Monday, May 24, 2010

Pesto Presto!

Now that the herbs are planted in the kitchen garden, I can eagerly look forward to making batches upon batches of one of the most versatile classic condiments of Italian cooking: pesto. The vivacious bright green hue, the salty nuttiness of Parmesan and pignolis, the mildly sweet basil and fruity olive oil, and the fresh bite of garlic all come together in an ecstatic explosion of flavor that keeps my taste buds always craving more. Pesto is an uncooked sauce that originated in the Genoa region of Italy. Traditionally, it was made with fresh basil, olive oil, garlic, pignoli nuts and grated Parmesan cheese, all crushed and blended together with a mortar and pestle. The advent of the food processor has been a wonderful thing indeed, allowing one to bang out batch after batch and get virtually no work-out. Hmm. Oh well, exercise didn't used to my thing anyway, ask any of my old high school friends who shared physical education classes with me. Anyhow, in addition to this facilitation of the ease of producing pesto at home, as home cooks explore more and more ethnicities of epicurean delights, the traditional ingredients have been tweaked accordingly as well. I have seen pesto recipes calling for parsley and walnuts in place of the basil and pignoli nuts. I have even seen recipes calling for the use of cilantro or mint. Another traditional European rendition is called pistou, the French version, which is a very close cousin to the Italian pesto, using basil, olive oil and garlic.

Pesto can be savored in countless ways. The most popular presentation is when used as a pasta sauce. For a nice side dish simply toss the pesto with cooked pasta, preferably one with a lot of little nooks or twists to really hold the sauce, such as fusilli or gemelli. For a main dish, add some cooked shrimp and some halved cherry tomatoes and you have an elegant and summery entree. Pesto on its own has a thick paste-like consistency. To thin it out for tossing with more delicate ingredients, such as gnocchi, or for drizzling over ravioli, heat some heavy cream in a small saucepan on medium-low heat and stir in the pesto to combine. Want a super-quick weekend lunch in minutes? Toss this creamy pesto sauce with pasta, tuna, green peas and pearl onions. Prefer a meatless lunch? Omit the tuna and use cheese-filled tortellini for the pasta.

Pesto is also a good condiment to toss with vegetables. One evening in your attempt to cook healthier, you steam some cauliflower, broccoli flowerettes and cut up carrots. You turn the cooked vegetables out into a serving bowl. You stare at it in hungry disappointment, its dullness staring right back at you. Seems pretty boring, doesn't it? You can hardly blame the kids for not wanting to eat their vegetables. Toss the hot vegetables with a couple of spoonfuls of pesto and now you have added flavor and another visual dimension to the dish and still kept within the rules of healthy Mediterranean dining. If one evening you decide to grill some Italian-seasoned chicken, boil some halved baby potatoes, drain and then toss with the pesto. Add a few peas or some cut up green beans and allow to chill. A simple and healthy potato salad which will compliment your Italian grilled chicken perfectly.

Pesto is also a perfect topper for meats and fish on those late nights when you need dinner ready in a hurry. Preheat the oven to 450, slather some pesto over the top of a Chilean sea bass fillet and roast in the oven for 20 minutes. That's a rapturous favorite of mine, there is something about the marriage of Chilean sea bass and pesto that is simple, savored, pure enjoyment. The same can be done with salmon fillets as well as boneless chicken breasts and lamb chops.

Pizza also makes a perfect palette for pesto - go on, say it, say that five times fast! It can either be spread on its own over the crust before adding toppings, or stir some into ricotta cheese for a rich and flavorful delight. Top that with some roasted slices of eggplant, or some raw slices of peppers and plum tomatoes, then finish with some fresh mozzarella, and your taste buds will soon deprogram the local pizzeria's telephone number from your memory bank.

Lastly, on that first chilly evening in the fall when soup seems like a comforting dinner idea, stir a spoonful or two of pesto into the soup and let it dissolve into the broth. This brings a final hint of summer into the first of many winter dishes. Prepare a pot of chicken or vegetable stock, with some cut up fresh vegetables and some tortellini, add the pesto and then serve with a sprinkling of additional Parmesan cheese.

After reading this post, I hope that many of you who baulk at the idea of cooking for no other reason than your own lack of confidence in your culinary skills will realize that by using pesto in your dishes, you can create some very nice meals with very little effort. As for the pesto itself, the recipe for that does not get any easier. If you see bottled pesto in the supermarket, run! No, no, the other way! Now is the time for that workout, just run away from it and don't look back! The concept of bottled pesto completely defeats the notion of that fresh herb sensation. Make your own and use only the best ingredients. Bottled products do not use the best ingredients, they use the cheapest ingredients for economically efficient mass production, as well as other less-than-savory additions in order to preserve the product for months on the supermarket shelf. I don't care how culinarily deficient you think you might be, the only skills required are filling measuring cups and pressing a button; so simple you could bribe your ten-year old child to do this: take 2 cups of packed fresh basil leaves, 1 cup of packed fresh parsley leaves, 1 cup imported grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, 2/3 cup high quality extra-virgin olive oil, 1/2 cup pignoli nuts, 2 very large cloves of garlic and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and dump it all into a large food processor bowl. Place the lid on the processor and press the little button that says 'on'. Process the ingredients until everything is finely chopped and well mixed. That's all folks, that really wasn't so hard now, was it? This will make enough pesto for four main-dish servings, such as when covering meat or tossing with a main-dish pasta entree. If you only need to use only a few spoonfuls at a time, such as when making a pesto cream sauce or stirring into a soup, then it will carry you through a few meals. Whatever you don't plan to use within a week, put the remainder into a tightly sealed half-cup plastic food containers right away, top with a thin film of olive oil and then freeze for another time, thereby making a late weekday dinner even more of a snap. I always make extra batches of both pesto and of marinara sauce. They freeze well, and make the next few Italian dinner options easy to accomplish quickly when all I have to do is thaw the sauce that morning.

