I don’t know.
Maybe it’s watching the lush-tailed grey squirrels stashing hickory nuts all over the garden. Could be the shivery mornings, when the temperature’s in the forties. Or possibly it’s my dreamy infatuation with Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco.
But right now I’m putting up all sorts of tasty things in my own larder for the chilly days of winter. This week I’ve had to face facts about the garden. Summer lasted a month or two longer than usual and we’re in a severe drought: naturally, outside watering has been restricted. So it’s goodbye to the basil, the flat leaf parsley, the tomatoes and the jalapeno bushes, which have flopped over onto the ground anyway.
One way to preserve these summery flavors is to whip up a few pestos or herb and spice blends and freeze them for wintry suppers. In “The Urban Farmer’s Autumn Ritual,” (The New York Times, Dining In, Wednesday October 10, 2007, p. D3), Melissa Clark sings the praises of classic Italian pesto: “…few things brighten up a dreary winter’s evening more than the grassy summer scent of basil and garlic emanating from a bowl of steaming hot pasta.” Clark’s recipe for Last of the Summer Pesto, made in the blender or food processor, is a good one, and I especially like her suggestion that it freezes better without the cheese. You can add grated Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino right before you toss the pesto with pasta or whisk it into a vegetable soup.
Yesterday, when I made a big batch of my own pesto, I used most of the basil in the garden, including Genovese, Purple Leaf and Thai, which gave it a wonderfully spicy flavor that stood up to the garlic. (I adore garlic, but find that too much can overwhelm the taste of the herbs.) To let the basil shine through, I also chose a mild, fruity extra virgin olive oil that didn’t have the peppery kick of so many other Italian extra virgin olive oils.
Of all the summery seasonings I made yesterday, I especially love two. The first is a slow-roasted Moroccan-flavored tomato paste with preserved lemon, cinnamon and white pepper. It is absolutely fabulous, if I say so myself. I began with slow-roasted tomatoes, which I make every four or five weeks, basically whenever I see particularly delicious-looking ripe plum tomatoes in the market. Simply cut them in half, toss them in a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and a little sugar and roast in a 325 degree oven for a couple of hours. The kitchen smells heavenly while they’re cooking, but to save time you could also buy slow-roasted tomatoes at Whole Foods or any other well-stocked shop that sells prepared foods.
To a batch of roasted tomatoes, I added another staple of my own larder, that is, the refrigerated part: preserved lemons. These you can also buy, but as B and I love tagines, I much prefer to make my own using organic lemons and Paula Wolfert’s easy recipe in World of Food. Later this fall, this spicy tomato and preserved lemon paste will make a delicious condiment for braised lamb shanks and for smoky pork tenderloins or chops grilled outside.
The other blend that really sings is a pesto of parsley, walnuts, and garlic, brightened with freshly grated lemon zest. It’s as fresh and citrusy as gremolata, but with the added richness of nuts and olive oil. You could use this like regular pesto, tossing it with pasta and cheese, or stirring a generous dollop into soup. But it would also be delicious with boiled or braised beef. Tonight I’m going to try it with broiled fish.
The best way to preserve these memories of summer is to freeze them in 1/2 cup plastic containers. Rubbermaid, Glad and Ziploc all make tight-sealing plastic pots—Rubbermaid pots have to be “burped” to remove excess air– that can go into the freezer (or microwave). They hold just the right amount for supper and, though you could probably use them a second time, are basically disposable. I use a Sharpie permanent marker to label each one with contents and date.
Just one problem: having enough left over to freeze. I ate half of each standing up in the kitchen.
Slow-Roasted Tomatoes with Preserved Lemon, Cinnamon and White Pepper
Makes approximately one cup
1-3/4 cups slow-roasted tomatoes (see note)
2 tablespoons finely chopped preserved lemon peel (see note)
5 to 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon (see note)
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
2 medium cloves garlic, chopped
Salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients, including 5 tablespoons of olive oil, in a food processor and blend until fairly smooth. Taste and add a little more olive oil if necessary. Correct seasonings as desired. Decant into 2 1/2-cup plastic containers and freeze.
Note: Buy slow roasted tomatoes at your local Whole Foods or other shops that sell prepared foods. To make them yourself, buy 3 pounds of ripe plum tomatoes. Cut them half and toss with a little olive oil. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and arrange the tomato halves in close rows. Sprinkle with a little salt and a bit of sugar. Roast them in a 325 degree oven for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. For this pesto, don’t let them blacken around the edges. Remove them when they are still a bit plump and just beginning to brown.
Order preserved lemon peel from kalustyans.com or make it yourself, using Paula Wolfert’s recipe: Cut two large lemons into 8 wedges. Toss with 1/3 cup kosher salt and place in a 1/2 pint glass jar with a non-metallic lid. Pour in 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice. Close jar and let lemons ripen for 7 days at room temperature, shaking the jar each day to distribute the salt and lemon juice. Add olive oil to cover and refrigerate for up to six months.
Soft, lemony Ceylon cinnamon is available from penzeys.com. If you are using ordinary stronger-tasting “cinnamon” (actually cassia), start with 1/4 teaspoon and add more if desired.
Italian Parsley and Walnut Pesto with Lemon Zest and Garlic
Makes approximately one cup pesto
1/2 cup unsalted walnut halves or pieces
2 cups chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
2 small cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. In a dry cast iron frying pan, lightly toast the walnut over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes, until they just begin to brown. Remove from heat and let cool slightly in a bowl.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until the pesto is smooth, but still has plenty of texture.
3. Decant into two 1/2-cup plastic pots and freeze.
Classic Italian Pesto
(adapted from Melissa Clark in The New York Times)
Makes about 1 cup pesto
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoons pine nuts
6 cups assorted basil leaves (Genovese, bush, purple, Thai, lemon—whatever is available)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1. In a dry cast iron frying pan, lightly toast the pine nuts over a medium flame until they are golden brown all over, about 3 minutes. Pour into a bowl and let cool slightly.
2. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until smooth. Decant into 2 1/2 cup plastic containers and freeze.
3. Defrost before using and add grated Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino cheese before tossing with pasta.