Stock up on Pesto

Having a well stocked pantry is one of the the most important factors in making your cooking experience fun, flavorful and rewarding. I have a number of key items that I consider my ‘go-to’ for putting together a quick meal that tastes as if it took hours to prepare. Pesto is definitely in that category.

One of the pleasures of summer is the array of wonderful basils, cilantro and other herbs that I like to use to make pesto. Of course I love it when it’s freshly made but it freezes very well too. At the end of summer, before the threat of frost, I harvest all the basil and turn it into pesto and oils to carry me through the winter months. Having a pasta dish tossed with the fresh summer flavor of basil on a cold winter night makes everything seem brighter.

I prefer a blend of herbs when making basil pesto. I use mostly basil  but I add some parsley and mint for an added nuance of flavor. Basil oxidizes easily and the parsley and mint help keep a brighter green color.

For a lower fat version, reduce the amount of olive oil. I use lemon juice and/or vegetable stock reduction to replace some of the oil. After it is in a paste consistency, then I add enough oil to get the texture I want and bring the flavors together.

For a vegan version of pesto, replace the cheese with sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds. I usually sprout the seeds first by soaking them in water for a few hours. This makes them even more nutritious.

There are a number of ‘garden harvest’ classes coming up this summer that will include making different types of pesto – sundried tomato; roasted pepper; cilantro; arugula or others. I will be posting some of the recipes on Gourmet Retreats with the newsletter.

Signs of Summer – Early Figs

All of the fruit trees at CasaLana are loaded with fruit – cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, pears, apples – but the crop that excites me the most is the abundance of figs I see.  There are two harvests of figs each year – the first , called a breba, is usually a lighter crop. It is from the growth of branches that sprouted the prior year. I first learned about this from my friend Marie Simmons when she was teaching a ‘Fig Heaven’ class at CasaLana Gourmet Retreats. With 6 fig trees on the property, it truly is a fig heaven. The figs from this ‘breba crop’ are what you will be seeing in markets very soon and they will be available for a few weeks. The second more abundant harvest is in late summer and early fall.

One of my favorite things to do with figs (besides eating them right off the tree) is to grill them and glaze with a balsamic reduction. If you love proscuitto or pancetta, you can also wrap the figs with it before you grill them. I like to use these to top a salad of just harvested baby greens tossed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The finishing touch is some crumbled blue cheese. These flavor profiles – figs, balsamic and blue cheese – have a great affinity for each other and are just meant to be together. I’ll be adding a recipe on the website soon for Grilled Figs and Balsamic Glaze. They will also be featured in many dishes we make in the hands-on classes over the summer. Maybe I’ll do another ‘Fig Heaven’ themed class in the fall. Look for the recipe and class updates at Gourmet Retreats.

I anxiously await the full harvest in late summer so I can replenish the supply of Spiced Fig Preserves and Apple-Fig Chutney that is available at CasaLana and in the on-line store Culinary Essentials.