If you have not done so already, pick up the last of the basil and parsley plants from your local garden center and get them into the ground. Nothing says summer dining like flavors fresh from your garden, and herbs can really make that impact. Pesto is a healthy alternative to the rich, cheesy, cream sauces. It can be savored in so many dishes. The herbs are easy to grow, and the condiment easy to make. The color of the moment all over the media is, after all, green! So go green with your summer meals and discover even more ways to enjoy pesto.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

How Does Your Herb Garden Grow?

Now that spring is well underway and the nighttime temperatures no longer plummet into frosty digits, gardeners start to get the itch, that urgent need to relegate themselves outdoors, to plunge that spade into the earth and dig in the dirt. Here in the northeast, planting season begins later than it does for our southern counterparts, as we must religiously watch the weather forecasts until no further threat of frost remains, which is typically not until mid-May. The garden centers, however, begin tantalizing us with brightly colored displays of flora in early April. It's tempting, very tempting. If you have managed to resist the pull so far, congratulations on your display of will power. By buying plants too early, you not only run the risk of frost zapping the life out of those young seedlings, but those heavy April showers that were once chanted to bring May flowers can in fact drown these developing plants, leading to root rot and turning your garden bed into a horticultural cemetery.

While many of the popular annual flowers and even most vegetables are best planted after mid-May, early May is a safe time to start on the kitchen garden, herbs in particular. Although I enjoy gardening on a small scale, I do tend to focus the hobby more on flowers to make our patio more enjoyable for outdoor dining and to make various locations around the property look inviting and colorful. When it comes to the vegetable garden, since I can in fact purchase fresh vegetables from the local farm stands, I plant limited produce. I usually will plant a variety of different tomatoes, eggplants and bell peppers. What I do plant in abundance are herbs, due to the extensive use of these flavor enhancers. Herbs are very easy to grow, require little care and can be enjoyed fresh from garden to plate from early may well into November. A variety of herbs go into the making of our Thanksgiving feast, and this is usually when the final trek into the herb garden yield the final herb harvest.

Begin planting most of your herbs now, starting with parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme and chives. Then plant your dill, mint, and hold off planting basil until mid-late May, as basil is more sensitive to cooler temperatures. If your property layout allows, I recommend planting at least those herbs which you use most often as close to your kitchen as possible if your kitchen has outside entry. I actually plant many of my herbs in those very long narrow pots that sit atop of the deck railing. All I have to do is step outside the kitchen door and snip what I need right there. Since I do plant large amounts basil, I typically plant this in the vegetable garden where there is more space, creating a border of it around the tomatoes. I like to buy two or three large rosemary bushes, which I'll plant strategically in the vegetable garden as well since they do add a decorative touch.

Herbs are so versatile in cooking. Most recipes call for at least one herb, and even when I see a dried herb listed in the ingredients, I usually substitute fresh herbs instead. In most cases, fresh herbs taste so much better, whatever measurement the recipe calls for in dried herbs, simply double the amount and use fresh. The addition of fresh herbs turns up the flavor factor in any dish. Be creative, even when not working off of a recipe. Next time you make polenta or mashed potatoes, stir in some chopped fresh rosemary. Add some chopped fresh oregano when sauteeing summer vegetables. Every good Italian out there knows that the best red pasta sauce has to have fresh basil. Herbs make wonderful seasonings for roasting meats. Nothing says spring more than lamb with rosemary and garlic, or salmon with lemon and dill. Sage is an flavorful and aromatic seasoning for poultry. Next time you serve cannellini beans, add some extra-virgin olive oil, sauteed minced garlic and finely minced sage. Herbs also create a nice visual finishing touch when serving up a dish. When presenting a serving bowl of potato salad or pasta, sprinkle the top with some freshly chopped parsley before you bring it to the table of eager diners. It wakes up the dish, the addition of fresh, bright green against the light background makes the dish pop. Add a sprig of fresh mint to a glass of lemonade or iced tea and you add a touch of freshness and flavor that enhances the refreshing factor of the beverage. It's also a wonderful thing to be able to make a batch of pesto or a pitcher of mojitos on a whim, knowing that the parsley and basil or the mint are all right there at your fingertips, allowing you to bypass a trek to the supermarket first.
For those of you who are fortunate enough to have a kitchen window with a nice big sill, or plenty of counter space near a sunny kitchen window, I highly recommend planting some herbs in decorative pots indoors. You'll be able to enjoy those benefits that herbs provide even throughout the winter months. When it comes to cooking ingredients, fresh is always best and there is nothing better than being able to harvest your own produce minutes before you need it. You also know what went into your gardening; if you like to use organic produce, easy enough to accomplish when you grow it yourself. So go ahead, it's safe, go visit your local garden centers and start planning and planting your kitchen garden, your family will enjoy the fresh flavors all summer long.