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THE FRONT BURNER

FLS reporter Katie Thisdell serves up news on local food finds, tales from home cooks and inspiration to help you have fun in your own kitchen.

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From the garden: First pesto of the summer

One of my favorite signs of summer is discovering that my basil plants have produced enough healthy looking leaves for a batch of pesto. Last Monday, I walked out to water my garden and found out that pesto was a possibility.

This is one of those summer treats that really doesn’t require a recipe. Traditionally, you find a way to smash basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese and olive oil together into a paste.

But that’s just an outline. There are endless variations here, according to your preferences of texture, flavor and color, and the ingredients you have available. Everything about pesto is negotiable.

Here are some thoughts on mixing things up. Please offer some of your own favorite combos in the comments.

Mechanics - There are lots of opinions on how to go about mashing up your pesto ingredients. Purists would have you use a mortar and pestle, saying it is the best way to release the essential oils in the basil, garlic and nuts. The M&P are not on my kitchen supply list, so I go for a food processor. You could also use a blender. Or, for a more deconstructed pesto, just tear up the basil leaves, chop the garlic and mix them all with the other ingredients as a quick pasta topper.

Herbs – Basil is traditional, but I use parsley quite often, since it seems to grow better in my yard and is available for more months of the year. I mix in mint when I have it. You could make pesto with any herb, but I’d stick to tender ones like cilantro, and steer clear of woodier ones like rosemary and oregano, but that’s just me. Other greens, like spinach, kale, arugula, etc., can also be mixed in. In the dead of winter, I make it from thawed frozen spinach. It takes a little more flavor enhancement, but it works.

Nuts – Pine nuts are delicious, but they aren’t cheap, and I never buy them. I always have either walnuts or almonds on-hand, and either of these are great in pesto. Pecans and hazelnuts aren’t too bad, either. In a pinch, I use ground flax seed instead of nuts; it adds body, but I honestly don’t like the flavor as much.

Cheese – Again, the possibilities are limited only by your imagination. I think a good Parmigiano-Reggiano is hard to beat on flavor, but it’s not cheap, either, and sometimes I don’t want to sacrifice a huge chunk of it to a batch of pesto. Pecorino is usually more affordable, and adds a lot of flavor, and feta is great in pesto. I usually end up using a mix of cheeses, based on what’s around.

Additions – Lemon juice is usually in my homemade pesto, but I didn’t have any around last week. Green peas, tomatoes (fresh or sundried), spinach, anchovies, roasted red peppers…the possibilities are endless.

Deletions – When you pick a gorgeous bunch of basil, you don’t need to add much to make a great sauce. Consider leaving out the other bold flavors that can overpower the basil and simply mixing it with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. After all, the point of all of this is to celebrate herbaceous goodness.

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