Wednesday, September 10, 2008

When the Stars Align with Basil

Rain fell in sloppy sheets, cold and unrelenting. In the darkness of a September evening, I hurried home, my spirits buoyed by an unusually good day at work. That afternoon, my advisor spoke to me the sweetest words a graduate student could ever hope to hear, words like “graduation” and “publication” and “committee meeting.” We were collaborators, plotting out my year of research plans. He was happy, I think, to hear me declare, “I really want to finish my degree!” I am astonished to see everything falling into place as though we planned it this way.

We did plan it this way, but oh, how easily my plans are thwarted! I have come to expect the unexpected, to expect that things will not go as planned. Life is awfully messy. It takes faith to believe that things will work out, that you will be okay. But on that rainy, cold Monday, a river of good news flowed toward me. Manuscript proofs showed up in my in-box: a Journal of Neuroscience document with my name on it. My name. On proofs. It took my breath away; I could have fainted from excitement! I spent the rest of the afternoon with my proofs and my black pen, editing, correcting, squinting at italics and rolling my eyes at the mistakes added to our manuscript during the journal’s editing process. When my black pen and I were finished, I left the proofs on my advisor’s door and scurried home to my kitchen, where my basil awaited me.

Although I love to cook and I cook often, I’m no rock star in the kitchen. My food is always edible, but it doesn’t always wow me. I don’t tell you too much about those meals, dear reader. Why write about mediocre meals? I want to leave you with something really amazing, so I hem and haw over recipes and stories, looking for a gem that is worthy of your attention. Today I bring you a gem of a pesto recipe.

Despite fabulous food shopping, my weekend cooking was rather unremarkable. I made risotto for the first time ever—very exciting, but the final result was a tiny bit disappointing. The recipe was packed with summer vegetables and fresh basil—hence I bought basil at the farmer’s market—but the final dish lacked a certain sparkle that I was hoping to taste. The flavors were muddy and dull, like there was too much going on in one spoonful. Perhaps the rich vegetable stock I used in place of water plus bouillon cubes overwhelmed the fresh vegetables, or perhaps I’m going through a phase where I want bright, pure flavors with little interference. The risotto was tasty enough, but it was not what I was expecting. I pouted while I did the dishes.

The next night I made garlic breadsticks that lacked even the merest hint of garlic. I was so certain that they would be fabulous, warm and crisp and garlicky, fresh from the oven. But my garlic oil—the same stuff I recommended just nine days ago—did not stand up well to the bread dough. Garlic oil works wonders on roasted potatoes, another starchy food, so I was very surprised at how the oil’s garlicky flavor disappeared without a trace when I brushed it on my unbaked breadsticks. Hmmph! Garlic breathless and unsatisfied, I called a truce with my stove and reconciled myself to eating mediocre leftovers all week.

Even in the plodding rain, all my cooking stars were aligned on the night following the garlic-less breadsticks. The basil didn’t look especially promising; it was starting to wilt and brown in some spots, but who cares when you’re only cooking for you? The pesto recipe had been sitting in my binder of EatingWell recipes for years, but unlike the basil, it was no worse for its age. Out came pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt. Into the food processor they went. A whirl of blades later, out came richly fragrant, salty pesto, spooned into a tiny Japanese tea cup I use as a serving dish.

I proceeded to try this pesto with everything I could imagine. I licked it off my finger. Alarmingly heavy on the salt, I feared I was facing yet another kitchen disappointment. I dipped tiny halved cherry tomatoes in it, and my fear turned to triumph. The pesto’s saltiness became perfectly balanced by the tomato’s sweet-tart juices; it was the essence of a summer garden distilled into a mouthful. I dolloped pesto on my breadsticks, still garlic-less, and found the flavor I had been missing: accompanied by warm bites of bread, the taste of garlic and basil blossomed on my tongue. I piled everything together: tomato, bread, pesto. No three foods ever got along so well or had so much to say to each other as in that moment. It was perfection of the humblest kind.

A perfectly delicious basil pesto may be a small triumph, but when disappointment looms large, a small triumph may be just what we need to rekindle our flame. As summer wanes to a close, may your month be filled with small triumphs and big flavors.

Itty-Bitty-Batch Basil Pesto
Adapted from this recipe in EatingWell
Makes an itty-bitty batch, about 1/4 cup

1/2 cup of well-packed fresh basil leaves
1 tbsp. pine nuts, toasted
1 tbsp. Parmesan cheese (the cheap stuff is fine here)
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 medium cloves of garlic, chopped into halves or thirds
1/8 tsp. salt
Freshly ground pepper or grains of paradise

Place all the ingredients except the pepper or grains of paradise in a food processor. Pulse a couple times to combine into a paste, scraping down the sides once or twice to make sure everything gets combined. Spoon the pesto into a bowl or serving dish and add pepper or grains of paradise to taste. Eat with tomatoes, breadsticks, pasta, or whatever floats your boat.

Store leftover pesto in a tightly covered container in the fridge.


ammie said...

Grains of paradise? Please do explain that to me.

Rosiecat said...

I bought some grains of paradise on a whim, Ammie. They are round peppery seeds that can be used in place of, or in addition to, peppercorns. I bought mine from Whole Foods, preloaded in a grinder.

I tried grains of paradise and peppercorns side by side. Grains of paradise, to me, had a more one-dimensional flavor--pure heat. I couldn't really taste the flowery or citrusy notes that other people report. It could be a matter of tasting them more frequently or trying them with different foods that might bring out more flavors. I like playing with different spices, so I'll keep experimenting to see where the flavor of grains of paradise really stands out.

When you come over, you should try them and see what you think!

JD said...

Did you know that grains of paradise is a traditional brewing spice? If you look at most craft brewed beers, it is an ingredient. It is, however, missing from the mega-brewers beer. For beer junkies, it is kind of like comparing corn syrup to cane sugar. Supposedly tastes the same, but really there is a difference.

Rosiecat said...

I did not know that, JD! I didn't even know you knew anything about beer! Are you a beer snob?

daphna said...

Aww, I just hate it when recipes don't work out! I just made a so-so lentil soup recipe yesterday. I'm glad that your pesto turned out so well! In a few weeks/months when it's harder to find large quantities of fresh basil, this pesto is really delicious too: You can get it at Jewel. See you Sat. :)

Rosiecat said...

Hey D!

Ooh, I haven't tried that pesto brand. I usually by the Classic Basil Pesto from Cibo Naturals:

Have you tried this one? Maybe we should have a pesto tasting!

You know, other than Stewed Lentils and Tomatoes, I have yet to find a really amazing lentil soup, one that I want to make again and again. Lots of lentil soups are tasty, but it's hard to find a really outstanding one. If you find one, please let me know!

Until Saturday, D!