Basil is an herb commonly used in Mediterranean cooking, however it is not necessarily an herb that is native to a Mediterranean Climate. There is a distinction that needs to be made in this regard. The region known as the Mediterranean specifically refers to the land masses that border the Mediterranean Sea, in particular the northern boundary of the Sea, which includes: France, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and several small islands. Our postings this month will refer to herbs that have developed in a Mediterranean Climate, which is characterized by hot, dry summers and short, cool winters. Although the region known as the Mediterranean is also part of a Mediterranean Climate, it is not the only global location where this climate type if found. In general, Mediterranean Climates develop on the western edges of continents because of high pressure climactic conditions. Plants that develop in these regions commonly share the characteristics described in our previous posting: they require very little water, thrive in somewhat arid conditions, and are able to withstand temperature extremes. Thus, plants that are characterized as Mediterranean Herbs did not necessarily develop in the geographic region known as the Mediterranean, but rather, they are native to the global Mediterranean Climate zones (see picture below for geographic locations).
Basil originated from India and Southeast Asia and some contend parts of Iran. The Tropic of Cancer, the geographic line which approximates the demarcation of tropic from sub-tropic regions in the Northern Hemisphere, passes through India. Although there are several climate zones and micro-climates in India, it receives a higher average rainfall than most Mediterranean Climates (see Monsoonal climates) and is largely tropical. Similarly, Asian varieties of basil, such as Thai Basil developed in the Southeast Asia, which is predominantly composed of tropical climates.
Basil was imported to the Mediterranean Region during the spice trades; some estimate that it made its way to Southern France in the 15th century. The Italians began to cultivate their own species of basil, like Genovese and Sweet basil, for culinary and medicinal applications. After several centuries of cultivation in the Mediterranean, there are now species of basil the grow abundantly in the wild. So technically, there are some species of basil that have evolved and adapted over time to grow natively in a Mediterranean Climate. However, the type of basil that you would normally purchase at at your local garden store such as Sweet or Thai basil will require more water than a typical Mediterranean plant and they are also susceptible to cold weather. But you never know…I’ve planted Genovese and Sweet Basil in the Inland Empire and given them very little water and they have thrived. Go figure.
Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for…the Pesto recipe. Regardless of basil’s characterization as a Mediterranean or non-Mediterranean Herb, we can all agree that its influence on the culinary culture of the Mediterranean Region (let alone the world) has been significant. Anybody who has tried some of grandma’s homemade marinara sauce or finished their plate of pesto pasta longing for seconds knows that basil is a fantastic cooking herb. I’ve checked out a couple of Pesto recipes online and I’ve decided to combine some of the better features of them with my own recipe. So here it is without further ado…
1 Large Handful of Sweet Basil (you can use Genovese Basil as well)
1/4 cup of toasted walnuts (you can use pine nuts too, but walnuts have a higher fat content and they’re yummy)
1/3 cup of freshly shaved parmesan cheese
3 cloves of fresh garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (add this at the end)
-The key is to hand chop people. I know the fancy gadgetry of the modern age has made us lazy, but I promise you that the twenty minutes or so that it takes to chop everything will be worth it. Some people say that you need a special knife to do this, but I just find the biggest, sharpest blade in my drawer and go to town. The process of chopping is going to allow the essential oils of the basil, walnuts, and parmesan to erupt into an intense flavor cornucopia.
-Chop everything into small pieces, but not too fine because you want to be able to taste the individual ingredients.
-Add all of your chopped ingredients to a mixing bowl and gradually and SLOWLY pour in some extra virgin olive oil. As you pour the oil make sure to stir the mixture quickly to ensure that the small pieces suspend themselves in the oil. Remember: SLOW pour, QUICK stir.
-Now for the final tidbit of advice: try to time this process to finish at the same time that your pasta is finished cooking. Adding that highly aromatic mixture with its fresh oils to hot pasta will seal in the flavor of your mixture. Angel hair or spaghetti pastas both work well with pesto, but pesto makes anything taste great, so experiment and see what tickles your taste buds.