Let me start with the essential fact: Pistou is seriously good stuff. Made in minutes, from very few (and entirely raw) ingredients, it turns a vegetable soup transcendent, transforms pasta from simple to sublime, and, perhaps less conventionally but no less successfully, it works wonders with certain seafood.
The problem is, unlike in the case of its far more famous (and near-mystical-when-done-properly) cousin, pesto, there seems to be no clear agreement on what actually constitutes a true pistou. Or, at least that is what is to be gleaned from a quick perusal of my personal collection of cook books. In the case of pesto, one need go no further than Marcella Hazan (Essentials of Italian Cooking). OK, sure, the exact proportions may be a bit different in your favorite version, but how exact is a “cup of loosely packed basil”, or “2-4 plump garlic cloves”? My point is, there is broad agreement amongst serious cooks (or at least the subset of those whose cookbooks I both possess and have bothered to read) as to what constitutes pesto, but the same cannot be said for pistou. To wit:
- Julia Child, in her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, suggests a relatively small proportion of basil, a relatively large proportion of tomato, and the more-or-less-usual quantities of olive oil and garlic. And – this being, in my opinion, the critical point – Julia includes grated cheese (Italian cheese, in point of fact – fascinating to the point of uniqueness, in classical French cooking). But, look: No butter. So this isn’t quite pesto, after all.
- In Mireille Johnston‘s really good, if overlooked, small tome on Provencal cooking, The Cuisine of the Sun, we find basil, garlic, olive oil, and, again, grated Parmigiano – but here the proportions are distinctly pesto-like, with something like 5-10 times the amount of basil Ms Child would have me use (and a bit more garlic than most Italians would use).
- Patricia Wells, in her consistently excellent At Home in Provence, provides a very similar recipe to Ms Johnston, with pesto-like proportions, but – critically – no cheese.
- Finding such inconsistencies, and lacking the motivation, resources, and language schools to track down primary historical sources, I went to Gastronomique, which provides (perhaps unsurprisingly, given their shared French provenance) very similar guidelines to Ms Child. However, and importantly I think, Larousse emphasizes that the base condiment is a simple paste of garlic, basil, and olive oil, but that tomatoes and cheese may sometimes be added.
One may fairly ask, “So what?” Because, while I’m not quiet a zealot about it, I generally count myself amongst the Italian school of “no dairy with seafood”, and wild salmon was on our menu recently (a terrific not-so-classic combination, this garlicky concoction with wild salmon – for example, like this or this). So where I come out is this: If you’re going to serve pistou with seafood – and it can be truly exceptional with sea bass, crab, salmon, langoustine, and perhaps most of all, rouget or red mullet – then follow Ms Wells, use lots of basil, and leave out the cheese. As to the radical variation in proportions, I think it really comes down to taste and application: The Childs/Gastronomique versions are really closer to a flavored olive oil, almost a vinaigrette without the acid, whereas the Wells/Johnston versions show case the aromatics of the basil and form a thicker, paste-like consistency, both of which are features I adore (even more so if you’re spreading it on crusty bread, and why wouldn’t you). One thing that is always and everywhere uncertain is the garlic: Which varietal, how young or old, the size of the cloves, and whether you want a mere background hint, or a spicy wallop in the front of the palate… it just depends, is about all I can say.
In the event, my eldest daughter and I decided to stop by the Tuesday farmer’s market in town and, as we were under a bit of time pressure, made only one stop for produce: Luckily, we landed at the Bernier Farms stand, and they had an exceptionally fragrant, easy-peeling, and not-too-hot Tuscan garlic called Rocambole, as well as emerald green bunches of Genovese basil, so the decision was easy. I would use my bulk olive oil from Costco without apology, but it would be even better with one of the local versions from up in Dry Creek.
Pistou (food processor method)
- Mince 1-2 large (2-4 small) cloves of fresh garlic and form a paste by sprinkling with kosher salt and using the flat side of large knife to mash the salt and garlic on a cutting board.
- Gently wash and de-stem 2 cups of loosely packed basil leaves, taking care not to beat the leaves up too much at this stage. Get the Genovese varietal if at all possible, nothing else has the fragrance. (On a side note, if you have sun, basil is a frightfully productive and easy-to-grow plant.)
- Put the garlic paste and basil into a food processor and puree, while slowly adding a quarter to a half cup of good quality, extra virgin olive oil. And if you want to be strict about the whole cooking-local thing live in California, you can probably get a very good olive oil from not too far away. (I love our local oils, and I buy but I’m no zealot, and have no objection to buying organic extra virgin Italian olive oil in bulk from the dreaded Costco.) Continue with the oil until it reaches the desired consistency.
- Puree just until smooth or you’ll bruise the leaves beyond recognition, a few minutes should suffice. Transfer quickly to a tightly-sealing container that fits the quantity as well as possible – oxidation takes away the wonderful color of the pistou, so the less exposed surface area the better. Keep refrigerated, but allow to come to room temperature before serving.