Basil Pesto

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Basil pesto is such a huge deal in my house. Mostly because my husband could eat it on ice cream, practically.

To me, pesto is an extremely versatile ingredient. This flavorful, emerald-colored paste can be added to soups, breads, meat, seafood, salad dressings, sauces, marinades, and so many other dishes.

The only thing is, you have to make it. You can buy prepared pesto, but it’s expensive; home made is better.

All you need are a few basil plants, some dirt, a little water, and lots of sun. I’ve been growing basil for over 35 years in Texas and Oklahoma, and I don’t end up with basil plants – I have basil bushes. And the weather in these states can be brutal. So trust me – there’s no green thumb requirement for growing basil.

Today I’m making a batch of traditional basil pesto based on how it’s made in the Ligurian region of Italy where basil grows in abundance, called pesto alla Genovese.

I’ve always heard that the best Italian pesto is made only from baby basil leaves, but I use the larger leaves as well, as long as they’re not “leathery.” And I just buy domestic basil plants locally.

The only other thing I do when I make a batch of pesto is not add cheese. Omitting cheese saves space in my freezer; it probably cuts the pesto volume by 50%. Then when I use pesto and want cheese, I freshly grate it.

Also, with having non-cheesy pesto, it is basically another ingredient than the cheesy version. For example, the non-cheesy pesto can go in soups, in a vinaigrette, or a marinade, where cheese isn’t a necessary component.

Here’s my recipe for a batch of pesto, when you have an abundance of fresh basil. There’s no exact recipe, and you’re welcome to alter it to your own tastes.

After I pick the basil branches in the morning, I set them outside to let the creepy-crawlers escape. I don’t know if it really works, but it makes me feel better.

Basil Pesto (Cheeseless)
Makes about 72 ounces

4 ounces of pine nuts, I toast mine
Approximately 10 ounces of good olive oil
2 heads garlic, cloves peeled
Basil leaves – from a giant armful of branches

Place the pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic in a large blender jar. Blend until smooth. This is an important step so the rest of the pesto-making process is only about adding leaves.

Then begin adding leaves, making sure they are soft, and void of damage, bugs, or webs.

There’s a point when you can barely blend in the last leaves, as in the photo above. If you must, add a tablespoon of oil, and play with your blender to get the pesto nice and smooth. Then you will end up with this.

Spatula the pesto into sterilized jars. The pesto can be refrigerated but I freeze until needed, and thaw one jar at a time.

Now to the pesto pasta. Choose a 1-pound package of pasta, and cook it to the package directions.

Drain the pasta, then place it back the still-hot pot. Add some pesto, I used about 1 cup of what I’d just made, but we like it strong. Add about the same amount of grated cheese, or to your liking. Then gently stir.

Serve the pasta while it’s nice and warm and the cheese has melted. You can also add some evaporated milk, goat milk, or cream to the pesto for a creamier pasta dish.

If you’ve never made pesto, this one would be a good recipe with which to start.

Pesto oxidates easily, but just on the surface area. Stir it up and the pesto will still be emerald green.

To prevent this in the jar, pour a little olive oil on top of the pesto.

Once you get the hang of pesto, it’s fun and easy to switch out the herbs, and use different nuts and even seeds, to create unique pestos.

Here are some other ways I’ve made and used pesto.

Cambozola Sauce

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I remember the conversation like it was this morning, instead of twenty-something years ago. My mother and I were discussing cheese on the phone, and she brought up blue cheese. I immediately told her that I was not fond of it.

She proceeded to tell me that I knew nothing about blue cheese, and being like other Americans, my only familiarity with blue cheese was soapy-tasting blue cheese dressing that was ever-present at salad bars, which she claimed beared no resemblance to real thing.

Well, she was right. I was in high school when I began eating salads, and not being a huge vinegar fan as of yet, I didn’t eat my mother’s vinegary salads at home. I ate them instead at diners with salad bars – places you go for lunch in high school. I remember the dressing choices well. There was blue cheese, French, green goddess, and thousand island. They were all pretty terrible. Especially the blue cheese.

In any case, my mother took charge. She said, “I’ll send you a good blue cheese, and you’ll see the difference.” She did, and I did. Thank you, Mom.

The cheese she sent me was Cambozola – a triple cream blue cheese from Bavaria. Now triple cream cheeses are almost like cheating, because tripling the creaminess guarantees goodness. But this cheese was fabulous. The name stems from the fact that the cheese is like a cross between Camembert and Gorgonzola.

To this day, Cambozola remains one of my favorite cheeses. My husband and I both love it, just with crackers, or as part of a cheese platter.

Recently my husband asked me to make a blue cheese sauce for his birthday steaks, and I immediately thought to use Cambozola. I made the sauce simply with cream, and it was wonderful. I didn’t blog about the dinner because my husband, especially being his birthday, wouldn’t have appreciated the delay for the photo documentation!

I don’t typically smother good food with sauces. But just for fun, I thought asparagus would be good with a little of my Cambozola sauce.

Here’s what I did:

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Steamed Asparagus with Cambozola Sauce

wedge of Cambozola, see details in recipe
1/4 cup heavy cream
Asparagus

Unwrap the cambozola. Then trim the rinds; I didn’t think they would dissolve in the cream. What I ended up with was just a little over 4 ounces of Cambozola.

Pour the cream in a microwave-proof bowl. Yes, I’m seriously going to use the microwave for this sauce! Heat the cream gently, but get it hot. Crumble up the Cambozola as best you can and place it in the hot cream.


Let it sit for about a minute, and then whisk it.

The cheese should soften completely. I was fine with a few little blue cheese blobs in the sauce. Set aside.

Meanwhile, trim the asparagus. Good spring asparagus doesn’t typically have really woody ends, but it’s good to check in any case.
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Place the asparagus in a steamer basket and steam over simmering water for 5-7 minutes. The time will depend on how thick your asparagus spears are. Place the cooked asparagus on a paper towel to dry slightly.


To serve, I placed the hot asparagus on a plate, and poured on some of the warm sauce, which had thickened nicely.

Just for fun, I also topped the asparagus with caramelized shallots and toasted pine nuts.

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If you don’t want this sauce with asparagus, toss it with pasta, cooked potatoes, or pour it over just about any meat.

If you can’t find Cambozola locally, you can purchase it at IGourmet.com here. There is also a black label Cambozola, much more expensive, which can be purchased at IGourmet and at http://www.murrayscheese.com/cambozola-black-label.html. I cannot wait to try that!