by: Chef Jim Berman
Great endings do not always mean great beginnings. Pesto emerges from a weedy start and develops into a formidable proponent of enormous flavor. Pesto can be an amalgam of various green, leafy herbs with oil, some grated hard cheese and garlic. It can also be fancied with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and the like or made rustic with spinach and walnuts in the Tuscan style. But, if it is the fundamental concoction that keeps the attention of this cook.
Pesto is merely the assemblage of basil, god oil, toasted pine nuts, minced garlic and grated Parmigiano cheese. Or is it? The specimens that are chosen to enter this combination play great significance. The maturity of the basil leaves, the grade of oil, selection of nutty components and age of the cheese all factor in to the success of this sauce. And calling it a sauce is complicated issue, since it really does not fall into any of the technical definitions, traditional or unconventional of being sauce. More on that later.
Ocimum Basilicum is the verdant component that determines the success of the dish. The variety of plants and of said weedy growth can be the angelic tremolo or bark of acrid profanity. While opal basil looks great in the garden and to garnish fresh mozzarella, it is not right for the pesto. Another common variety, the dwarf, is sweet and petite that just does not pack the aromatic punch that Ocimum Basilicum delivers. At the height of growing season in the latter part of the summer and fall, the herb grows in abundance and is requisite for the pesto we so desire. I pluck basil throughout the summer, being sure to nip those little flower buds that bolt up after a good rain; plucking the flowers promotes fuller foliage rather than a tall timber lacking the tear-drop shaped leaves we need.
The garlic, too, holds great weight in this combination. Fresh chopped rather than oil-packed or water-packed stuff off the shelf is preferred. The fresh releases its flavor when chopped, whereas the "chopped-at-the-factory-three-months-ago" stuff will fall short in that ever familiar pungent kick we like.
The nutty component is the great variable in Pesto. I like dry roasted peanuts rather than the classic Pine nut (aka Pignolia). The peanut contributes a great amount of flavor while not needing to use as many pieces, thus resulting in a nutty flavor without a gritty texture. Toasted pine nuts, chopped walnuts or even unsalted sunflower seeds all hold court in pesto without disgrace.
The cheese and oil are equally important components. You can never, ever spend enough cash on good cheese. Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano Regiano or Asiago are all favorites of mine. Visit the best cheese shop you have around. The Italian Market in South Philly is wonderful for sampling a plethora of specimens. Dean & Deluca's is a great treasure if you have one nearby. And for goodness sakes, stay far away from the sawdust-like stuff that comes in the foil-wrapped cardboard shaker on the top shelf of the pasta section at the Acme. The oil is worth some good cash, as well. I prefer (gasp) Canola oil because it is so neutral in its ability to take on the flavor of whatever it comes in contact. The purist will insist on first-pressed (extra virgin) olive oil, however, I am not a huge fan of tannic flavor of this pricey fat. Just me.
I am out of room and you are ready to set the Cantankerous aside for the week. So, we'll meet back here next week to assemble pesto. Gather your favorite combination of the items above and they will hit the mortar and pestle next week. The end of local, fresh basil season is approaching. Be sure to procure your Ocimum Basilicum this weekend.