Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bunches of Basil? Make Pesto Pronto!

It's amazing to me that a couple of little basil plants that went in a garden pot back in May are now big, full producers of this wonderful herb. Even if you don't grow your own, I've seen bunches of it at a number of farmers markets here in Detroit and up in the Thumb. But why not grow your own? I paid $1.50 for each of the plants. I put both of them in a 10 inch pot off the back porch where the plants were exposed to lots of sun. The basil got a good watering from me twice a week and Mother Nature took care of the rest. Now, I've got basil by the galore!

There are countless ways to use all this fresh basil. Have it with fresh summer tomatoes, use it in sauces, add it to salads, it goes great with fruits like berries and melons (also in-season right now), or you can make pesto. Pesto is a good way to put a lot of basil to use in one recipe.

We never had pesto growing up. It would have been something incredibly exotic, to be sure! I think I was in my late teens when I experienced it for the first time while eating over a friend's house. It was so bright and I could smell it across the table. It was a side dish - I think we were having lamb chops and there was this side of pasta with this crazy green sauce. When I took my first bite...OMG! I never tasted a taste like that taste tasted! I was an instant pesto fan and have been loving it ever since.

Pesto comes in many forms, the traditional being made with basil. You can make pesto out of mint, parsley, cilantro and other herbs. Another variation is the type of nuts that are used. Going back to traditional pesto, you would typically use toasted pine nuts. Right now, pine nuts are incredibly expensive - about $35 a pound! While you don't need a pound of them to make a batch of pesto, the price of pine nuts can give people pause. Good alternatives to pine nuts are walnuts, or as we used in this recipe, almonds. It does give a different flavor, but one that I think is delicious.

If you have a food processor, this is a perfect job for the machine. You can also use a blender, but the narrow bottom of many blenders make it challenging sometimes. The versatility of pesto makes it fun to create. Try different variations and ways to use the sauce. It has a lot of nutrition and big, big flavor.

Cottage Pesto

2 - 2 1/2 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves (large stems removed)
1/2 - 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2-3 large cloves of garlic (if you like it less garlicy, just use two)
1/4 cup toasted almonds (you can use pine nuts or walnuts, but it is important to toast the nuts before using)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (DO NOT use the stuff in the green can for this recipe)
1 tsp salt (Kosher or sea salt is nice here)
ground black pepper (to taste)

Wash your basil leaves and remove excess water. I use my salad spinner for this task, but you could also roll the basil in a towel. In a small skillet over medium low heat, toast your almonds or other nuts. This will take a little time. When you can start to smell the nuts and they begin to slightly darken, you have them toasted. This is an important step, as the toasting helps release the natural oils that contain a lot of flavor. Let nuts cool slightly after toasting. Add basil, nuts, garlic (does not have to be chopped - the machine will do it), grated Parmesan, olive oil (start with 1/2 cup), salt and pepper to the bowl of your food processor. Pulse until all ingredients are incorporated and the nuts become extremely fine. You may want to add olive oil depending on the consistency you prefer. Taste for salt and pepper and add as you like. Remove from processor and store in a sealed container in the refrigerator. If you have no plans to use in the next few days, you may want to freeze it. Serve on pasta, sandwiches, toasted bread with tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, or get some good bread sticks and start dipping! Enjoy!

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