Pesto: The Modern Mother Sauce | Leslie Lennox
Pesto: The Modern Mother Sauce
By Leslie Lennox
Intro: Welcome to the Cookery by the Book podcast with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Leslie Lennox: Hi, I'm Leslie Lennox and my new cookbook is Pesto: The Modern Mother Sauce.
Suzy Chase: Hope's Gardens is the award winning pesto company you founded. It all started when you and your husband Dave bought the home of your dreams in Atlanta and lo and behold, there was an iconic 1200 square foot, 1937 Lord and Burnham greenhouse on the property. What happened next?
Leslie Lennox: We started working on several projects all at once. We were restoring the house. We were contemplating how we would approach the greenhouse and envisioning what we wanted in the backyard and garden. Although this was very exciting, the property, which was a little less than five acres, was very overwhelming for a city girl and a guy who had never gardened in his life. It was a little like Green Acres. So Dave has always approached things logically and I do so impulsively. So together we're a little bit of Ying and Yang.
We agreed that we would live on the property for a year to understand what it actually needed and watch how the weather affected it. We also took a year or so to basically tame this property. The previous owners had grown old in the house and they were no longer able to take care of the home, the greenhouse, the gardens. So we set out to remove many of the large trees that looked like they would fall and do a great deal of damage to both our home and the greenhouse. The greenhouse had been painted blue. It had been turned into a storage shed. The roof was covered over with plywood and it was quite daunting. At the same time we had a young child at home and we were trying to take care of her and take care of this massive project.
Suzy Chase: Talk about how you built your grassroots following the old-fashioned way.
Leslie Lennox: Well, Suzy, yes, we definitely built Hope's Gardens the old-fashioned way. Our small family business came about organically. Dave and I had always enjoyed eating, cooking, and entertaining. So pesto was just a normal by-product of our daily lives. Dave gardened in his spare time and I cooked all the time. We were sharing our food with friends and they were encouraging us to sell our pesto. So I was immediately interested in doing that. Dave was not so much. At the same time I was working from home. I was making handmade greeting cards, while taking care of Hope. A friend of ours was organizing a new farmers market that was set to open in the spring of 2007 in our neighborhood. She was in charge of rounding out the mix of vendors and thought that my cards would fit in. I immediately said yes and Dave, Hope, and I set up a booth and started to sell cards.
In addition to us, there was an egg vendor, a fresh pasta maker, one or two farmers from Alabama and north Georgia, and a jam maker. At the same time, less than three miles from this market in our garden, we had seven large beds overflowing with every kind of produce you could imagine. We had varieties of tomatoes. We had basil, cucumbers, many varieties of lettuce, eggplants, peppers, and you probably get the idea from that. I proposed to Dave, why don't we bring bags of our lettuce and herbs to the next market? He kind of thought that was a stupid idea, but the following week he agreed to go out and harvest the lettuce and herbs before we left early for the market. Within an hour or so, everything was sold. So this was no longer a dumb idea. And we did this for a few more weeks and then the light bulb moment came to try our pesto, and it was really exciting to see the reactions of people coming through the market.
They knew next to nothing about us, but they loved our product, which was made from our homegrown Genovese basil. So we built on this week by week. Talking with customers to educate them on how we were growing our basil, how to use our product, providing recipes, and just all around good conversation. Many of these customers became good friends of ours. And what often happens at farmers markets is that retailers come through looking for the next great idea or product. We had the good fortune of having someone from Whole Foods come by, and at the same time these stores were searching for their local products. They invited Dave and I to to sell our pesto at their stores. So every Saturday we'd wrap up at the farmers market and we'd head back over to Whole Foods and we'd do another couple of hours demoing in their stores. We were having a blast doing this, but you know, it was really hard work. So we continued doing this for years.
Suzy Chase: So we're all familiar with the classic Italian pesto. But you introduce readers to the new way to think about pesto. Describe your Modern Mother Sauce philosophy.
Leslie Lennox: I incorporate pesto into everything. And when I was thinking of developing this cookbook, to me, pesto seemed much like the traditional mother sauces in that I was using them to build sauces, dishes, or an entire meal. The traditional mother sauces were used mostly by trained chefs in fancy restaurants. Pesto, on the other hand, was an easy to prepare homebase sauce and I see it as a staple, and it seemed natural to me to think of it in a modern way as a modern mother sauce. And a couple of years back, Somin Nosrat wrote a piece for the New York Times about modern mother sauces, and really out of that it became an accepted idea. So I knew that it was the right thing for me to do to move forward introducing pesto that way.
