Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme… and all sorts of basil, oregano, varieties of mint, lavender and if you plant early enough, maybe even cilantro, too. How does your garden grow this Spring? For me, herbs are the start and now is the time to plant. Local farmers markets and farm stands and garden shops are full of seed packs and seedlings ready to transplant. Then, after the planting and the watering is done, pinch bag the tops of your newly planted herbs and treat yourself to a quick and easy batch of homemade pesto to toss on your pasta, use in a salad dressing, as a marinade or as a great little starter spread a top a slice of french bread, topped with fresh locally grown tomato and a slice of mozzarella cheese.
When we moved into our home 15 years ago this month. We were in the process of planning a destination wedding just weeks after we’d unpacked. No time to dig a garden in my new backyard, so I planted herbs in containers and its been that way ever since. This is me about a month ago, in the photo above, planting the first few pots of this year’s kitchen garden basil harvest. I love being able to walk into the back yard and pick a pinch of this and a sprig of that to use in nearly every dish or cocktail we will enjoy through the summer months. If you haven’t planted yet, it’s time to get your garden going.
Start with Basil, So You Can Make Pesto
Fresh basil is a great way to start your herb garden. You’ll find all sorts of varieties from the classic Genovese Basil shown here, to Thai basil ( also in my garden this year), to chocolate, mint, and pineapple basil, too.
For me the best place to buy is at a farmers market. Note: this link goes to my 2020 list of area markets; while the COVID restrictions noted in the piece have relaxed a bit, the info on the markets has pretty much remained the same. I’ll be updating with a 2021 list in the next week.
A farmer at any market in town is going to sell you the same plants and seedlings he or she has planted. Because local farmers won’t steer you wrong, you can rest assured that know these are good healthy plants that will do well in your garden. All of them are fun to have around.
This year, I’ve bought basil and more this year at the Matthews Market from Big Oaks Natural Farm and from Hot Pepper Herb Farm; at the Charlotte Regional Market from Celtic Frost Herbs; and at the Uptown Farmers Market from Seven Sisters Farm. Go see them all and #TellThemHeidiSentYou
Cooking with Fresh Herbs on TV
This morning May 19, 2021 sometime between 11-11:30 am, I’ll be doing a cooking segment on WCNC’s Charlotte Today in Charlotte. We zoomed the segment from my home kitchen to the TV studio a couple of weeks ago.
The recipe for today? Pesto. If you miss the segment, I’ll add the link to it on these pages as soon as it goes up on the Charlotte Today site. you could also go to WCNC.com/Charlotte Today and live stream the segment on your phone, laptop or PC, if you are not nearly a telly.
Perfect Pesto Every Time
Here is what I love about making pesto. It’s an incredible versatile recipe. Thicker pestos work better as spreads or toppings and thinner pestos are best used as sauces on pasta and risotto or as a “dressing” for roasted potato salad or chicken salad. Thinner pestos simply require more oil. Thin out your pesto a lot by blending in a lot more EVOO and you’ll have a delicious pesto oil to drizzle over and around anything your heart desires.
If you want a creamier version of the same, get yourself a bottle of this wonderful local GotToBeNC Feta Salad Dressing from my friends in Asheville,NC at VegetableKingdom.com ( you can order directly from them online.)
Simply blend equal parts pesto and salad dressing and drizzle over grilled fish, mixed greens, or us use as a dipping sauce for wings.
In the photo you will also see a bottle of another of my favorite local products: Olive Crate’s Kores Estate Olive Oil. This is a current harvest, ultra Premium Greek Olive Oil with NC roots. Read more about Olive Crate here. And then order from them online at OliveCrate.com or go see them in person at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, building B. You can also buy the Kores Estate EVOO and Olive Crate’s delicious line of organic balsamic vinegars at Coddle Creek Farms Farm Store in Mooresville, NC.
Heidi’s Classic Pesto Genovese
Those of you who make pesto on a regular basis may notice that my recipe has no garlic. That is because without the garlic, I have found you can really taste to full flavor of the delicate herbs – Enjoy!
1 packed cup fresh Italian basil leaves ( or a mix of basil and fresh mint)
½-3/4 cup of pine nuts or pignola ( or use almonds instead)
1 cup fresh shredded Parmesan cheese
½-3/4 cup Kores Estate extra virgin olive oil
Combine the basil, and pine nuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until the basil and the nuts are both finely chopped. Add in the shredded cheese. With the machine running, drizzle the olive oil through the feed tube until the pesto reaches your desired consistency.
A recipe is just a blueprint
Feel free to play around substituting nuts and herbs for lots of different flavor profiles. Start with these Pesto variations and then, let your imagination be your guide.
