One kid's adventures in gastronomy

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What do you do with a TON of basil?

Our basil was slow to start this year, but it decided to spring up while we were on vacation. Now the plants are almost as big as me! In order to keep the plants lush and producing big flavorful leaves, Mama picks off the flowers. She says otherwise, the basil will get woody. “Woody?” I ask. “Woody,” she confirms. (I was being too much of a stinker to let Mama get a good picture of me with the basil, but you can see how tall the plants are here.)

She also has to harvest the stems and leaves if she wants to keep using the plants. It sounds funny to me that you have to take off leaves to get more, but Mama is sometimes right about things, so I’ll trust her on this one.

Aside from tossing chiffonade basil (that’s thin ribbons) into salads and over tomatoes & mozzarella, Mama likes to make pesto. Though pesto is decidedly of Italian origin, Mama told me she first had fresh pesto while in college on a visit to a friend in Germany (she says I’m not allowed to say how long ago that was ). She wrote down her friend’s mother’s recipe in her little journal and used that recipe for many years. Now she makes her own, and you’ll see that it’s not only simple to prepare but simple to store—and so much tastier than the oily stuff that comes in jars.

Gather everything together before you start, and you'll be done with your pesto in no time.

Gather everything together before you start, and you’ll be done with your pesto in no time.

Mama showed me how she whirrs everything in a food processor. She usually does it to taste, which is helpful when you don’t have a recipe handy. She said if you want to keep your pesto looking as bright as the day you made it, blanch the basil leaves in boiling water for all of 20 seconds, then plunge them in ice water and squeeze dry. Otherwise, if you don’t really care that the color fades, skip the extra step.

The last thing I’ll tell you about pesto is that you can use just about any green, like kale, cilantro, or parsley, as well as just about any nut or seed, such as walnuts or pumpkin seeds. If you find yourself with a bunch of herbs or a head of greens, try making your own variation on a classic pesto.

Now, I told Mama, “I don’t like pesto,” but she and Papa claim I’ve eaten it before. I’m not so sure, so I’ll give this one both a “hit” and a “miss.”

Love, Jude

What would enjoy a dab of pesto? What wouldn’t?!

Potato salad
Various pastas
Peas/green beans/asparagus
Béchamel (white sauce)
Meatloaf, burgers, meatballs (add to the mix or serve as a topping)
Scrambled eggs
Egg salad
On top of grilled portabellas or eggplant with mozzarella & tomatoes
Pizza (spread on pizza crust or a pita or anything else you’d consider a “pizza”)
Mix with softened butter and slathered on corn on the cob
Sandwich spread
Bruschetta with roasted red peppers
Broiled or grilled chicken or fish
Hummus or white bean mash
Thinned with a bit of balsamic vinegar and use it as a vinaigrette

Basil Pesto

1 cup packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts (Mama uses raw, but go ahead and use toasted if that’s what you have)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/3 cup olive oil (extra-virgin, if you like)
¼ cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan (Parm is more traditional, and lends a nuttier taste, but Mama likes to change it up and likes the subtle sweetness of the sheep’s milk cheese. That, and she had pecorino and didn’t feel like running out for Parm.)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
few grinds of black pepper
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice

This is a packed cup of basil. I couldn't fit more leaves in there if I tried. (By the way, picking leaves off a basil plant is a great task for someone like me!)

This is a packed cup of basil. I couldn’t fit more leaves in there if I tried. (By the way, picking leaves off a basil plant is a great task for someone like me!)

In a food processor, process the basil, pine nuts, and garlic into a paste.

Your pesto really doesn't need to look just like this, but it gives you an idea.

Your pesto really doesn’t need to look just like this, but it gives you an idea.

Add the oil, cheese, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and process  until well blended. If you want to be able to drizzle your pesto, add more oil or cut back on the cheese.

This is a good consistency for pesto, but you can certainly make it thinner with more oil.

This is a good consistency for pesto, but you can certainly make it thinner with more oil.

A little goes a long way, so it pays to experiment with how much you prefer on pasta, etc. Pesto will keep in the fridge for at least a week; or, freeze in ice cube trays, then store cubes in zip-top plastic freezer bags for a few months.

Mama put my old baby food freezer trays to good use!

Mama put my old baby food freezer trays to good use!

Note: Mama says this pesto will taste salty, which is a good thing as it generally tops plain pasta. If you’re concerned about the salt, start with a little less—or use kosher salt. The bigger grains cause you to use less of it.


