My Basil Is Not Faulty

Oh, ocimum basilicum, you tender green temptress

The garden his been a bit challenging this year: our garlic and tomatoes both got blight, we only got one head of cabbage (but it's the size of a beach-ball), beavers got one of our grapevines and the strawberries and corn have come to naught. But on the other hand we did really well on broccoli, zucchini, squash, lettuces and of course, on our beloved basil. We do quite a bit of Italian cooking at home, and there's nothing to make you feel wealthy like having all the basil in the world to put in salads, sauces and especially pesto. Every year I plant at least a half-dozen basil plants, usually focusing on good old sweet basil, although sometimes I do plant the exotics like lemon basil (amazing on fish) or Cinnamon basil (fantastic in iced lemonade).

It's getting on in the season, and I had been deadheading the plants (removing flowering tops) for weeks when I noticed the leaves were just starting to get a little bit tougher. Time to harvest for pesto! The pile above represents all that was left in our garden. If you had to buy it at a grocery store, a) it probably wouldn't be as fresh as this, and b) it would cost a day's pay.

For those who have never made their own pesto, it's a traditional sauce originating in Liguria in northern Italy. Basil leaves are crushed with a mortar and pestle (pesto = pestle, those clever Latins) with garlic and salt, and then pine nuts, cheese and olive oil to make a smooth, yummy sauce, great on pasta, vegetables, potatoes and steaks (no, really: you have to try it on a piece of red meat. It's like heaven).

Mortar and pestle work sounds too much like, well work to me, so I use a very different method. Also, with traditional pesto the chlorophyll in the leaves turns black from oxidation in only a short time, losing the gorgeous green of the plant, and unless you spend forever with your grinding, it's rarely a lovely and smooth sauce. So I make a pesto emulsion.

Emulsions are combinations of two immiscible liquids, and in cooking generally refer to mixtures of oil and water with some kind of emulsifying agent to keep them dispersed within one and another. Mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce are both emulsions, with both of them being oil and lemon juice stirred together and emulsified by the action of the lecithin in the egg yolks.

My pesto is an emulsion of olive oil and water, but the emulsifier is far different than lecithin: I take advantage of Pickering dispersal, where tiny particles in the mixture prevent it from separating out. Homogenised milk uses the principle of Pickering emulsions by forcing the milk through very small holes under pressure, tearing the fat into extremely small bits. In this case the particles are formed from the basil itself.

Confused? Hah, it's not rocket surgery, but it is SCIENCE! Remember, COOKING is SCIENCE for HUNGRY PEOPLE!

Step One: Clean and pluck the basil.

At'sa bowla basil!

It's tough to judge from the picture, but that is a huge stainless steel bowl. There's probably ten litres of loosely packed leaves there, all freed of dirt and any tough or woody stalks. You don't have to remove every little stalk, because they're going to get whizzed up soon enough: few things can survive my high-powered, factory prototype, heavily modified kitchen gear.

Next, put on a pot of boiling water, assemble the equipment and known associates of Mr. Pesto.

Do you recognise any of these suspects, ma'am? Note giant pot of water in the back.

Blender, grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, olive oil and almonds. I know that the traditional recipe calls for pine nuts, but I finally decided I just don't like the way they taste. They always seem slightly greasy and a bit rancid to me, even when they're perfectly fresh. Commercial pesto sometimes substitutes cashews (cheaper than pine nuts and similar texture) but I like almonds. They bring a little sweetness to the table and they're a very healthy nut, like me.

Of course, every pesto needs garlic.

Garlic, I love you, but I don't trust you. Nobody does.

Another issue I have with traditional pesto is the garlic bite it can develop. The worse you treat garlic, by crushing or grinding it very fine, the more pungent and assaultive it gets. Don't get me wrong, I like a good whiff of allium sativum as much as the next man, but the next man isn't a man, it's my wife, who does not care to smooch Mr. Always-Has-Garlic-Breath. My solution is to use a very small amount of raw garlic, and to cook the rest whole before using it.

Nice day for a swim, boys

I peel the cloves and put 3/4 of them in a small saucepan with olive oil, on medium-low heat until they soften and brown just a tiny little bit, maybe six to eight minutes. Once it's fully cooked it won't get bitter or harsh, no matter how you handle it afterwards. When they're ready, they look like this:

It's a lovin' spoonful

When the garlic is soft, gorgeous and sweet and mellow it's time to blanch the basil. This all happens really fast. First step is to dump all the cleaned, sorted leaves into the boiling water for ten to thirty seconds. Punctuality matters!

In you go!


After they are just wilted, they need to be strained and immediately tossed into a sink of iced water to cool down and stop the cooking process. Once they're properly cooled they can be strained out and left to drip for a minute. Why blanch 'em? Blanching does a couple of very important things. First, it sets the chlorophyll so that it won't oxidise and go black after processing. The green colour stays beautiful for a very long time.

Second, it makes the leaves very tender and sloppy, so that when they go through the blender they are very easy to puree into a very fine, smooth liquid, generating the teensy particles we need to keep our water and oil emulsified.

Blanching really makes them pack down.

Finally, all ready to go. Because the blender is only so big the pesto has to be done in a series of small batches. I don't use any kind of coherent measurement. It's a kind of by-feel sort of thing. The first step is to liquefy the basil in the blender with a small amount of water.

About half a blender of basil, maybe 1/2 cup of water, depending on how wet the basil is already.

Once that's fairly smooth it's time to add part of the olive oil, the cheese, nuts, garlic, grey salt and a lot of black pepper, freshly ground. Don't forget, there's raw garlic as well as the cooked.

It's getting crowded in there.

I add more water and the rest of the oil as necessary. You don't want it to get too runny, but if it's too thick the bottom will whizz away while the top doesn't get fully blended--that's why you don't fill the blender more than half-way.

Whizz! Great action shot!

Once it's smooth and fluffy I adjust the seasonings and portion it off into containers for the freezer. It will keep for six months, but no matter how much I make I've never had any last that long.

It's green gold, I tell you.

Of course not all of the pesto gets frozen right away. What with fresh salmon being in season, there's no time like the present for our favorite summer meal, tomato and onion salad with grilled salmon and three-cheese tortellini with fresh pesto. Throw in a delicious glass of rosť and you've got a meal fit for anyone.

Dang, made myself hungry all over again.

Next up, I've got pickles to process. I understand there's no rest for the wicked, but I had no idea that I'd been this bad.

Posted by Chef Tim AT 1:19PM 2†Comments Comments Post†A†Comment Post A Comment Email Email

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