I rarely used basil in France. In the cooking of the 1950s, it was considered unusual and esoteric. Tarragon, chervil, parsley, and chives were the favorite herbs. I learned to appreciate basil after I came to the United States, visiting the homes of friends who were of Italian descent and used basil regularly. I started growing it and have since become addicted to basil. I plant tiny bush basil, red basil, and regular basil in my garden during the summer, and we make pesto often for dinner, usually on the spur of the moment. I keep herbs for the winter, drying some in the microwave, but basil is best frozen, providing it is blanched first, otherwise it turns an unappealing khaki color. Blanching also takes some of the bitterness out of the pesto (see Notes).
I don’t like to freeze finished pesto; the nuts, cheese, and garlic tend to get rancid in the freezer after a few weeks. The puree of fresh basil keeps beautifully green in the freezer, and I add the nuts, cheese, additional olive oil, and garlic to my basil just before using it. Sometimes I add flat-leaf parsley as well, and occasionally a few leaves of verbena, which grows next to my basil. I have experimented with all nuts, but go back to pignoli nuts mixed with walnuts or pecans. I like to use a lot of garlic, plenty of olive oil, and always include some jalapeño or serrano pepper in my pesto. Use the best possible Parmesan cheese, and make sure that your serving plates are very hot.
For a main course, use one pound of linguine for four people. You can make this dish with penne or spaghetti, but I like linguine best. At our house, pasta is usually the main course, and we follow it with a tomato or zucchini salad in summer and cheeses and fruit for dessert.
- 4 cups basil leaves
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 small jalapeno, seeded
- ¾ cup mixed nuts: pignoli and walnuts or pecans
- 3 to 4 tablespoons of the best possible olive oil
- A few tablespoons water
- 1 pound linguine
- 1 cup parmesan cheese, grated
- 2-3 tablespoons of the best possible olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
Bring 3 quarts of salted water to a boil—this will be used both to blanch the basil and cook the pasta. Drop the basil leaves, lightly packed, into the boiling water. Push the basil down into the water, cook for about 20 seconds, and then lift it out with a skimmer, and rinse under cold water. Put into the bowl of a food processor. Add the garlic, the jalapeño, and the nuts. (Make sure to taste your nuts, since they can turn rancid pretty quickly.) Process on high, using a rubber spatula to push down any of the mixture that collects on the sides of the bowl. Add the olive oil and a few tablespoons of water to make it combine better, and process until you have a beautiful green puree.
When ready to cook the pasta, drop the linguine into the boiling water, and while it is cooking, grate the Parmesan cheese. When the pasta is almost cooked to your liking (I like mine firm, but not raw in the center), set a stainless-steel bowl near your pasta cooking pot, and spoon the olive oil into the bowl. Add a good dash of salt and black pepper, and then scoop out ¾ cup of the pasta cooking liquid and add it to the oil in the bowl. Drain the pasta in a colander, shaking it to remove excess water. Transfer the pasta to the bowl containing the oil and pasta cooking liquid and toss. The cooking liquid will be absorbed by the pasta. Add the pesto and a good handful of the Parmesan cheese, mix well, and taste again for seasonings. It should be well seasoned and the pasta should be quite moist. Serve immediately in hot deep plates, sprinkled with extra Parmesan cheese. Although it is an overload of carbohydrates, I like to eat bread with my pasta. Followed by a nice salad, this is one of our signature summer menus.