Suzy Chase: In my opinion, classic mother sauces require quite a bit of proficiency and they're so inflexible. How is the modern mother sauce different?
Leslie Lennox: Very true. Mother sauces are daunting. I have tried on several occasions and I've really never been very successful. To me, these sauces are very fussy, time consuming, and that's not really a fun way to prepare food. Pesto on the other hand, it's not very labor intensive and it's very forgiving. And that's fun. So that's the way I choose to go. The other point about traditional mother sauces is that they use a lot of butter, flour, and fat. And Pesto is primarily six ingredients, three of which I see as optional, but these ingredients are overwhelmingly good for you. They're fresh herbs, greens, garlic, extra virgin olive oil.
Suzy Chase: Linton Hopkins, James Beard Award winner and chef owner of five Atlanta restaurants, wrote in the forward there is a need to be connected to who we are as people through kinship with soil, animals, and one another. All of which meet at the shared community table. Talk a little bit about your partnership with Linton.
Leslie Lennox: Well, we met Linton and his wife Gina as they were one of the founders of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market where we got our start. They had recently opened their first restaurant in Atlanta, Restaurant Eugene, which was close by. They embrace eating local and seasonal food, and as a result they were securing all their produce from local farmers. The farmers market was created in part to offer additional outreach for these farmers to sell their products and for the community to eat the healthiest food possible. We would see Linton, Gina, and their two young children every Saturday morning at the farmers market. It became a ritual of theirs to stop by our booth to buy a couple of jars of Pesto, head home, and unpack all of their groceries and enjoy our pesto on some bread. Meanwhile their restaurant was doing really well and their food establishments started to multiply in Atlanta, so they offered us additional opportunities to sell our pesto, as well as other vendors from the market.
Our products were sold in their gourmet retail store. It was on their menus in their restaurants, and then Linton started to curate menus for Delta Airlines International Premiere flights and he included our pesto every cycle.
Suzy Chase: When you started producing Hope's Gardens Pesto, were you surprised to learn that so many people weren't familiar with pesto?
Leslie Lennox: Yes I was. I had moved to Atlanta from New York, so pretty much I think everybody in New York was savvy to all of that. So no, most of the shoppers had not heard of the sauce before or if they had, they thought of pesto only on pasta. I set out to expand their knowledge of the product as well as my own because I was always learning as well.
Suzy Chase: So since you grew up in New York, you grew up with pesto too?
Leslie Lennox: I did. I did because I dined out an awful lot. That was my form of entertainment in New York and I enjoyed pesto at many restaurants. I also got interested in a couple of cookbooks that came out with a variety of pesto combinations such as the Silver Palate Cookbook. Martha Stewart always seem to include a pesto recipe. Ina Garten. And when Dave and I were moving into our new home, my parents gave Dave the Joy of Cooking as a birthday present and I really did love that cookbook and I still do. And I used the pesto recipe as a starting off point when we started to grow basil in our garden, and then I continued to tweak the recipe until it became my own.
Suzy Chase: This cookbook is perfect for the home cook because it's more of a guideline than set rules. As home cooks, how should we approach pesto making and describe your outline?
Leslie Lennox: In chapter one pesto basics, I've broken down pesto into six ingredient components. Plants, cheese or cheese substitutes, oil, nuts and seeds, garlic, and seasoning and acid. Of these six parts, I see three as being optional. I provide a large selection of ingredients for each component. I'm sure that there are more possibilities, but I think I've provided a pretty good start. There are many substitutions to provide options if someone is lactose intolerant, allergic to nuts, maybe they don't like garlic. So we should also take into account the seasons. Where you live, what is available at any particular time of year, and lastly, and maybe most importantly, is to avoid waste at any cost. This means if you purchase a bunch of carrots, or radishes, beets, or turnips at the green market, make pesto out of those greens. They have a lot of great vitamins. There are good things in it for you.
I also created worksheets in the back of the book to capture your unique flavor combinations. There's nothing worse than creating a fabulous flavor and not knowing how you arrived there. These sheets let you hold onto your successes and also tweak those less than perfect combinations.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk a minute about a couple of your unique combinations you created. First off, mint.
