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.


Can you spot the pun?

I used to eat beets. A lot. Mostly they were pureed, sometimes mixed with apples and carrots. I’d make a real mess out of them, that’s for sure! But when we got some beets from my friend Walter’s farm, Mama decided to try something that the whole family could enjoy. Yet, she wanted something fast, and if you know anything about beets, you know that they take time to prepare. There’s boiling them until soft, and there’s roasting them until soft. So what to do?

Grate ’em! If given her druthers, Mama would rather use a mandoline than a box grater any day, and it was probably because of this attitude that she knicked her thumb knuckle on it. So let me warn you now: be careful! Anyway, grating the beets (after peeling them) turned them into small enough pieces that could be cooked in a skillet…to which she added butter, the grated beets, the zest and juice of 1 lime, then some salt and pepper. Aside from the afore-mentioned grated knuckle, it was an easy dish to fix and tasted quite yummy. The tart lime contrasted with the sweet beets, and the slight creaminess of the butter played off the tiny bit of saltiness. And we all had pink pee!

Mama paired these beets with organic, whole-wheat farfalle pasta (that’s the kind shaped like bow-ties, but if you really want to know why they’re called farfalle, it’s because that’s the Italian word for “butterflies”), dressed in the leftover kale pesto that she brought back to life with a bit of the pasta cooking liquid. Papa grilled a simple salt-and-pepper pork chop to share with me, and dinner was done!

I wish I could say I ate more than my requisite one bite of pasta and chop…but I was feeling pretty beet after the long day I’d had picking blueberries and making muffins (stay tuned).

Love, Jude


This is how Mama procrastinates

Mama had a mess of heirloom tomatoes ripening on the counter and more kale in the fridge than she knew what to do with. Even I can’t eat that many kale chips. So she decided to make a tomato tart with kale pesto.

You can use beefsteaks or romas…but why would you want to?

The first thing she did was lop off the top of a head of garlic. She laid it in foil, drizzled it with olive oil, scrunched it all up, then put it in the oven for about half an hour. Just until the garlic softened and started becoming golden. She told me this is a really yummy thing to spread over crostini, which she said I’ve actually eaten before, but my baby memory isn’t recalling that.

A drizzle of oil transforms garlic into something YUM.

Meanwhile, Mama made the crust. She explained to me that she doesn’t generally like making crust in the food processor because then she has to clean the darn thing, but since she would be making pesto with it anyway, she figured why not? To the processor, she added her flour, oats, and salt. Then she added her butter and processed it just until little clumps formed.

This is how you want your butter cut in to the flour, whether it’s by hand or machine.

She said you don’t want to process the butter so much that it melts–the cold butter is what makes for a flakey crust. Then she added the ice-cold water and processed it again just until large clumps formed and began pulling from the side. She tested the dough by squeezing a bit in her hand, and she saw that it held together. You don’t want to process it into a smooth ball, otherwise you’ve overdeveloped something called gluten, and your crust will be tough.

This is how you your dough should look when it’s ready. See the squished clump in the top left?

Once she had the crust chilling in the fridge, Mama moved on to the pesto. Ordinarily, Mama makes a pretty traditional pesto, which she first ate, ironically enough, at a friend’s mother’s house in Bad Bramstedt, Germany, back in the ’90s. When you use basil or other fresh green like arugula, you can make the pesto fresh from the garden. When you use something hardier, like kale, it’s better to first blanch the greens. Mama generously salted her boiling water (and I stayed far away from the burner) and blanched the kale for a minute or two, in batches. She then ran the cooked kale under cold water (she said she’s cheating because she really should be putting it in an ice bath…but there are only so many dishes she wants out of the cupboards at any given time). The kale went into the food processor, to which she added olive oil, more salt, pepper, fresh lemon juice, toasted pine nuts (you don’t have to toast them–they just develop a nicer flavor), some freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and the roasted garlic. When the cloves were cool enough to handle, a gentle squeeze popped them right out of their papery skins! She whirred the ingredients in the processor and stopped to taste. I reached in and grabbed a chunk of the pesto to try for myself. I was not happy with it. But neither was Mama! She added more lemon and more salt.

