’t keep that long and needs to be used within a week ideally. And now I suppose you will all want to know what to do with this delicious pesto once you have made it? Thought so.


nzm said...

Do you toast the pine nuts first, or use them uncooked?

halfmanhalfbeer said...

Nzm: uncooked always. I suppose you can toast them but it would change the flavour considerably I am sure.

My thoughts are that if you are using the pesto merely as a condiment (stirring into cooked veggies for example), then I reckon toasted would be okay. If you are using the pesto in a dish like the spaghetti one below I don't think it would taste quite right.

Hmmm, good question really! I think I might try it with toasted and see what happens, I'll report back.

i*maginate said...

Yum - I luv basil and pesto.

I would love to follow your recipes but I can't unless I have some 'machinery'.

I'm quite a basic 'cook' (as you can tell!) and just use ONE sharp knife, my oven, a frying pan, and two pots!

I don't use man-made ingredients and have ZERO oil/sugar/cheese in my diet...apart from the odd salad dressing and sauces etc...

If you could recommend just 1/2'essential' machines I could purchase, which kind would they be? I have no idea!