Cooking isn’t something I was technically taught, it’s just something that I picked up along the way. I’ve watched my mom peel and chop (which she hates the most) and boil and whip my whole life. She never showed me anything specifically, I think I just picked up things here and there as I grew up. Once I was on my own, trial and error became my friend.
When Kyle cooks with me, he follows recipes and instructions to the teaspoon. I, however, do not. Unless it’s baking — because that’s a literal science, and you don’t mess with science — I consider recipes as suggestions. Most of the time, the variables in my kitchen are not going to be the same as the recipe’s. I might use a cast iron skillet and you used a regular one. You will have made this recipe using an electric stove, but mine is gas. I don’t particularly love mushrooms, so I might leave those out or use half of what you used. The list goes on and on, because that’s the beauty of food — we can make it however we want. So I like to mess around with stuff, use what I have, and take out what I don’t want. Some might balk at that, but that’s how I roll. No one has complained yet.
I had a surplus of basil from The Wild Ramp that I needed to use up, so I figured I’d try my hand at pesto. I looked up an Ina Garten recipe to get the basics for what I needed, and went with it.
Lesson #1: Ina Garten likes a lot of garlic in her recipes. Like a lot.
Ina’s recipe called for 9 cloves of garlic, which I thought sounded like a lot, but oh well. I had a head of garlic from Elmcrest Farm, and it had about 6 or so cloves on it, but they were big, so I figured it would even out to the 9 that Ina called for in her recipe.
She also calls for pine nuts, as most pesto recipes do, but I couldn’t find any while shopping, so I just doubled the amount of walnuts instead. See what I mean? Make it your own, people!
Lesson #2: Locally-sourced garlic is way stronger and hotter than commercially-grown garlic.
I did as the recipe said in terms of the food processor, and blended that stuff up. I was running out the door before finishing it, so just gave it a quick taste.
It was so incredibly garlic-y that I knew it wouldn’t work on any sort of pasta or anything without choking Kyle and me both to death, and the strength of the garlic actually made it hot. I love garlic, but this was too much. The local garlic I used is incredibly good, but I put too much in it for this recipe. I wasn’t sure what to do, but I just went ahead and put it in a jar and stuck it in the fridge to deal with later.
To my knowledge, my mother has never made basil pesto, or else I probably would have frantically texted her or one of my grandmothers. But luckily, I know someone in my office who is Italian and knows what’s up with food, so I emailed her and told her my situation. In my mind, I figured I could fix the too-much-garlic mess I’d created by just doubling the recipe but leaving out the garlic in the next batch, and then mixing the two together. But I’d never made pesto before, so I wanted to be sure before I went on. Had I really screwed it up?
My source told me that I was right, and to go on with the plan of doubling the batch without the garlic. She also informed me that local garlic is usually way stronger, and that was probably my issue here. And after years of cooking, she knows that Ina is a little heavy-handed on the garlic (and salt), so be careful there.
After purchasing another giant bunch of basil at The Wild Ramp, I worked on the second batch to fix this mess. I blended it pretty well before adding in the garlic batch, and then processed it all together.
After it was all mixed, I said a prayer and dipped my finger in the green goo for a taste.
YES. Praise be.
It is still garlic-y, but in a good way, and tasted like summer. Fresh and green.
As I finished packaging up the giant new batch, Kyle was asking if I was ready because we were on our way out the door again (when are we not?). I said “Yes, but I just need to toast this bread and clean up first.”
I toasted a piece of bread, and used it to scrape the food processor clean. I was literally elbow-deep in the processor, and had pesto on my arm. #worthit
For the Game of Thrones finale the next night, I made some pasta using the pesto, oven-roasted tomatoes, sautéed peppers, and more parmesan cheese. It was fresh and delicious, and exactly what I wanted.
Lesson #3: You can freeze pesto, but you should over-process it first.
I ended up with about 10 cups of pesto. That is A LOT. Even for me.
My source told me if I freeze it, to over-process it. For some reason, this makes a difference in taste once you thaw it out. So I took about half of the batch and blended it up a little finer before putting it in the freezer.
I also gave a little jar to my source as a Thank You, and left some in the fridge for me to use immediately.
My favorite way to eat pesto is still with just a big chunk of crusty bread and a glass of wine, but it is seriously delicious on pretty much anything. It’s also great to add to soups, which I’m gearing up for in the next month or so. Bring on the pumpkin spice things and soup season.
Lesson #4: If you mess something up, don’t scrap it right away.
It would have been easy for me to just start over and waste the first batch of this. But I really thought I could fix it, and I wanted to fix it because I didn’t want to waste such good, local ingredients. So this experience taught me to wait a beat, and see what can be done. Of course, if something is burned or undercooked, that’s a whole other issue, but usually, there’s a way to fix something. Get creative and see what works. Eating and cooking should be fun, not stressful.
If you’ve never made pesto before, I would highly recommend trying it. It’s one of those things that just tastes incredibly better when it’s fresh than from a jar, and now is the time to stock up on basil and make a few batches to freeze. Then, when it’s dark and snowing and bitterly cold outside, you can thaw a little bit of summer.