In another week or so, I’m going to write about another delicious oil, North Carolina grown, pressed and bottled, Carolina Gold Oil, made from Sunflowers grown in Eastern NC. The roasty, toasty taste of the Carolina Gold Oil would be a delicious addition to any of these variations. Substitute it for the EVOO in equal proportions.
Basil Pistachio Pesto: Substitute pistachios for the pine nuts for a slightly stronger but exceptional flavor profile.
Mint pesto: Substitute mint leaves for basil and almonds for pine nuts. Served with grilled lamb chops
Sage pesto: Substitute sage leaves for basil and cashews or pecans for pine nuts. Served with grilled or roasted turkey or chicken.
Sun-dried tomato pesto: Add ¼ cup of oil-soaked and drained sun-dried tomatoes to original recipe. Great on pastas or smeared on hot toasted bread.
Once you have your favorite pesto recipe down, start adding in other things to create delicious recipes, This time of year, when we are just starting to see green tomatoes at area markets, this recipe is a must serve.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES WITH BLACK OLIVE AND ARTICHOKE PESTO
FOR THE PESTO:
2 cups whole pitted black olives, drained
1 cup pine nuts
1 ½ cups Parmesan or Romano cheese
2 cloves garlic, minced ( or not – I often omit the garlic)
1 cup marinated artichoke hearts
2-3 Tbsp. fresh basil leaves
Dash or two of fresh cracked pepper
¼ -1/2 cup Kores Estate EVOO
FOR THE TOMATOES:
3-4 green tomatoes – (ripe but firm tomatoes work well, too!)
2-3 local eggs, beaten well
Canola Oil for frying
Make the pesto by combining all of the ingredients except the olive oil in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to chop fine. Drizzle olive oil through the feed tube with the machine running until the mixture has formed a smooth paste. Taste for seasoning. Refrigerate until needed.
For the tomatoes: Slice the tomatoes into thick slices. Dip each slice first in flour then in beaten egg and finally in the Panko crumbs. Allow the coated tomatoes to rest on a wire rack for a minute or two.
Heat the oil in a shallow frying pan using the “wooden spoon” test method.* When the oil is hot, add the tomatoes taking care not to over-crowd the pan. Fry on both sides until nicely browned. Drain on several thicknesses of paper towels and serve topped with the black olive pesto and garnished with a basil leaf.
*Heidi’s Wooden Spoon hot oil test – When heating oils in a pan for frying, place a clean dry wooden spoon or spatula in the oil as it heats. When little bubbles start to from around the edge of the wood it is your indication that the oil is hot enough to fry the food.
This is an important test because if you put cold food into cold oil and allow them to heat up together, the food will only absorb the oil and take on a greasy texture.
While pesto is a fabulous condiment, it is equally as delicious when you use it as a marinade…
Heidi Billotto’s Steak and Salmon Pesto Fiorentina
1 cup fresh homemade pesto ( for this recipe I like using a combo of mint and basil with pistachios
1 (2 1/2 pound) porterhouse steak or wild salmon filet
Sea Salt and pepper
2 juicy lemons, cut into wedges
Make your pesto with more oil than usual, so that it is very spreadable. Season the steak and the salmon to taste with salt and pepper. Rub half of a recipe of the pesto over the seasoned a fillet of wild salmon; use the other half for the beef
Place the steak on a preheated hot grill, and cook until a dark, golden brown (not burnt) crust forms, 5 to 10 minutes depending on thickness of meat. Turn over, and continue cooking until golden on the other side, 5 to 10 minutes more. Slice off the bone for serving to a group of 4.
The salmon will cook in approximately half the time of the beef – cook for 10 minutes per inch of thickness on the fillet, flipping once halfway during the total cooking time. Cut the fillet into portion sized servings, garnish with the lemon wedges and enjoy!
You can drink your basil, too!
This next recipe has nothing to do with pesto; but if you have fresh basil in the garden it is one you will want to try. And the recipe uses two more favorite local products. Gebhardt Farms Maple syrup is REAL Vermont Maple syrup with a NC footprint. Read more here.
And, Muddy River is one of my favorite rums and is North Carolina’s first rum, since prohibition ended. It comes in several varieties and none of them disappoint. You can read and hear more about Muddy River, and several other of my favorite ways to drink local, here.
Italian Basil Muddy River Mojito
What you’ll need for two drinks:
4-6 large fresh basil leaves
Juice of one fresh lime
4 Tbsp. Gebhardt Farms Maple Syrup
A jigger of Muddy River Basil rum (that’s 1 1/2 fluid ounces), or more to taste
1/2 cup sparkling water
Muddle the juice of a half lime juice and 2-3 basil leaves in the bottom of each glass. Add 2 Tbsp. of Simple Syrup. Fill the glass almost to the top with ice. Pour the rum over the ice and stir to blend. Top the glass with sparkling water. Garnish with the lime wedge and an additional spring of basil