A recent piece of mine from Diner’s Journal that seems worthy of repeating. -mb
I look forward each year to that first batch of pesto, which is something I honestly believe cannot be made with the insipid basil of winter, no matter where it comes from. Great basil cannot be grown in a greenhouse, and cannot be grown out of season. In this, it’s like the tomato. (The so-called vine-ripened tomatoes invented in Holland may be redder than the orange plastic-wrapped specimens of my youth, but they don’t taste any better.)
Which brings me to the story of Pra. I once was on assignment to write about pesto, and traveled to Genoa, Italy. (Actually, it’s not quite as glamorous as that: I once was in Genoa, and persuaded an editor to let me write about pesto.) And I went to some typical Genovese restaurant, and was shown how to make pesto in a mortar and pestle; frankly, it was good if not great (and as for the necessity for a mortar and pestle, feh — it’s about the basil, not about the technique).
Anyway, I asked where the basil was from and was told, “Pra, of course, where all the best basil is grown.” This is what everyone says: Pra is where the best basil is grown.
I took myself off to Pra — once a real town, now essentially a suburb of Genoa — or persuaded someone to take me. And I was confronted with row after row of greenhouses, the kind you often see in Genoa, filled with basil. Probably, once, the best basil — or at least the best basil of Liguria — was grown in Pra. Now … the best is grown in someone’s yard, maybe in Pra, maybe not.
It’s a little early for basil from a backyard here in the Northeast, but we’re getting some good stuff from states further south, and last week I whipped up the pesto: I put washed leaves in the food processor (no mortar and pestle for me!), with toasted pine nuts, lightly toasted garlic (sort of semi-raw, whole cloves cooked in a dry pan until browned a bit, which is how I like my “raw” garlic), real Parmesan, good olive oil and salt. This was served with a plain griddled piece of fish, and was fantastic.
It might be worth saying that I came across some artichokes the same day — not the Ligurian kind but oh well — and decided to make them à la The Minimalist of June 2. Halfway through I realized that I had no stock. Then I found a frozen bit — not even in a container, wrapped in plastic (it must have been semi-defrosted at some point) and threw it in the skillet. Worked fine, looked great.