Thursday, May 7, 2009

Basil Pesto

Basil is just beginning to pop up at farmer’s markets and in gardens all over the bay area. While there are many different types of basil that are particular to different cultures and dishes all over the word, the most common for pesto is sweet basil, perhaps sometimes referred to as Italian basil. It has broad, light green leaves, thin stems and mature basil shoots will birth small white flowers.

As with many culinary herbs basil is anti-bacterial, helping to eliminate unfriendly food born pathogens as well as other viruses and bugs that you may have been exposed to. Basil is also a digestive aid. As an ingredient in food, as a garnish or in tea basil will help relieve gas, bloating, indigestion, cramping, nausea and even constipation. No wonder it is such a common ingredient in rich, heavy Italian foods!

Basil is also high in Vitamins A & C, making it a good herb to include in your diet for nutritional purposes as well. Basil also promotes circulation and is relaxing to the nervous system. Basil tea or fresh basil leaves bruised and placed on the forehead is an effective remedy for a headache, especially one related to stress or tension! With this in mind, basil makes a good evening time tea, perfect for after dinner or before bed. It will help you digest your food and calm you down for a good nights rest. Try making fresh basil tea with a bit of rosemary, orange peel or cinnamon and sweeten with honey to remove the bitter edge.

Possibly the most common basil dish is pesto! Pesto is a condiment that is made with basil, olive oil, nuts, garlic and sometimes parmesan or other hard, salty cheeses. It is delicious on pasta, eggs, sandwiches, as a dip or sauce for greens and steamed vegetables or as a garnish on soups and other dishes. Pesto is delicious, and it will help you digest and thus enjoy any food you eat it with.

I don’t always include cheese in my pesto; it keeps better and is lighter without cheese. This recipe is for very classic pesto and I use a bit of cheese, but I encourage you to make the choice to include it or not depending on the circumstances and what you are in the mood for. Most importantly enjoy every minute of it and don’t be afraid to include other herbs, this spring I have been particularly ravenous for parsley pesto!

1 bunch, about 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
¼ cup walnuts or pine nuts, preferably soaked for 8 hours.
¼ cup fresh parmesan cheese
¾ - 1 cup cold pressed olive oil
3 cloves fresh garlic
salt and paper to taste

If you can remember, soak your nuts or seeds the night or morning before you make your pesto. Strain the soaking liquid and set aside along with ¼ cup coarsely grated fresh parmesan cheese. Wash and pick the leaves from 1 bunch of fresh basil, anywhere from two to three loosely packed cups of basil leaves. Peel garlic cloves.

Method 1: Blending
Combine olive oil, garlic, nuts, parmesan, a pinch of salt (you won’t need much because the cheese is quite salty) and a twist of pepper in the food processor or blender and blend until smooth. Once smooth gradually add basil leaves. Taste for salt and adjust flavors as necessary, if it is too think, add more oil. Serve fresh and enjoy!

Method 2: Chopping
This method demands a lot of chopping but is well worth the effort if you have the time. I particularly recommend it if you are going to eat the pesto fresh that day! On a large cutting board begin to chop nuts with a large chef’s knife. Once small add garlic cloves and continue chopping. Once the nuts and garlic are somewhat finely minced begin to gradually add the coarsely grated cheese. Chop until all are delicate and small with no large chunks. At this point you will probably need to separate the pile into two. Start with one pile and gradually add basil leaves continuing to chop until the leaves are in small pieces and well blended. Follow with the second pile until all leaves are finely chopped and well blended. Mix the two piles, give one last chop and transfer into a bowl. You can pack it into a shapely bowl to make a “cake” and then pat the cake onto a bowl or plate; this looks particularly nice when served as a dip. Pour olive oil over the mixture and finish with a twist of black pepper!

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