Tuesday, August 7, 2012

How to Make Fresh Basil Pesto...and tomato soup concentrate & gazpacho

The fruit harvest throughout France has been greatly reduced this season. Instead of several bushels of plums,  I have just a few small baskets from our trees.  Happily, I will be able to make a few pots of jam and maybe some fruit leather.

Purple ente plums and mirabelle plums

When I get a little down because of having so much less fruit for preserving, I walk by the Rose of Sharon bushes with their pastel clouds of flowers and immediately feel better.

Dayo, being his own man, likes to wander off by himself in some undisclosed corner, usually tucked away in a veggie bed.  Just as I wonder where he might be, I look down, and there he is, inspecting the basil with me.

Basil is a very attractive green herb with an alluring aroma and taste.  It goes well in many dishes, especially tomato-based ones.  It is simple to grow an ample harvest from seed:  sow in early spring indoors in a plant incubator or on a heat mat and transplant when weather is reliably warm, mid-May in my garden.  Several weeks after transplanting, a new flat of freshly sowed seeds is a good idea, as basil bolts and goes woody, that is, flowers usually by late July which makes basil a bit bitter.  This way, as the first succession is pooping out, you have a nice new planting rearing to go for flavouring late-season tomatoes. For basil to stay bushy, it helps to harvest frequently.  Pinch as soon as there are six leaves--leaving four--and repeat pinching/harvesting.  My preferred method of serving fresh basil is by making a chiffonade.

Basil can be preserved by first washing, then chopping and adding either olive oil or a little water, placing in ice cube trays, freezing, and then separating and putting into freeze bags.  Individual leaves can be frozen also--wash, pat dry, and freeze on a tray, with space in between each leaf, then place leaves in freezer bags.

Since the walnuts grown near Grenoble in southeast France are so good--light golden brown without a touch of bitterness--I use those instead of pine nuts for making pesto.

For a cup of pesto, toss in an 1/3 cup of shelled walnuts into the food processor for a few pulses, then add two cups of washed and dried, packed, fresh basil leaves along with two fat, crushed garlic cloves and pulse a few times more.  Then add an 1/2 cup of a good quality olive oil and an 1/2 cup of freshly grated Parmesan and blend until smooth, scraping down the contents at least once. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

It goes beautifully on top of your favourite pasta or spread on French bread.  Actually if you love its taste, it can go on just about anything--baked potatoes, a smear on hard-boiled eggs, as a dip for  crudités, etc.  Pesto can be prepared for the freezer by leaving out the cheese and adding it after defrosting and before serving.  Upon exposure to air and freezing, the bright green colour changes to an olive green but its taste remains vibrant.

Mildew has attacked tomatoes in many gardens and fields throughout France.  It is very contagious and before you know it you are staring at dry and lifeless plants.  Since I eschew all chemical treatments for my edibles, all I can do is to remove infected leaves when I see them.

One hot and windy day, Madame M and I were in our individual gardens at the same time picking off infected leaves from a total of eighty plants between the two gardens.  After a bout of huffing and puffing, we would rest an arm on a tomato stake, look across our garden to the other's and laugh at ourselves.  The small mountain of yellowed leaves were not put on the compost, but carefully bagged.  So far, I have harvested enough juicy beefsteaks to make tomato soup concentrate and other goodies.  Hopefully, the remaining green toms will mature into plump globes of irresistible flavour.

Note the yellowed, brown spotted leaf in the upper right corner

It is an absolute delight to have a plentiful supply of ripe, juicy tomatoes.  I consider it an honour to figure out what to do with them all.  The Calm One has a knack of incorporating our garden produce into our routine dishes.  He makes a mean top-of-the-stove macaroni and cheese with three different cheeses and three different pastas.  His embellishment during tomato season is to put the macaroni and cheese in an oven casserole, top it with thickly sliced tomatoes, add additional grated cheese on top and place it under the broiler for about five minutes until nicely browned and the tomatoes have become more like a sauce.  I added some basil to mine, but he didn't as he already had reached his daily quota for green things on his plate.

Making a concentrated soup base is a good way to preserve tomatoes, serving as a base for both cold and hot, late summer/fall soups like my creamy tomato with Edam and brown rice soup--look out for the recipe around autumn.  For cold soups, I add either some cream or crème fraîche and add appropriate garnishes.

Dice tomatoes and add garlic, onions, celery/lovage, carrots, black peppercorns, heaps of fresh basil, and a bouquet garni, barely covering the whole lot with water.  If you have some rind ends of Parmesan, toss those in too. Fish them out before serving; they can be cut into small pieces and are quite delicious to eat on the side.

That's lovage on the bottom left

Simmer about an hour--the veggies should be very soft to make sieving easy. A thorough sieving via a Foley Mill is all that is necessary to have a thick soup base which can then be frozen. 

Another way to use tomatoes is to blend them raw along with other tasty ingredients.  Since gazpacho has many recipes whose creators insist are the true version on the Web, I decided to add to the already huge collection.  I am attempted to call mine the omission/addition gazpacho recipe because it lacks all the ingredients I did not have on hand while using all the ones I had and thought would go well in this kind of cold soup.  I was very pleased with how it came out.

Instead of bread--some admonish those who use bread, but I recommend ignoring those people--I used some leftover buttered cous cous which imparted creaminess and a slightly nutty taste.  I didn't have green peppers, and besides I don't care for them much which is probably why there weren't any around.  Now red peppers are another matter; I adore those but my garden ones are not yet ready for harvesting.  Note to self:  get some shelf-loving powdered paprika.  I also think that raw onions when blended can be too overpowering so they were left out even though I have heaps of those from the garden.  Of course, gazpacho is all about tomatoes, so unless you can get wonderful, ripe, flavoursome tomatoes, it is probably not worth the effort.

Chop 1 kilogram of unpeeled ripe tomatoes, crush one fat clove of garlic, and peel and chop a medium cucumber.   A couple of slices of bread, soaked in water and squeezed out well can easily be substituted for an 1/3rd cup of left-over, cooked, buttered cous cous.  Measure out 50 ml of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar.   Fill up the blender with one third of the ingredients, blend till mushy, add another third, blend again, and then add the final third, blending this time several minutes until very smooth.

Sieve or not to sieve?  I consider both versions to be delicious, just different--the sieved one is undeniably more smooth and a bit more urbane while the not sieved one is somewhat boisterous with its more grainy and earthy texture.  If a food processor is used instead of a blender, sieving may be more compelling.  Dilute with a little water if too thick for your taste--I found the thickness to be as satisfying as a nice substantial porridge.

To chill or not to chill?  So many important questions when making such a simple soup!  If most of your ingredients came from the fridge, the soup will be cold enough to scoff down right away.  If not, then chill in the fridge for an hour or so.  Garnish with cucumber ribbons, minced flat leaf parsley, and finely chopped hard-boiled egg.  Serve with tortilla chips.

Bon appétit!


Raw tomatoes stuffed with tuna served on a bed of cous cous
A superb collection of creative gazpacho recipes at Scoop.it!