September in Iowa always brings the same delightful dilemma—what to do with all that basil?
Few herbs are as surrounded by mythology and folklore as basil. Its origins are debated, but most seem to think it came from India where, besides its culinary uses, a devout Hindu has a leaf of basil placed on his breast when he dies, a symbol of eternal life. It is famous in Christian history as well, as the herb Salome used to cover the smell of decay from John the Baptist’s head. In Haitian Voodoo practice the herb is a powerful protector, and a Romanian man is engaged when he accepts a sprig of basil from a woman.
All this trivia is of little use, though, when faced with bushels of the stuff that we all pull out of our gardens before the first heavy frost of autumn. You can blanch and freeze it all with a quick dip in boiling, salted water, followed by an instantaneous plunge into ice water—then drain, pat dry, and freeze in Ziplocs, but that only postpones the inevitable pesto, and pesto is best with fresh leaves. A voluptuous pesto is of course a good way to reduce the volume quickly and have something everyone loves for your efforts.
Abundant harvests like this one are a great way to bring family and friends together around the rituals of food. It can take time and several hands to pick over a large amount of basil, separating the leaves from the stems. Don’t throw away those stems, by the way; they can be used to flavor an oil or vinegar, or trussed to your next roast.
A word about authenticity: the word “pesto” simply means “paste,” and refers not necessarily to the basil and garlic concoction we all know and love, but to the method used to make it correctly—with a mortar and pestle. Preferably, use a marble mortar and a wooden pestle. The reason this makes a difference, the reason you should shun the food processor when making pesto, is that a good mortar and pestle will tear the leaves gently, releasing the flavors. A food processor cuts the leaves, blocking the veins from releasing flavor. It also produces heat, which causes the aromatic oils to oxidize, altering the flavor.
One can make a pesto out of just about any combination of herbs and oils that you can imagine. The earliest record of something we would recognize as pesto was mentioned frequently by Virgil; it used parsley rather than basil. The real deal, though, what everyone thinks of when they think of pesto, is Pesto alla Genovese, from the Ligurian port of Genoa. This is best made with Genoa basil (the one with the small round leaves), extra-virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and a combination of Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses.
Make it in individual batches, then combine if you like. It’s best fresh, but freezes well. Freeze it in ice cube trays, then turn the cubes into a Ziploc bag and return to the freezer for convenient use later.
Once you have mastered this genuine recipe, feel free to experiment with other ingredients to discover interesting new flavors.
2 cloves garlic
4 cups (packed) fresh, washed basil leaves, preferably Genoa
1 tsp. coarse sea salt
2 Tbsp. oven-toasted pine nuts (some contest this inclusion; I like them)
3 Tbsp. Pecorino cheese, not too strong
3 Tbsp. grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
1 cup olive oil
1. Put the garlic, basil, salt (which helps preserve the green of the leaves), and pine nuts into the mortar. Slowly mix with the pestle and add the mixed cheeses a little at a time.
2. When the mixture is smooth and creamy, add olive oil to taste (to the texture you prefer), and stir to incorporate.
3. To dress your pasta with the pesto, always dilute the pesto with a little of the cooking water from the pasta.
3/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup lemon oil
1/3 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 Tbsp. honey
1/4 cup basil leaves, packed
1/2 yellow onion
In a food processor combine onion, basil, mustard, and honey and chop fine. Add vinegar. Turn processor on, and while it runs, slowly add the oil in a steady stream. Serve immediately or store chilled for several weeks.
Insalata Capriccio (Caprice Salad)
2 1/2 pounds fresh summer tomatoes, washed and cored
1/2 cup Italian extra virgin olive oil
1 lb. fresh mozzarella, sliced (never use “part skim”)
1/2 cup fresh basil, chiffonade
A few sprig of basil, for garnish
Salt and fresh pepper
Slice tomatoes and arrange on plate, shingled alternately with cheese. Drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt, pepper, and basil chiffonade. Garnish with basil sprigs and serve immediately (do not refrigerate).
Garlic and Basil Polenta
(Serves 8-10 as an entree)
1 1/2 tsp. shallot, julienned
1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
4 ounces butter
1 1/2 quarts vegetable broth
3/4 pound cornmeal
2 egg yolks, optional
1/2 cup Asiago Cheese, shredded
1/4 cup basil leaves, chiffonade
Salt and Pepper to taste
In a large pot (6 quart) sauté the shallots and garlic in the butter over medium heat until translucent. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Add the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wire whip until it all has been added.
Simmer for up to 45 minutes, stirring very frequently with a wooden spoon. When it is done, it should pull away cleanly from the side of the pot. Remove from the heat and blend in the egg yolks (optional), cheese, basil, and seasonings. Pour the polenta into a greased sheetpan and refrigerate until cool and firm. If doing this overnight, cover with plastic wrap and poke a few holes in the wrap with a pairing knife to let the heat escape. The polenta will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
Cut the polenta into desired shapes and panfry in garlic oil or butter until golden brown on both sides.
Kurt Michael Friese is co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay and serves on the Slow Food USA Board of Governors. He lives with his wife Kim in rural Johnson County. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.