Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fast food

Three times a week, I work late, usually not arriving home before 6:30 pm. As the primary cook in the house, my energy level usually determines dinner. If I am willing to cook, we eat at home. Otherwise we go out. My husband does not enjoy cooking and, if left in charge of dinner will opt for purchasing it, unless I leave specific and easy instructions on reheating something I've already made. This used to be less of a dilemma for us - but with a young child, eating out is not relaxing. If he is is tired and hungry, it usually ends up requiring more energy to wrangle him at a restaurant than it would have to chop up some stuff to stir-fry.

My transition to being parent as well as a cook has transformed my approach to dinner. I used to never make the same thing twice, working my way through a new recipe almost every night. If it took two hours, it didn't matter -- my husband could eat something to tide him over. But I get home now to a tired toddler who wants me to pay attention to him and not a cutting board. And I am learning that a repertoire of meals that we eat on a regular basis is very comforting to a toddler's mind...and perhaps to adults as well. But I cannot bring myself to use garish 30-minute meal suggestions that involve dumping several highly processed foods into a pot and stirring. I still want to cook from scratch, and cook my food: slow, healthy, tasty and based on my garden products, or seasonal vegetables. The freezer is my best source of fast food. Cooking ahead and freezing pizza sauce, bolognese sauce and pesto has given me three reliable meals that I can always fall back on. I've learned too that I can keep pizza dough "rising" in the fridge for a few days with no ill-effect; indeed a baker might say I am developing flavor by retarding the rising. Pesto is the most efficient: a frozen half cup of the stuff can be quickly thawed, beaten with some butter and cheese, and on the table in the time it takes to boil pasta.

Pesto is often rolled out in cooking magazines in August as a garden-based sauce for every home cook to try. It has gone from highly trendy to cliche in the fancier food circles, but it still tastes good. Pesto is also quite sturdy and freezes beautifully. Food history is always of dubious reliability, but I like to think of the oft repeated anecdote of the Genovese soldiers who went into battle with a pot of the stuff in their bags. I like pesto more in the late fall and winter -- a memory of my summer garden, of basil plants composted long ago. There are myriad recipes, but the idea is simple: basil leaves, olive oil, salt, and garlic. Pignoli or walnuts optional. If you want to break out the mortar and pestle, all power to you, but I really can't taste the difference. If, like me, you are making 12 cups in a single day, the Cuisinart is a far better choice. I use Marcella Hazan's recipe, and she instructs to stop here if you are freezing. When you are ready to use it, add some butter and cheese: she prefers a mix of parmagianno and romano. Make a lot. Everyone likes it. Everyone takes seconds.

As for the type of basil, I generally use the big leafed sweet basil that every nursery sells. The plants grow like trees by late August, and I can get three big batches of pesto in a good season. I have not been successful growing basil from seed here in Chicago. By the time the plants get up and running, even if I have started early indoors, the season is almost over. Thai basil doesn't work -- too much licorice taste; better to use it whole in stir fries. I read in a cooking magazine that Genovese pesto tastes better because those folks use the small leafed Genovese basil variety. The writer said the small leaves give more concentrated flavor. I grew two of those plants this season, and the only difference was that it was a much more tedious task to strip the leaves off the stems. Maybe the superiority of the Genovese pesto has more to do with terroir than with the exact type of basil they use.

Finally, pesto from basil grown in the garden is cheap. I have served it to friends who think of it as a luxury item, since to make pesto from Jewel Osco would require 15 dollars worth of their sorry, wilted and overpriced leaves. Of course, there is a price for the pignoli and the Italian cheeses, but it is spread out over 3 months worth of meals, and is cheaper than one night out at a restaurant.

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