What’s with all the green?

You might recall that I used to eat a lot of spinach, in the form of something we called “gruel.” But now that I’m beyond all that baby food, Mama serves me sautéed spinach and kale, and I notice she puts herbs in everything. I am no longer such a fan.

Mama had some leftover halibut from fish tacos, so she decided fish cakes would make for a good dinner. Papa peeled and boiled the potatoes, and Mama raided the garden for the mint and parsley. The cakes came together pretty quickly, so Mama decided on her favorite chickpea salad as an accompaniment.

While Mama’s a proponent of cooking beans, she feels this is only something a person who has her act together can do, and Mama is not one of those people. She doesn’t have various pots of beans and grains cooking and all her vegetables cut for the week ahead on a Sunday. She just doesn’t. So when it comes to a superfast side dish (or sometimes, in Mama’s case, a main dish), she likes being able to reach into her cupboard and pull out a can of beans. Just drain, rinse, and serve. Now, I’ve been slow to come to chickpeas (though I like to say “chick-pea”), but I very recently ate half a can all on my own. So Mama felt pretty confident I’d share her gusto for garbanzo salad.

Not so much. I couldn’t find one that was just a plain old chickpea. All that basil and parsley. Doesn’t she get that toddlers have a clinical aversion to green showing up on non-green foods? As for the fish cakes, I took my obligatory one bite, but that was enough for me. I liked the crispy fried part okay, but it still tasted fishy—and there was all that greenery. I ended up sharing it with the dog. The green I didn’t mind was the avocado I ended up eating for dinner.

Love, Jude

Herbed Chickpea Salad

1 can chickpeas, drained & rinsed
Handful of fresh parsley, minced
Handful of fresh basil, minced
1–2 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of ½ lemon (or more, to taste)
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper
Drizzle of olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

As you can see, this is a pretty loose recipe. Mama just does it all to taste. Start with a little of an ingredient and add more. Remember, you can always add more, but you can’t take it away!

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The Jude Abides

Poor Mama. She’s had a lot of “Misses” of late and has had to resort to her backup supply of purees and other mashed foods. Maybe she’s letting me graze too much during the day on things like fruit, cheese, and organic cereals. Or maybe I’m just being a picky baby.

But this weekend she made something that surprised even me. Eggplant has been hit or miss. “Baby” ganoush—miss. Ratatouille—hit. Last night she sliced a few eggplants, sprayed them with olive oil, and grilled them inside (even though it was gorgeous outside). While the slices cooked, she made a pesto to spread on them, telling me she’d have to substitute almonds for the pine nuts she was sure she had. She then made a filling with shredded mozzarella, tomato sauce, golden raisins, and some of the cooked eggplant chopped up. (She also cut up some kalamata olives for herself and me, for “on the side,” since Papa does not like them one bit.) She placed a bit of filling on one end of each slice of eggplant, rolled it up, and put each roll in a baking dish that had a little bit of sauce in it. Then she topped it all with more sauce, sprinkled more cheese over it, then baked it until the cheese turned golden. On the side, she made orzo, then grilled a pork chop for Papa.

I thought the eggplant was tender and flavorful, and the orzo was so much more pleasing in texture than the brown rice Mama usually serves. Even Papa, who’s not always a fan of eggplant either, enjoyed it (though he said the olives threatened to “contaminate” the whole dish). What was even more of a surprise was that I ate the leftovers for lunch today, and I usually cannot abide leftovers. Live and learn.

Love, Jude

Mama’s Pesto
(even Mama couldn’t come up with a more approximate recipe for this one—she just keeps tasting it until she gets it right)

[UPDATE: Mama finally sat down and drew up a recipe, which you can find here.]

About 1 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, rinsed and torn or cut chiffonade
A couple tablespoons pine nuts or other favorite nut, toasted or not
A couple tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese
Juice of half a lemon, or so
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped (or more if you really like garlic)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Good extra-virgin olive oil, as needed

Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse or blend until a paste forms. Stream in enough olive oil to give it body. The pesto should be intensely flavored, so that a little goes a long way. Adjust the tastes as you go along—you can always add more, but you can’t take away.

Note: Mama advises against toasting the nuts if you’re going to be baking the pesto, as in the eggplant dish, above. She also says that you don’t have to use basil—spinach, parsley, and arugula all work just as well.