I first became aware of pesto back in the early nineties. I don’t remember how I heard about it — probably a magazine or web article. It’s a simple food which originated in Italy; a lot of sweet basil leaves (I prefer the Genovese variety) chopped or even pureed with a smaller quantity of parsley, parmesan cheese, olive oil, pine nuts, and optionally garlic. It’s a greenish spreadable food which doesn’t look particularly appetizing when first encountered. There are many variations. Either a food processor or a blender is the pulverizing agent.
I could eat pesto every day; I just love the stuff.
Betsy and I planted a big patch of basil one spring and made pesto all that summer and many summers to follow. Pine nuts were too expensive so we substituted unsalted sunflower seeds or walnuts. Betsy discovered that basil and parsley leaves could be frozen spread out on cookie sheets, bagged up, and put back in the freezer. Winter pesto!
This summer has been rainy and my basil and parsley are thriving. I just finished making a batch of pesto; it takes about ten minutes. I used cashews rather than pine nuts.
Pesto is versatile; traditionally it is served with pasta, but it also makes a fine sandwich spread. Freshly-made tortilla fragments can be dipped in pesto. I enjoy mixing up food cultures.
As I sampled the new batch I got to thinking. Could a pesto analog be made with plants native to this continent?
Basil is in the mint family but its strong odor is pungent and not minty at all. My favorite native mint-family plant is the Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum pilosum. The species is an upland tallgrass prairie plant and it has a heavenly odor. Let’s see… walnut oil could be substituted for olive oil, and hickory nuts could take the place of those expensive pine nuts. Let’s toss in some ramps or other wild onions rather than garlic. There are several umbelliferous plants which could take the place of parsley, and the salt could come from salt licks.
I’ll bet nobody has ever tried this!
My friend Jeff and I are collaborating on a garden this year. Here are the thriving basil plants:
And here’s my old friend, the Hairy Mountain Mint:
Sometimes I’m envious of old cultures such as those in Europe and Asia. They’ve had thousands of years to develop techniques for using native vegetation and fauna as food, while we’ve just had a couple of hundred years. Most of our cuisine and many of the foods we eat are imports from the Old World. Of course Americans were and are compensated by vast areas of virgin fertile soil, so I guess it’s a wash.