I am not someone who can take care of plants easily. I am simply not a plant person. I get too preoccupied, or more likely too lazy, to give plants the attention they deserve. I forget to water them, I overwater them, I don’t prune them, etc. I killed a bamboo plant if that tells you anything about my skill. My mom always wants me help with gardening when I’m home until she remembers that she wants her plants to survive through the summer. I was, however, able to grow (ok I’m being generous, I kept alive already grown) basil! I decided to use it up before cold weather strikes and I am forced to try even harder to keep it alive in my kitchen versus my deck.
Basil pesto is one of my favorite things of all time. The smell of it conjures so many fantastic memories of food and people. When I was younger, one of my best friends’ moms used to grind up basil and use it for pesto every weekend just to make the house smell amazing. We would climb up from the basement after a sleepover, and I would begin to drool.
Of the components responsible for the flavor of pesto, basil is obviously the most prevalent. The underlying flavor I like to impart on pesto, however, is a saltiness and tanginess from Parmigiano Reggiano.
Parmigiano Reggiano is basically a super special yummy version of what you think of as parmesan cheese.
Cheese, as we all know, is a fermented dairy product from milk. It also happens to be one of the best foods in the world (not that I’m partial to it at all…). The basic procedure for cheese production is laid out below:
Milk is pasteurized to kill bacteria from the cow and transportation of the milk. Then, lactic acid bacteria (LAB) is added. Pasteurization also helps to ensure that there is no competition for the LAB’s growth. LAB starts to lower the pH of the milk and assists with the next step of the process, coagulation. Rennet, an enzyme from the calf’s stomach, begins the coagulation of the milk. Milk proteins have extra hair-like proteins sticking out forcing them away from each other and keeping them in suspension of the liquid. The rennet “clips” some of these hairs off of the protein, and they instantly become attracted to each other. The proteins come together (coagulate) pushing the water out and gradually form a solid.
The lowered pH, mentioned above, helps with the coagulation because at lower pH proteins come out of solution and rise to the top of the milk. This protein begins to gel and expel more liquid called whey. The curd forms as a result and is heated briefly. Heating the curd shrinks the proteins and decreases the water in the final cheese, so it is important to monitor this step carefully. Depending on the cheese, it is ripened and matured for a period of time at different temperatures.
Parmigiano Reggiano (PR) has a few things that make it special from other cheeses. First of all, it is strictly regulated to be from the Parma and Emilia-Romagna region. Secondly, there are strict quality factors that are checked during the aging process that determine whether or not the cheese is good enough to be PR.
One of the biggest difference in PR production in Italy versus cheese production in America is the value placed on experience. There are only a few employees that know the process backwards and forwards, and they only make 8-10 wheels of PR a day. There is also a specialist that understands exactly when the curd is ready. This specialist is very important to the process, and he or she completely runs the show testing the curds by touch.
The PR cheese wheels are placed in a sea salt brine for a month to dry them out and add flavor. Then, they are put in an aging room for 1-3 years to develop flavor. Aging flavors are complex and created by enzymes in the cheese that break down proteins and fats. The primary aromas in PR are very special to the cheese. They are Butyric acid and Isovaleric acid. Basically these are pretty gnarly smells that are associated with vomit and sweat. Isn’t that always the case that the most prized foods are also fundamentally gross?
Parmigiano Reggiano is fabulous, but if the flavor is too strong for you, regular parmesan (still amazing cheese) or Pecorino are both incredible substitutes and will serve the purpose of pesto well.
I use a recipe from Food Network for a classic basil pesto (substituting Parmigiano Reggiano for the Pecorino obviously). This one has a great ratio of ingredients, and it is one of my favorites. I like to add a little lemon juice to it to brighten it up.
Enjoy the basil pesto! It’s a perfect dip and is amazing with pasta. Just add a little pasta water to make a sauce that coats the noodles nicely.
I like to freeze my pesto so that I can enjoy it in the middle of the winter when my basil plant is for sure dead.