Monday, July 5, 2010

Pesto: Top-notch topping for summertime meals

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel July 5, 2010)

About twice a week I snip half a dozen leafy basil stems off our garden plants and whip up a batch of pesto. Pesto has become a regular part of our summertime menu. Although it's used primarily with noodles, we also add the basil-based topping to roasted vegetables, stir-fries and omelets.

Pesto is an uncooked condiment made from crushed basil leaves, olive oil, nuts and garlic. Most recipes also call for salt and parmesan cheese, but I leave both out. Ralph and I add parmesan or Romano cheese at the table so that we can use only as much as we each like. But the salt shaker stays in the cupboard.

For decades, I've excluded salt from just about every recipe. Salt is a vastly overused seasoning with a great potential to cause harm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we need less than 500 milligrams a day of sodium to keep our bodies working properly, but the average daily sodium intake for Americans ages 2 and older is 3,436 milligrams.

Sodium intake directly affects blood pressure, and high blood pressure leads to two of the top three causes of death — heart disease and stroke. Omitting salt from recipes is an easy and painless first step toward improving eating habits and overall health.

Traditional pesto recipes call for fresh basil leaves crushed by hand with a mortar and pestle, but I use a mini-blender, a kitchen tool I found at Walmart for less than $10. Instead of using pignoli nuts, another traditional ingredient, I usually prepare my pesto with walnuts. They're a less expensive and easier-to-find substitute for pignolis, which are also called pine nuts.

I put about a quarter-cup of walnuts into the mini-blender, press the "blend" button and let the machine chop the nuts into tiny pieces. I then add a half cup of extra virgin olive oil, two or three cloves of fresh pressed garlic and as many clean basil leaves as can be stuffed into the plastic mini-blender container.

I push the button and presto — I have pesto!

A batch of pesto will keep in the fridge for about a week, but if you don't use it all, don't worry. Leftover pesto is easy to freeze. The simplest thing to do is to put spoonfuls of pesto into ice-cube trays, freeze the trays and then store the frozen cubes in plastic bags or glass jars. The nice thing about freezing ice-cube-size portions is that one cube is usually the right amount to season a bowl of noodles or flavor a stir-fry.

Until this year, we always planted basil in the ground, but a few months ago we experimented with container plantings. Ralph sowed basil seeds into 15-gallon nursery pots filled with a rich mix of peat, compost, manure and wood chips for aeration. Within a couple of weeks, basil seedlings emerged.

As the seedlings grew, Ralph thinned them out, leaving one to three sprouts per container. The result is lush canopies of fragrant basil leaves that overflow the pots. Basil does best when its top growth is regularly snipped back, which works for me because those snipped leaves are the ones I use for pesto.

Basil is a warm-weather crop, so there's still plenty of time to sow some seeds or transplant a young, store-bought plant into a larger container or directly into the ground. You don't need a lot of land to grow a kitchen garden. A few potted plants on a balcony or porch or outside the front door are sufficient to fulfill most families' needs for fresh herbs.

Basil originated in Asia, India and Africa thousands of years ago. The ancient Greeks considered it a noble and sacred herb and gave it its name, derived from basilikohn, which means "royal." In India, basil was considered an icon of hospitality, while in Italy it represented love.

I find basil easy to love. I also find it easy to enjoy in the form of pesto, a delicious addition to many a summertime meal.

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