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Crazy for Basil

The Huntington Library's Pesto Festo


In many parts of the country, changing leaves herald the start of fall. But at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, it is the annual Pesto Festo, held last Thursday.

The Pesto Festo tradition began a decade ago when Shirley Kerins, curator of the library's herb gardens, was harvesting the last of the sun-loving summer herbs.

"I couldn't bear to toss out any (basil)," Kerins said. "So we decided to let staff and volunteers harvest all they wanted. Then someone started talking about making pesto and suggested we do a 'pesto festo.' "

Soon the plays on words started flying faster than white flies on basil.

"Let's testo the pesto," one staff member said. "Yes," chimed in another. "And we could give a prize for the besto pesto."

The first year, the Pesto Festo drew about half a dozen entrants among the library's staff, volunteers and their friends, most of whom stuck pretty close to the traditional pesto recipe of basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and Parmesan cheese. But as the number of entrants has grown--this year there were 15--so have the creativity and variations.

"That's what I like about pesto," said this year's first-place winner Maria Blumberg, a Huntington Library staff member. "I love the potential for improvisation and diversity."

Her recipe was a Thai creation she calls Pad Thai Pesto. "I wanted to do something with Thai basil, so I started experimenting with the primary ingredients of pad Thai," she said.

As the first-place winner, Blumberg received a handmade basil wreath. In keeping with her love of improvisation with basil, she immediately plopped the basil crown on her head, marking the beginning of her unofficial reign as the Queen of Pesto.

Myriam Hu, an herb garden volunteer whose recipe won second place this year, added splashes of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar to give her pesto an Asian flavor. The third-place winning recipe, created by Michael Perrick, the boyfriend of library staff member Dietra Gerlach, earned its unusual flavors with the addition of grape seed oil and a touch of truffle oil.

Maria Blumberg's Pad Thai Pesto

Here's how to make Blumberg's Pad Thai Pesto: In a blender or food processor, combine 1 cup Thai basil (available at Asian markets), 2 cloves smashed garlic, 1 teaspoon dried shrimp powder (sold at Asian markets), 2 teaspoons red chile with garlic paste, 1 tablespoon Thai fish sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon roasted peanuts, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/4 cup canola or peanut oil and juice of 1 lime. Pulse until blended and mixture is relatively smooth. Serve with pad Thai noodles, rice noodles or pasta.

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