With Pesto, In Season Is Best

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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.

Posted in Produce

4 Comments

  1. Anonymous said...

    Last year I made pesto with basil and fresh garlic I bought from Stone Pointe Farm at the farmers market in Monclair, NJ. It was the best pesto I’ve had since I was in Italy. The garlic was so sweet and juicy that I dreamt about it all year. Every time I’d bring home dried out, sprouting garlic I would long for the fresh garlic. I bought some last week but since there was no basil yet I roasted it and spread it on home made bread. Amazing!

  2. Anonymous said...

    I both agree and don’t. Basil is definitely seasonal and just shouldn’t be made out of season. However, I do think technique is quite important, and while I wouldn’t use a mortar & pestle either, I do always take the extra step (thank you, "Cook’s Illustrated") of brusing my basil before I put it in the food processor. A food processor will only chop, but to get that depth of flavor, I really think there needs to be some crushing. Plus, it’s fun to have a zipper-lock bag of herbs that you whack at with a rolling pin.

  3. Anonymous said...

    Just made my first batch of pesto using just harvested garlic and a mixture of different basils from my garden – one of the best batches ever! The mix of large leaf Italian, globe, lime and even some Thai basil seemed to give some extra flavor depth. I think you’re right that the most important thing in pesto is the freshness of the basil, and fresh garlic doesn’t hurt either.

  4. delhipam said...

    Agree with all your ingredients, fresh, seasonal, etc. And wonder if you have tried/have an opinion on freshly grated romano vs parm? Romano is what I grew up with and prefer.

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