Basil, being a summery, seasonal plant, bids its annual farewell in autumn. But while you can still reap plump bouquets of this queen of herbs, now's the time to capture the aromatic flavor of fresh basil in two Mediterranean sauces: pistou and pesto.
Italian pesto sauce, once a rarity, has become quite widespread, with packaged versions appearing in all supermarkets. Even noncooks know the seductive taste of pesto, having experienced it on pasta, pizza, salads, fish, and more.
Pistou, though, is not as well known and not (as yet) premade by Contadina or other food manufacturers. Pistou is a French sauce from Provence similar to its Italian counterpart, but whereas Italian pesto always includes pine nuts and Parmesan, the basic French pistou traditionally uses only basil, olive oil, garlic and salt. However, as most every cook in France tends to add a personal touch to both new and old recipes, it's not uncommon to find pistou made with Parmesan, pine nuts, tomato, and even ham.
Soupe au Pistou, a famous soup in French cuisine, is like a Provencal version of minestrone, according to Chef Michel Richard. The soup is first ladled into bowls and the pistou added separately, thus elevating an average vegetable soup to extraordinary heights. While hot soups may seem odd in summer, this light, meatless soup is traditionally served then, to take advantage of summer's peak vegetables. But you don't need to serve it warm—the soup tastes just fine at room temperature or even cool.
Both pesto and pistou sauces are uncooked, made by mashing and blending together their raw ingredients. You can use a food processor, but purists agree that hand mashing the basil, garlic and salt in a mortar and pestle produces far superior results. In fact, the word "pesto" means "ground" in Italian, and "pistou" is a Nice dialect word meaning "pounded." Patricia Wells, author and foodwriter, also notes that hand mashing results in brighter, greener pistou.
Store pesto and pistou covered with a thin film of olive oil on top. Pistou is meant to be made and served immediately. However, both sauces will keep a few days in the refrigerator but will lose flavor as they age. For best results, freeze them immediately in tablespoon to 1/2 cup portions, depending on your intended use.
I have included traditional recipes for pistou and pesto, along with some variations. Once you start playing around with these sauces, adding them to an omelet here or steamed mussels there, you'll discover the burst of intense flavor they can add to a dish—especially in winter, when a fresh basil chiffonade or torn fresh basil leaves are simply not available. When experimenting, keep in mind that pesto, with its pungent cheese and sweet pine nuts, has thick body and texture. Basic pistou using the barest essentials of basil, garlic, olive oil and salt makes a more subtle sauce, almost like a fortified basil oil.
Now, while basil is making its last stand of the season, capture and preserve it—to enjoy on those cold wintry evenings when a little bit of summer would be most warm and welcome.
Kate's Global Kitchen for September, 2000:
9/02/00 Pistou and Pesto: Basil's Last Stand
9/09/00 Cook Your Wurst! It's Oktoberfest
9/16/00 Feeding the Olympics, Down Under
9/23/00 Eating Australian
9/30/00 Italian Meatballs, My Way
This page created September 2000
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