Pesto: Basil and Beyond

— by Ethel G. Hofman

Say pesto — think basil. Basil is the main ingredient in the classic Italian savory mixture. Press one of the green, buttery leaves between your fingers and you’ll be hit with a burst of perfume somewhere between licorice, mint and cloves.

Traditionally, pesto is a pounded paste of basil, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese. The origin is vague but some 17th century letters found in the archives of Genoa mention a basil based dressing called battuto d’aglio, literally battered garlic. The ancient method used a mortar and pestle to crush the ingredients into a coarse, pungent paste. By 21st century standards, the food processor makes short work of grinding the ingredients.

Four recipes after the jump.
Stroll along Genoa streets and you’ll see little pots of basil on every balcony. Sweet basil is the most widely used but there are more than 60 varieties all of which differ slightly in appearance and taste. Varieties such as lemon basil, anise and cinnamon basil, all subtly reflect the flavors in their name. If you’re a gardener, it’s likely that basil is one of your favorite and most versatile herbs.

Today, the aromatic paste is definitely mainstream. Just one heaping spoonful packs a powerful punch to every savory dish from soups to pasta. Gather handfuls from your garden or buy from the market to fix a batch at home and pesto is inexpensive. Buy it from the store, and a small container, less than 8 ounces, may cost more than $4. To store basil, wrap loosely in a damp paper towel and refrigerate in the vegetable bin up to four days or spoon into small airtight containers and freeze.

While not strictly authentic, pesto may also be prepared as a pareve variety. When basil is expensive use a mixture of green herbs. My late Aunt Hanni described making it “with anything green.” A pareve pesto may be a mixture of green onions, spinach, dill, and lots of parsley. Extra virgin olive oil, a hint of mayonnaise, and kosher or sea salt to season compensates for parmesan cheese. The result is a tongue-tingling, refreshing blend.    

The pesto recipes below may be refrigerated up to 5 days or pack in a small, tight-lidded container and freeze. Thaw or defrost it in a microwave before using.

Classic Pesto (dairy)

makes about 1 1/2 cups

  • 3 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts
  • 2 large cloves garlic, cut up or 1 1/2 teaspoons prepared chopped garlic
  • about 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  1. Place the basil leaves, cheese, pine nuts and garlic in the food processor. Process just until leaves and nuts are coarsely chopped.
  2. Pour in enough olive oil to make a thick mixture. Do not process until smooth. It should not have a baby-food consistency.
  3. Use at room temperature.  

Pareve “Pesto”

makes about 1 1/4 cups

You should have 3 cups total of assorted greens, excluding the green onions. Change amounts as desired or available.

  • 2 small green onions, sliced
  • 1/4 cup walnut pieces
  • 1 cup parsley sprigs
  • 2 cups baby spinach leaves, packed
  • 1 cup dill fronds, packed
  • 1 dill pickle, cut up
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon light mayonnaise
  • kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  1. In the food processor, place the green onions and walnuts. Process for 6 seconds.
  2. Add the parsley, spinach, dill and pickle. Process until coarsely chopped.
  3. Add the olive oil, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Process until leaves are finely chopped.
  4. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  5. Refrigerate until needed.

Sun-dried Tomato Pesto (dairy)

makes about 1 1/4 cups

  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 cups basil leaves, packed
  • 2 tablespoons cilantro sprigs
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup walnuts
  • about 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  1. Soften tomatoes by placing in a small saucepan with 1/2 cup vegetable broth. Cover.
    Bring to boil over medium high heat. Let stand for 15 minutes. Drain well. Pat dry with paper towels.  
  2. Place in food processor with the basil leaves, cilantro, garlic, cheese and walnuts. Process coarsely.
  3. Pour in enough olive oil to moisten. Process until mixture is fairly smooth.
  4. Use at room temperature.

Pesto Parmesan Cheesecake (dairy)

serves 10-12 as appetizer

  • 2 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
  • 16 ounces low fat cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup part skim ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika pepper
  • 1/3 cup classic pesto
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  1. Preheat oven to 325F.
  2. Line the bottom of a 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper.
  3. Spray bottom and sides with non-stick cooking spray.
  4. In a small bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese. Coat springform pan with mixture. Set aside.
  5. In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, ricotta cheese, remaining 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, salt and cayenne pepper.
  6. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Correct seasoning with a little more salt if desired.
  7. Transfer half the mixture into another bowl. Whisk the paprika into the cheese mixture in one bowl.
  8. Fold the pesto into mixture in the second bowl. Pour the pesto-cheese mixture into the prepared springform pan. Carefully spoon the paprika-cheese mixture over. Sprinkle with the pine nuts.
  9. Bake in preheated oven for 1 1/4 hours or until the center is firm. Place on a wire rack to cool completely.
  10. Run a knife around sides to loosen. Release springform clasp to remove. May be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated overnight.
  11. Serve on a platter with crackers or sliced cucumbers.

© Ethel G. Hofman 2013

Sojourn through Pecan Country

— by Ethel G. Hofman

I’ve always associated the state of Georgia with the best peaches — sweet and juicy, fresh picked from local orchards. But on our annual trip to South Florida, we decided to break the 1000 mile trip at a hotel south of Savannah, Georgia where we could be sure, Sally, our little Sheltie would be welcome. At this time of year, it’s not peaches but pecans that are the star harvest.  Georgia is the leading pecan producing state in the United States with the nut harvest  around mid-October. Billboards along the roadside advertised pecans in all their colorful glory.  In stores, gas stations, and roadside stands, packages of  pecans were being sold. Candied, chocolate covered, peppered with a bite, pecans were found in everything from baked goods (the famous pecan pie) candy, ice cream to a host of other treats.

