In southern France, cuisine without pistou is unthinkable. The Provencal cook uses the pounded paste in pastas and atop toast, and dropped cold into a hot bowl of summer minestrone.
Pistou (meaning pounded in the Provencal dialect) is a simple blend of crushed garlic, basil, salt, and olive oil. Traditionally, it is made with mortar and pestle, hand ground into a thick, creamy, pungent paste and set on the table in the very same bowl.
With the basil in my garden struggling to reach sunlight below the shade of the looming squash, I picked the final leaves today and declared a gourd victory. The thin, pointed herb leaves wouldn't last long off the stalk, and so I pulled out our large, wooden mortar and dusty pestle and wiped them down for a morning's use.
First the garlic crushed beneath the heavy sticks' weight, releasing its pungent flavor and absorbing that of the smoky salt I sprinkled in. Next went several drops of olive oil and a handful of basil leaves, slowly blended by hand into the white allium paste. Leaf by leaf, drop by drop, the paste doubled in volume, and then tripled. By half hour's end, almost a cup graced the bowl. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of fresh herb and bulb, and an aching arm accompanied me to table as I sat down to a slice of toast spread with pistou.
While the season will offer plenty more basil and a milleau of garlic, the rest of this batch is now tucked into the freezer, hidden away for safe keeping and topping off a warm winter stew.
Makes almost 1 cup
With a food processor or mortar and pestle, crush the cloves of one head garlic and 1 teaspoon salt into a thick white paste. Slowly, add 1 cup basil leaf by leaf and 4-5 tablespoons olive oil little by little, mixing as you go until all is added and the pistou is a thick paste. Serve spread on toast, atop a minestrone stew, or on pasta. Freezes well.