Summer Swan Song
Maybe it's too early to bemoan the end of summer; but, undoubtedly, our time in these waning warm days is limited. It always is, even at the beginning. So to capture the best of summer at its peak is for the here and now, which is why I found myself Googling, "Can I make pesto with a mortar and pestle?" The (now obvious) answer: OF COURSE, yes. I find myself Googling a lot of questions that result in the obvious, simply out of the need for reassurance from the unseen multitudes on some things I'd be embarrassed to ask an actual person. (I won't admit to the half dozen other terms I looked up in the writing of this post). But, like many things, I found an easy answer to a culinary "problem" I've had since, oh, four summers ago, when my cheap-o mini food processor broke, and I stopped making, and thinking I could make, pesto.
This story really starts with a recipe that I had planned for the other night. It was Summer Pasta with Zucchini, Ricotta and Basil, from the New York Times Cooking site. I had been thinking about this pasta for a quick weeknight dinner in hopes that it would work out and I could recommend it to our Produce Box delivery customers, especially in these times of Too Many Zucchinis.
You'd think with all this produce around me day in and out that I would have everything I need literally at my fingertips; but as it happens, I do have it somewhere--in a box in a walk in cooler--just not in my home refrigerator. This happens all the time, and this is what happened after I assembled the other main ingredients in the dish: cut pasta, zucchini, pecorino, ricotta, lemon zest. And basil…which was not in the crisper drawer as I expected. The water for the pasta was salted and boiled merrily on the stove, the zucchini slowly sizzled in olive oil in the pan, and here I was missing an ingredient included in the very title of the recipe.
They say time waits for no one, and the same can be said for hungry, napless 2 year olds at 7pm on a Tuesday night. In this state, I scoured the crisper drawer and found a couple half-hearted bunches of cilantro. They would have to do. I picked through the leaves, doubting myself and faintly panicking about my lack of a back up plan. Pounding the cilantro with the pestle with a few pinches of sea salt, I then drizzled in some olive oil and found it easily mashed up into a pretty tasty paste that reminded me of pesto. And, at the end of it all, the meal was pronounced by the other adult in our household as "pretty good," which is praise enough for me. So, the cilantro worked, and I bet basil would be even better (do yourself a favor and make this recipe). Additionally, I discovered that I now want to put ricotta in most everything (it's not just for white pizza and lasagne anymore), and it got the gears turning…could I make pesto in the same way, eschewing the purchase of a mini food processor that I didn't have the time or money to buy, especially one that would probably languish in our cupboard until next summer?
Little did I know, this is how purists make pesto. Jamie Oliver, Serious Eats, and You Tube all say so. And of course this makes sense. Now that I think of it, I can't imagine the nonnas of Liguria back before Cuisinarts existed making it any other way, and I learned the name for the sauce actually stems from the name of the instrument (duh). I guess I always supposed that I wouldn't be able to grind everything down enough by hand, or that it wouldn't emulsify properly. Now, if you don't have a processor or a mortar and pestle, I've used a blender. If you don't have that, I'm sure we could brainstorm a solution involving a smooth stone and a sturdy bowl. (I happen to have a mortar and pestle thanks to my husband by way of his mother, who gave it to us to make Laotian Papaya Salad with it. Otherwise, I'd be improvising, too.)
Let this be a lesson that 1) you can always hack it: it may not turn out as planned, but you'd have to try pretty hard to make something completely inedible 2) the Internet will usually provide an answer, and some reassurance that someone else out there was wondering the same thing (and even took it a step further to create a YouTube video) 3) there are no stupid questions, especially when asking allows you to think of or look at things in a different way, or helps you find a solution to whatever keeps you from making your life a little richer, and summer last a little longer.
Classic Summer Pesto (serves 4) from Serious Eats
4 medium cloves garlic
Generous pinch coarse sea salt
3 ounces basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 1/2 tablespoons (1 ounce) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 1/2 tablespoons (1 ounce) Pecorino Fiore Sardo (see note below)
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons mildly flavored extra-virgin olive oil
1. In a mortar and pestle, combine garlic and sea salt and grind to a paste.
2. Add basil leaves a handful at a time and grind against the walls of the mortar; it's easier to use a circular grinding motion than to try to pound the leaves with the pestle. Continue until all basil leaves have been crushed to fine bits and have released their green liquid.
3. Add pine nuts and gently crush with pestle, then work into a paste with basil and garlic.
4. Add both cheeses and continue to use the pestle to grind into a paste.
5. Slowly drizzle in olive oil, working it into the pesto with a wooden spoon until incorporated. Pesto can be served with pasta right away, or transferred to a jar or container, covered with a small layer of olive oil, sealed, and refrigerated overnight.
A Note from Serious Eats: If you can't find Pecorino Fiore Sardo, you can use Pecorino Romano instead, but increase the Parmigiano-Reggiano to a full 3 tablespoons and cut the Pecorino to 2 tablespoons in that case. To serve this pesto on pasta, toss the sauce with the drained noodles off the heat, adding a little reserved pasta-cooking water to help bind it all together. Adding pieces of cooked new potato and green beans to the pasta is a traditional Ligurian touch: (Make this!) Pesto with Pasta, Potatoes, & Green Beans Recipe
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Green Circle Organics specializes in local and organic produce, dairy and minimally processed, locally produced foods. Since 2003, we've been operating out of the historic Lancaster Central Market, providing a channel for farm fresh, organic and specialty foods to reach city dwellers and visitors. Check here for recipe ideas using the seasonal produce and other goods we sell at our market stand and for our Produce Box home delivery service.