June 26, 2006
When faced with great raw ingredients it’s usually a good idea to do the obvious. This week’s box had a decent size bunch of powerfully fragrant basil. Had there also been a bunch of fine tomatoes it would have been fitting to arrange them, sliced on a big white plate and break the basil over, along with olive oil and generous seasoning. In the absence of tomatoes the only respectful option seemed to be pesto.
Now I could be wrong, but my belief is there’s a French and an Italian version of pesto sauce. The Italian version, obviously, is the one most people are familiar with – the thick sludgy paste of fresh basil, olive oil, pinenuts, parmesan and, optionally, garlic. On the other hand, there’s the southern French version – pistou. This is basically a garlic and basil butter added to soup rather than eaten with pasta. There’s a recipe in Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking, if you’re interested.
Whether pesto or pistou – both feel right. What feels wrong is all the other strange concoctions masquerading as pesto. Like a veg-box Zammo, just say no to coriander, sun-dried toms, mint, olives, lemongrass and all other strange pesto-a-likes. Or anything out of a jar. Shameless gastro-snobbery, I know.
For me, making pesto gives even more pleasure than eating it. The intense smell that rises when you pound the basil in a pestle and mortar is one of those definitive cooking aromas – up there (almost) with onions softening in butter or lamb on a barbeque. Making it in a blender makes a smoother sauce, and just as tasty, but the process offers far less therapeutic value.
As I sit writing this post, stiffening-up after a day of lugging soggy concrete around the garden, I can almost still smell yesterday’s bowl of garlic-intense pesto. Home-made pesto has to rank as one of the finest pleasures available to the smug veg-box enthusiast.