Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Pesto

Somewhere in my freezer, buried under vanilla ice cream, half a bag of peas, and a loaf and a half of bread are a couple of ice cube trays full of basil pesto that I froze last summer, at the height of basil production, when the only way I could keep up was to make a triple batch of pesto.  Given that my freezer is a crappy, frost-free, top-of-the-refrigerator type, the sort of freezer that is meant to temporarily store frozen foods between the store and the microwave, I have yet to work up the courage to try the frozen basil pesto.  The summer before last I filled those same ice cube trays with tap water, to make ice cubes, which I forgot about during the cool season.  Several months later, the ice cube trays were empty and the water had long evaporated away, leaving only a white, crusty mineral ring around each well, the signature of Austin's alkaline water, and a bit of debris at the bottom of each well, the concentrated essence of freezer burn.  So, despite the fact that I double-wrapped and sealed the ice cube trays when I filled them with pesto, I hate the idea of adding concentrated essence of freezer burn to any of my meals along with the intended shot of summer basil essence.

Pesto, a leafy herb concentrate of crushed leaves spiced with garlic, thickened with nuts, and suspended in olive oil, is also a concentrate of the season.  Basil pesto, the concentrate of summer, is the most common pesto and the one that is synonymous with pesto.  Basil, like summer in Austin, is excessive, making leaves faster than I can harvest them, and hot, in the spicy sense of the word, and intense.  I look forward to basil pesto season, to the time of year when I have so much fresh basil that I can eat it in tomato salads, cook it with fresh eggplant and tomatoes, and eat basil pesto on pasta and pizza, and on my toast and in my sandwiches. 

But just as summer is not the only growing season in Austin, basil pesto is not the only pesto.  The cool season, in terms of leafy herbs, is the season of cilantro and parsley.  While parsley, ever so consistent and careful in its ways, grows slowly through the fall and winter, cilantro quickly produces many leaves during the mild, sunny weeks of November and December.  The cilantro plants that I seeded in mid October are now bushy rosettes.  In the quiet of January they still look like young plants, but I know that, when the warmer temperatures and longer days of early spring arrive, my cute, bushy cilantro plants will quickly mature, bolt, and flower.  So January, our most freezing-est, most winter-like month of the year, is the time to harvest lots of cilantro.

Cilantro pesto, like the mild cool season during which it thrives, is milder than basil pesto, with a flavor that is spicy but also earthy and savory.  As the concentrate of winter in our mild climate, cilantro pesto is the vibrant green of the height of the greens season.  I eat cilantro pesto on pasta, on pizza, and in sandwiches, just as I do with basil pesto.  But this year I am trying to loosen my allegiance to basil, the belle of the summer, and to regard cilantro pesto as a worthy pesto unto itself and not simply as a substitute for the "real" pesto of summer.  After all, I can make cilantro pesto fresh from the garden on the coldest day of the year, a feat that is far outside the skill set of chill-sensitive basil.  And with fresh pesto in January, I can keep on ignoring that pesto in the freezer.

Cilantro Pesto

3 cloves garlic, peeled
3 cups (packed) cilantro, stems removed
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup parmesan or romano cheese, grated
1/2 cup olive oil
sea salt
fresh cracked black pepper

Place the garlic cloves in a food processor and mince.  Fill the food processor with cilantro leaves and process until all of the leaves are minced.  Put the remaining cilantro leaves into the food processor and mince.  Add the walnuts and process until the nuts are ground into the mixture.  Add the cheese and pulse to combine.  Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl and measure the olive oil.  While the food processor is running, pour the olive oil into the mixture.  Allow the processor to run for a minute or two longer.  Add sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste.

Makes about a cup, which will keep in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks.  Serve as a pasta sauce, a pizza topping, or a sandwich spread.  Add to winter soups, omelets, or risotto.

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