Picking basil on the third day of January seems a crazy thing to be doing, but the weather has indeed been crazy this year. We finally had our first frost last night, so I was out there brandishing my scissors pretty smartly this morning, before any more of the leaves succumbed to the cold.
A few burned leaves, but enough of a bunch to make a final batch of pesto, to be stashed in the freezer for a hint of summer on miserable January and February days. I am not a great fan of the freezer (at the minute, mine boasts a stock of breadcrumbs, pesto, frozen peas, 18 vats of turkey stock and some precious English bacon and sausages, and that’s about your lot), but pesto is one of those things that still tastes just as good when it emerges from its frosty quarters.
Last summer was one long battle against the loopers, who seemed to think they could treat themselves to the best leaves before we got there. There’s nothing like a trail of caterpillar droppings around the pots to get me reaching for the pestle and mortar before you can say ‘pesto’ (err, for the leaves, not the droppings, I hasten to add). Actually, that’s a big fib, as the whole lot gets tossed in the food processor – can’t be doing with all that guff about getting a better texture with a pestle and mortar. What you actually get (many hours later) is exactly the same end product plus a free helping of tennis elbow.
And now for the great nut revelation. You don’t need to use pine nuts. I know, I know, but who needs tradition? They are expensive (especially when you burn them at the alarming rate I have been known to do) but, more importantly, they often have little, if any, crunch at all. I’ve been using hazelnuts for years – toasted first, they add the most fantastic hint of flavour, as well as a scrummy crunchy texture, especially if you save a few for the end and blitz them briefly after everything else has been pulverised.
Parmesan is stupidly expensive here, as imported foodstuffs are taxed heavily (actually, come to think of it, everything is taxed heavily), so I use Bergama or Eski Kasar, both of which pack a similar salty, tangy punch to Parmesan but without the need to live for the rest of the week on toast and dripping to make up for the supermarket bill. If Cheddar is all you have in your fridge, that would be fine too.
You may hate me for giving you this recipe in January, but it’s what I made today and that’s the way I am going to roll – and anyway, the people who live in Australia will thank me for it. For everyone else, by all means call back in June when you’ve got a pot of basil on the go and miserable January is a distant memory.
The quantities below filled a normal-sized (500g) jam jar, plus about 3 tablespoons extra, which is destined for our dinner this evening (handy that). If you want to freeze it, I do it in individual yoghurt pots, which is about the right quantity for pasta for two people. You’d get at least 6 yogurt pots from this recipe.
Basil and hazelnut pesto
75g basil leaves
50g hazelnuts, toasted in a dry frying pan (or in the oven if you are brave enough)
3 cloves of garlic, grated or crushed and finely chopped (less if you are not a garlic fan)
150ml olive oil (or use a mix of olive and sunflower)
Plenty of black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
A large handful of grated Parmesan (or other hard salty cheese of your choice)
Salt to taste – don’t forget the cheese will be salty
Put the basil leaves, olive oil, pepper, garlic, lemon juice and half of the hazelnuts in a small food processor and blitz until everything is fairly roughly ground – you don’t want a smooth paste here. You will probably have to scrape down the sides with a spatula a couple of times. Add the cheese and blitz again. Taste and add salt if it needs it. Add the rest of the hazelnuts and pulse until you have the texture you like.
Pot in a jam jar and seal tightly or freeze in small containers. This will keep for a at least a week in the fridge if you pour some extra olive oil into the top of the jar, but stays freshest if you freeze it.