Four pecan-oriented recipes follow after the jump.
Wild pecans were a delicacy to the Colonists but the commercially grown in the US did not begin until the 1880’s. Today the United States produces between 80-95% of the world’s pecans from more than 10 million trees. Modern orchards with plantings of scientifically improved pecan varieties now yield what are called “paper shell” pecans, so called because the nuts are easy to crack and shell.  Pecan trees may live and  produce edible seeds for more than 300 years.   Pecan producing companies use the latest technology to shell, sort and perform laboratory tests to ensure quality before the nuts are distributed to food manufacturers.  The South Georgia Pecan Company,  alleged to be the only pecan grinding plant in the world, grinds the shells and sells it to plywood and furniture manufacturers. The manufacturers mix the pecan shell flour with resin to create a product that looks like real wood.

I didn’t succumb to buying a pecan pie. Instead, we bought several pounds which I’ve  already transformed into pies, crunchy toffee and chocolate dipped pecans. The rest was packed into sturdy plastic bags and are now in my freezer (as with most other nuts, pecans freeze well.)

Below are some of my favorite recipes.  Use a frozen pie shell, and the Citrus Scented Pecan Pie is ready for the oven in minutes. Freezes well if you want to make it ahead.

Citrus Scented Pecan Pie (dairy)

serves: 8-10

  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar, lightly packed
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted  
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange peel
  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 350F.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the corn syrup,brown sugar, butter, eggs, orange and lemon juices and peel.  Fold in the pecans and chocolate chips. Pour into the pie crust. Bake in preheated oven 40 to 45 minutes or until center is still wobbly.  Cool on a wire rack and serve at room temperature.

One Bowl Pecan Crusted Kugel (pareve)

serves: 8-10

  • 1/2 pound medium noodles, cooked and drained
  • 1 cup non-dairy creamer
  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup raisins
  • 2 tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 6 tablespoons margarine, melted, divided
  • 1/3 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch square baking dish with non-stick vegetable spray.
In a large bowl, mix the noodles, non-dairy creamer, eggs, sugar, raisins, ginger, lemon juice and about 4 tablespoons melted margarine.  Pour into the prepared baking dish. Scatter the pecans over and drizzle with remaining margarine. Bake in preheated oven 50-60 minutes or until golden, crusty and almost firm in center. Serve warm.  

Easiest Pecan Tassies (dairy or pareve)

makes 15

Miniature filo tartlets, (found in supermarket freezer cases)  make this quick and easy. Just mix a filling, spoon into the tartlets and bake.

  • 1 package (15 each) filo tartlet shells
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Place the tartlets on a baking sheet. Set aside.

Prepare filling: In a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.  Spoon, dividing equally, into the tartlets.  Bake in preheated oven 10-15 minutes or until filling is almost set, but still wet in center.  Cool completely on a wire rack.

Zesty Chili Pecans (pareve)
makes 2 cups

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 cups pecan halves
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 275F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a small bowl, combine the chili powder, pepper, paprika, brown sugar, and garlic powder
Place the pecans in a larger bowl and toss with the hot sauce to coat. Sprinkle the spice mixture over and toss.  Spread the tossed nuts on a baking sheet in one layer. Bake, tossing every 10 minutes, until golden brown and fragrant, about 35 minutes.  Remove from oven, sprinkle with the salt and toss.  Remove to a shallow dish to cool completely at room temperature.  Store and refrigerate in an airtight container up to 2 weeks.

© Ethel G. Hofman 2013

Judaism 101 for ME

Medical Examiners (ME's) and Coroners are charged by the state to determine cause of death. In the case of an accident, sudden death, homicide or suicide, the resulting investigation can lead to conflict between secular practice and Jewish law (halacha) or tradition (minhag).

In order to help Medical Examiners navigate these issues and sensitize them to the concerns of Jewish mourners, Dr. Norman Goodman, Jeffrey Goodman, Esq. and Walter I. Hofman, M.D. have published a primer on Jewish practices Autopsy: Traditional Jewish Law and Customs “Halacha” in the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Norman Goodman is the former Chester County Chief Deputy Coroner and Walter Hofman is the Montgomery County Coroner so they both have a great deal of experience in this domain.

Chester County Chief Deputy Coroner Dr. Norman Goodman
Traditional Jewish law encourages a speedy burial and respect for the corpse, keeping it intact and covered while while members of the Jewish burial society respectfully prepare and sit with it to ensure respectful treatment in honor of the deceased. There are important exceptions. For example,

  • “burial can be delayed for the sake of honoring the dead, to procure a coffin [by tradition a simple pine box], … or to await” the speaker who will deliver the eulogy,
  • burial can be delayed to identify the deceased,
  • autopsy are allowed if this may save a life, for example to discover death related to a genetic condition.

The authors review how deaths are investigated in the modern State of Israel and give advisory guidelines for autopsies of observant Jews in the United States.

In many cases, new technologies allow the Medical Examiner to obtain the necessary information through minimally invasive procedures.

  • Virtospy: Computed Tomography (CT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans now allow coroners to study a detailed 3-dimensional computer model of the decedant.
  • Laparoscopy and Thoracoscopy allow the coroner to examine internal organs through small openings in the body.

For specific situations in your personal life, be sure to consult your rabbi for directly pertinent information and assistance that can be brought to bear through rabbinic training, authority and relations with local law enforcement officials.