Friday, February 16, 2007
Ode to pesto
My family always ate very well when I was growing up. Growing up on a farm in country Victoria meant that we were quite self-sufficient. We grew most of our own vegetables and fruit, Dad butchered our own meat (we had beef, lamb and chicken and could source pork from neighbours who were pig-farmers), and we milked a few cows to provide milk for us, my grandmother and my uncle's family. The modern buzzwords of seasonality and "from paddock to plate" were a way of life to us, rather than something that had to be reclaimed from the year-round, available-in-all-seasons produce of today's supermarkets.
Although we ate well, our meals could not be described as adventurous, particularly by the standards of today's multicultural cuisine. Dinner (or tea, as my dad called it - what he called dinner is what the rest of us call lunch) was usually meat (lamb chops or steaks) and three veg - mashed potato, peas and carrots. There was always a roast for Sunday lunch. Chinese food was pork spare ribs with fried rice and Italian food was covered by spaghetti bolognaise and lasagna. It was good, honest, home-cooked food that was quickly put together with a minimum of fuss. Written down like this, it sounds like a boring menu but it never felt like that. While we lacked glossy cookbooks full of specialist and exciting new ingredients, we also didn't bother with calorie counting or have any problems with the modern scourge of obesity, despite devouring plenty of mum's homemade cakes and biscuits.
As I got older, I got a glimpse of a different world of food. Mum's university friend Norma and her partner Peter would often come from Melbourne to stay for the weekend, bringing bags of European cakes and florentine biscuits from the Monarch cake shop in Acland St, St Kilda, a case of wine and other assorted foodie items, such as fresh, pungent cheese and crusty bread.
It was Peter who first introduced me to the glorious wonder that is pesto. He gathered big bunches of the basil running rampant in mum's garden. After carefully washing and drying all the leaves, my job was to keep mum's trusty Sunbeam blender running while Peter tossed in basil, olive oil, garlic cloves and handfuls of pine nuts. We thickened the resulting aromatic green paste with grated parmesan, tossed it through fettucine and served it up with crusty bread and a bottle of light red.
To this day, I think of basil as the essence of summer and it is the first thing I plant in my summer vegetable and herb garden. I always think of Peter when I make pesto and remember my first experience of this wondrous dish.
Pesto is one recipe that I find doesn't really require precise measurements. I take as small or large a bunch of basil as I have, wash the leaves and put into my food processor (I find it makes a smoother sauce than the blender, and, although traditionalists call for pesto to be made in a mortar and pestle, I'm far too lazy). I add garlic cloves (1-2 for a small bunch, more for larger), a handful or two of pine nuts and enough olive oil to make a smooth sauce. Just before serving, I add grated parmesan (about half a cup but, again, to your taste). If I'm freezing the sauce to have in winter, I don't add the cheese (I add it once defrosted and ready to serve).
Although most of our pesto is devoured with pasta, I find an easy and glamorous dinner party dish is to pile pesto on top of chicken breasts and bake in a moderately hot oven (180 degrees Celsius/375 degrees Fahrenheit) for about 20 minutes. Serve with roasted potatoes and steamed beans.