Leslie Lennox: Well, mint pesto combines many of the things that make you think of springtime. Fresh mint, parsley, green peas, and a little fun fact is that basil and mint actually come from the same family. They both have square stems. So for the mint pesto, I love mint and lamb. It's kind of a classic combination. And in the cookbook I have a recipe, lamb kabobs over couscous, and it highlights the mint pesto.
Suzy Chase: And then tell me about your lemon pesto.
Leslie Lennox: Sure. I created this lemon pesto after we had started making many flavors and some of them required lemons. We were heavily invested in lemons, and as I've said before, I hate to waste. So I set out to create a flavor using the lemons. I acknowledge that this lemon flavor, lemon pesto is not for everyone. I tried creating it both with the skins and without the skins, and I decided in the end that I would go without it. It's potent, but if you love or even like lemons or citrus, it's a very interesting flavor. Now I think that just about anything works on a bruschetta. So in the cookbook I created a lemon bruschetta. I use lemon pesto, which I created with almonds, which have a nice creamy sort of neutralizing effect. And I also broil lemon slices. The garnish for this bruschetta is a drizzle of honey, so that's kind of a nice way to balance all of these flavors. The sweet and the savory acidic flavor.
Suzy Chase: A vinaigrette is a dressing, but a dressing is not a vinaigrette. You also have a nice selection of vinaigrettes in the cookbook. Why did you choose to include a vinaigrette section?
Leslie Lennox: Because one of my favorite things to do is to make salad and salads need to be dressed in a vinaigrette or dressing. And so a vinaigrette can be so many things. It can be a marinade, it can be added to an aioli or a mayo or whatever. And it just extends the use of pesto.
Suzy Chase: There's such a wide array of recipe possibilities in this cookbook from eggs and toast to soups to beef, pork and lamb. One recipe that caught my eye is the gazpacho shooters with chilled pesto cubes. Can you describe this one?
Leslie Lennox: Well this is a great recipe to make at the height of the summer when all the varieties of tomatoes are available at market. The addition of cilantro, lime, cucumbers, and peppers adds a wonderful coolness. And then also some heat which come from the jalapeños. As I recommend in the early part of the book that when you're making pesto and you have extra, put some in ice cube trays as you never know when you're going to need a hit a pesto in a stew, soup, or a sauce. So the gazpacho is ... it's perfect for these pesto cubes. It would be perfect as a starter or as a main meal on a very hot day.
And today in New York it's going to be in the 90s so today would be a cool time to make it. I include a few tips with this recipe. First, make your prep simple by using a box vegetable dicer. All the ingredients will be the same size and that will result in beautiful presentation. And I also like to play around with recipes. I recipe flip. And I suggest, you can make it with tomatoes, you can make it with watermelon or cantaloupe as well. So that's kind of a fun thing and it creates more possibilities.
Suzy Chase: On pages 81 and 82 you have an assortment of tea sandwiches. I made your recipe for open-faced smoked salmon pesto sandwiches. It's such a perfect summer treat. Talk a little bit about your pesto tea sandwiches.
Leslie Lennox: Well they're perfect for any kind of little ... for a special event. I mean it could be a bridal shower, a baby shower, and it gives a nice assortment of ideas. You know, who doesn't like an egg salad with a little pesto on it. And one of my favorites from that is the tri-level sandwich. So you have very thin bread and you have different layers of different colored pestos and that's really, really pretty, and it's a little hit of pesto. Never hurt anybody.
Suzy Chase: Now to my segment called My Last Meal. What would you have for your last supper?
Leslie Lennox: Well, as I said, one of my favorite things to do is to eat vegetables and salads. So I would probably create or order an arugula, radicchio, and endive salad. I'd have homemade croutons, because I love bread. Crumpled goat cheese with a basil pesto vinaigrette, along with a glass of chilled white wine. That would be ideal.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web and social media?
Leslie Lennox: We have our website which is hopesgardenspesto.com and there's an S after Hope and S after garden. And we're also at Hope's Gardens Pesto on Instagram and Facebook.
Suzy Chase: Thanks Leslie for teaching us how to go beyond basil and thanks so much for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Leslie Lennox: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Suzy.
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