to peonies, are my favorite flower in the garden. When we first bought our
lakehouse in 2014, it was in the dead of winter, and a very cold, snowy winter
at that. When warm weather rolled around, I was delighted to see an abundance
of both peonies and hydrangeas burst forth with blooms. So delighted in fact, that
I cut bouquet after bouquet to enjoy them inside.
Not having a particularly green thumb, I don’t know if this is what caused them to produce fewer and fewer blooms each year. The peonies seemed to bounce back this year, but only one of our four hydrangea plants produced any blooms – and it was a meager two blooms at that.
I’ve asked around and done some reading, and have come to the conclusion that I should be pruning hydrangeas. I’ve read differing theories on when to prune though. I read one article here that says I should prune back the dead wood in July and no later. So, that’s what I just did this morning. Then I came across another article that says you should cut back the dead wood in early spring and no later. If that’s what I should have done, I’m probably screwed. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that next year I’ll be rewarded with at least a few of those lush, gorgeous blooms we’ve had in previous years.
While on vacation at our lakehouse this week, I visited the farmers market in Grand Haven and found a vendor selling fresh basil by the pound. It was surprising to see because it’s a little early in the summer for basil, so I was inspired to buy some to make my favorite food in the world: pasta with homemade pesto sauce.
I first tried pesto when I was a senior at MSU, at a restaurant that had just opened called Pistachios. I don’t even know what made me order it in the first place – I was a fairly picky eater and had grown up in a small, rural town where such exotic foods did not exist. Plus it was GREEN – and up to that point in my sheltered life I had only ever had red sauce on pasta. But something made me decide to give it a try, and I’ve been addicted ever since.
I can’t remember where I found my first recipe for pesto, but I’ll never forget the one from the Silver Palate cookbook. For one thing it called for walnuts which struck me as strange, because I always thought pine nuts were a vital component of pesto. But what I remember most was the text that accompanied it: “But summer is too long, basil too plentiful and pesto too good to limit oneself to a single version.” I was flabbergasted. Summer is too long??? Said no one ever! And the idea of taking an absolutely perfect recipe and substituting the stellar ingredients with such ridiculous items as arugula? Not for this girl!
Today, of course, there are a million versions of pesto that call for all sorts of nontraditional ingredients. But for me, I’ve always stuck with the same mainstays: Fresh basil, a hard Italian cheese (more on that in a moment), good-quality olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, salt and pepper. Over the years, however, I have perfected that original recipe, or I should say tweaked it to align more with my taste buds.
On the cheese matter: For
years I made pesto with freshly grated Parmesan cheese. But at a cooking
seminar I attended a few years ago, it was mentioned that Pecorino Romano is
superior for pesto sauce because of its saltiness. I gave it a try and I loved
it, so I’ve stuck with that ever since.
I also always felt that the original recipe called for way too much olive oil – a full cup – so I’ve cut way back on that. It really doesn’t affect the taste, and obviously it makes for a much less oily sauce. I’ll go through the other tiny tweaks I make in the recipe below.
As far as the variety of pasta goes, I’ve always loved pesto with long, thin noodles such as thin spaghetti, angel hair or thin linguine. And I still wouldn’t turn it down if it were offered to me! But recently I tried pesto with gemelli and that’s been my preferred variety ever since. The tight little coils are ideal for the sauce to cling to and coat. Normally I like whole wheat pasta because it has a bit of nuttiness and also because it’s a bit healthier than white. But who are we kidding? Pesto is not a health food. So if you really want to go all out, by all means, use white pasta.
Both Pecorino and gemelli can be a little hard to find, at least in the Lansing area. We recently found whole wheat gemelli in a shop near Eastern Market in Detroit. I usually pick up Pecorino at our local Italian market, and Whole Foods also carries it. I’m sure it would be much easier to find both of these ingredients at groceries in cities larger than Lansing though.
Here’s the most important component of pesto sauce: the basil. It is the star, the headliner, the CEO of pesto. According to the Silver Palate, ideally your basil should come from Genoa in Northern Italy, “bathed by salty sea air as it grows.” I’m guessing that for most of us, that would be fairly unrealistic. But the next best thing is basil that’s grown in your own garden or yard. I usually plant at least 10 to 15 basil plants and am able to get a good five or six batches from those. Another good option is to buy basil from a grower at a farmers market. If you’re left with only the basil that comes in packages in the produce section of your grocery store, I’d say take a hard pass and wait until next summer. After all, part of what makes homemade pesto sauce so special is because summer is so SHORT and basil season is so fleeting. Unless, of course, you live in Northern Italy. Facing the sea.
Homemade pesto sauce with pasta:
2 packed cups fresh basil leaves, stems removed
½ cup good-quality olive oil
2-4 cloves minced garlic, sautéed in olive oil and removed from the pan as soon as it becomes fragrant (IMPORTANT: if it burns, toss it out, wipe out the pan, and start again)
½ – ¾ cup freshly coarsely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (can substitute with Parmesan, or use a mix of both), plus extra for passing
¼ C pine nuts, lightly toasted, plus extra for topping
A pinch of crushed red pepper (optional but it gives the sauce a little kick)
Salt (pink sea salt is ideal) and freshly ground black pepper to taste
A scant teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest, plus a quick squeeze of juice (this is also optional but I feel it adds a nice zip)
1 pound of your favorite variety pasta
About a ½ cup of pasta water, taken from the pot of boiling pasta right before you drain it
Place the basil, garlic and
pine nuts in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Leave the motor running
and slowly pour in the olive oil. Turn the motor off and add the cheese and lemon
zest and process briefly. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper.
Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and plenty of kosher salt. Bring to boiling and add the pasta, cooking according to package instructions BUT remember to remove some of the water before draining! This helps thin the sauce a bit more (since we’ve cut back on the olive oil) and also helps bind the sauce to the pasta.
While the pasta is draining,
pour a little of the reserved pasta water into the processor and give it
another spin. If it still seems a bit thick, add a little more. Mix all the
sauce into the cooked pasta and toss well to coat evenly. Divide it up among
the plates and pass the reserved pine nuts and cheese. Die and go to heaven.
Makes a very generous four servings as a main dish, or six to eight if you’re serving it as a side.
Several years ago my friend Norma and I took part in a “Holiday Decorating on a Shoestring Budget” workshop at a magical place in the countryside of southwest Michigan, Southern Exposure Herb Farm. We were delighted with the experience (you can read more about it here) and finally got a chance to go back recently.
The retreat we took part in this time was the European Hanging Basket and Herbes de Provence Dinner. It was a little early in the season for many spring flowers to be appearing on the farm yet, but the place still looked enchanting and it was nice to be able to see it in the daylight.
The owner, Curtis Whitaker, remembered Norma and me (or seemed to) which we found very charming. Two other groups of ladies were at our table but they all seemed to want to converse among themselves, so Norma and I had a chance to chat and catch up (and share the carafe of white wine conveniently placed in front of us).
The food was sublime: homemade bread with herb butter, chicken stuffed with brie, a fresh green salad with artichokes and more brie, haricots verts, and the most amazing scalloped potatoes I’ve ever had. Since both of us have been trying to detox and eat clean for the past several months, the meal was beyond decadent; in fact, neither of us could finish our plates. The dinner was followed by apple pie with lavender ice cream, which Norma didn’t touch but I had to at least sample. It was absolutely amazing; I never thought I’d like lavender flavored anything but the ice cream was wonderful.
Following the dinner we were split into groups and moved to different areas of the farm where the resident experts gave us a variety of demonstrations. My favorite was the lesson on how to make the perfect mojito.
Place into a glass:
¾ – 1 oz. simple syrup
4 mint leaves (no stalks)
½ lime, quartered
Muddle the mixture and add 1.5 – 2 oz. rum and ice. Top with club soda and stir. Take a small mint bunch and give it a “slap” to release the scent; place in glass as garnish.
Finally, we ventured into the tented workspace where we put together our baskets. The baskets were already filled with the individual plants, so all we had to do was take them out of the containers and make room in the baskets for everything, then cover it all with moss to hide the soil. The baskets are filled to the brim with edible flowers, herbs and scented botanicals that are meant to be snipped and used for cooking and drinks all season long.
The baskets include:
Swiss chard – for soups and salads
Purple flowering kale – decorative; leaves can be used for salads and garnish
Viola – salads; nice as a garnish on cakes and desserts
Dianthus – ideal to accent drinks and desserts
Mojito mint – ideal for mojitos of course; also good for tea and dessert garnishes
Basil – pasta sauces, salads, chicken and other meats
Creeping rosemary – lovely with chicken, fish, potatoes, casseroles
Parsley – any food except sweets; add at the end of cooking
French tarragon – good with chicken, salad dressing, sauces
Here’s the finished basket. It needs to be hung in full sun with good ventilation, and the plants should be trimmed regularly to keep them full and healthy. I can’t wait to hang mine at the lakehouse to enjoy all summer long!
A few other tips and ideas we brought home include:
Herb butter is easy to make: make sure to use sweet cream UNSALTED butter that is at room temperature (but not runny). Mix in 8 lemon thyme leaves and 8 chopped rosemary leaves (no stems), place into a pastry bag and pipe onto baking sheet; freeze and use as needed.
Herbed brie is a simple, delicious appetizer: trim the rind off the top and sides but leave it on the bottom so it can served as a base. Sprinkle the top with chopped rosemary, basil, lemon thyme and lemon zest. Slice into small pieces and place onto individual crackers an hour or so before your guests arrive.
For the best homemade pesto, use Pecorino cheese.
Plant creeping rosemary in strawberry jars.
As the lemon thyme spreads in your basket, add soil to the tentacles (mist with a bit of water). This will help it grow. In the garden, press the tentacles of creeping herbs into the soil.
Violas are lovely as garnishes on cupcakes or muffins. Use a bit of honey to make them stick to the top.
Peonies are one of my favorite flowers, both in the garden and in a bouquet. When we first went through our lake house it was in the middle of the 2014 Deep Freeze and everything was buried in a mountain of snow, so we had no idea what the yard contained. But the wife who lived in the house was an artist and the entire house was decorated beautifully, so I was optimistic that she would have great taste in the garden as well. She did not disappoint! I was still discovering peony plants as recently as two weeks ago. Last weekend most of them were in full bloom, and I snapped a few pictures before cutting some of the blossoms for a bouquet.
There was one plant that I unfortunately did not get a picture of before its blooms had faded. It was a gorgeous peachy-coral, a color I’ve never seen in a peony before. Just one blossom was still intact so I gave it a place of honor in the middle of the bouquet.
Besides the peonies, we have several hydrangea plants (my other favorite flower), day lilies, lilies of the valley, azaleas, and lots of seagrasses. Maybe others too that I just haven’t identified yet. I’m excited to see the garden bursting forth with other flowers over the course of the summer.