A tart is so pretty and sophisticated (like myself), but Mama had so many tomatoes that she decided to turn this into a deep-dish pie. I sampled many of the tomatoes to be sure of their ripeness, which is rather strange considering that I rarely eat raw tomatoes.

If I see something sitting on the counter, I’m going to eat it!

Then Mama rolled out the dough. I took my bitten tomatoes and stamped them on the dough to make pretty patterns. She showed me how to wrap the dough around the rolling pin to lay it into the pie pan easier. There was really a lot of dough, so Mama trimmed the edges and was sure to have leftovers. Then she spread some pesto along the bottom of the pie. She neatly layered some sliced tomatoes, then sprinkled some mozzarella on top.

I like the pretty colors of the heirloom tomatoes.

She explained that if this were a shallow tart, she’d be done, but she continued with two more layers in the same manner. (The leftover pesto she put in the fridge for pasta, but it would also freeze fine.) She put the whole thing in the oven until the top was brown, about 30 minutes, then grated some asiago cheese on top. She could’ve put it back in the oven for another minute or so, but she didn’t.

I had a few bites, which tricksy Mama was trading off for bites of the crust, which I really enjoyed. She kept telling me that if it were horrible she wouldn’t be bartering, but I’m not so sure. I hear this pie tastes good cold, too. Guess  I’ll find out for lunch tomorrow.

Love, Jude

Heirloom Tomato & Kale–Roasted Garlic Pesto Tart

Roasted Garlic

1 head garlic
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Pastry Crust (or, Pâte Brisée if you’re really interested)

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (you can substitute whole-wheat, if you like)
1/3–1/2 cup ground rolled oats (optional)
1 tsp sea salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/3 cup ice water


1 large bunch kale, ribs removed and torn into rough pieces
Extra-virgin olive oil (about 2 swirls around the food processor)
Juice of a lemon (or more, to taste)
Kosher salt (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper (a few grinds)
2 Tbsp toasted pine nuts (toasting optional)
3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese


1–2 pounds ripe heirloom tomatoes (however many you need, depending on size & variety)
1–1½ cups shredded mozzarella
Freshly grated asiago cheese

To roast the garlic: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Trim the tops off the garlic bulb, place it (cut side up) in the center of a square of foil, drizzle with the olive oil, seal the top of the foil, then place the bundle in the center of the oven. Roast until the garlic is soft and fragrant, and slightly brown, about 30 minutes. (You can certainly make the pesto with regular ol’ garlic, too, without the roasting.)

For the pastry crust: Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor. (Mama already had ground oats, but if you don’t have them, grind them in the processor first.) Give it a few pulses to distribute. Add the butter and pulse about 10 times, just until the butter and flour begins to form pea-sized lumps throughout. With the machine running, add the water in a stream and process just until the dough starts to clump. Turn it out onto your counter, give it a few quick kneads to bring it all together, flatten it into a disk, and wrap it in plastic. Refrigerate for half an hour.

For the pesto: To blanch the kale, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working in batches, if necessary, add the kale to the water and stir to submerge. Boil for 1–2 minutes, until the kale is bright green. Transfer with a slotted spoon or tongs to a bowl of ice water (or to a colander that you’ll then run under cold water in the sink). If using toasted pine nuts, toast them in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes, shaking every so often, just until fragrant. You can also put them on a piece of foil or on a baking sheet and stick them in the oven, since it’s on. As soon as you smell them, they’re done! Place all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until pasty. You might need to add a little more oil—you can even add some of the blanching water. Taste and adjust seasonings. (Mama notes that all these amounts are approximate.)

To finish the tart: Slice the tomatoes—about as thick as you would a sandwich tomato. Set aside. Take the pastry crust out of the fridge and remove the wrap. Generously flour a surface, then gently roll the dough. Lay into pie or tart pan, then trim the edges, fluting if desired. Spread a layer of pesto along the bottom. Arrange slices of tomato to cover, then sprinkle with mozzarella. Repeat layers, if desired, ending with cheese. Bake until golden, about 30 minutes. Shave additional cheese on top, then pop back in the oven until melted and browned, a few minutes more.

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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.