They say that actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of the world’s most beautiful women, keeps her skin aglow by rubbing it with coarse salt and honey. Well, she ought to try Jackie Hensley’s pesto
. Pesto — that savory Italian paste made of olive oil, pine nuts, basil, garlic and cheese — is like a trip to the Old World, and a balm to the senses. In Italy, old men will debate the purity of its ingredients for entire afternoons.
I remember my first encounter with pesto, at a pizza and pasta joint in Chicago. That shade of saturated green belied a magical power.
In search of my own pesto, I planted my first herb, basil. And I take credit for introducing my future husband to pesto’s earthy delights. We regularly commune over it on al fresco summer nights.
For Winchester, England, native and local caterer-chef Jackie Hensely, who’s made Indy her home for four years now, pesto is an exercise in freshness, and a tempting blank canvas. Dubbed the Pesto Lady, Jackie has pushed the pesto envelope with her nine creations: There’s basic basil, asparagus, roasted tomato, arugula, cilantro lime, wild mushroom and truffle oil, basil and sun-dried tomato, arugula and sun-dried tomato, and spicy red pepper and basil.
Through her catering company, Culinary Creative, “Jacquie’s Pesto” is available at Good Earth, Deano’s Vino and four farmers’ markets: Carmel, Zionsville, Broad Ripple and the City Market. Her first time out at the Carmel market, she sold 150 jars in less than four hours.
Jackie and other pesto pundits prove that this uber-condiment knows no boundaries. It clings onto pasta most commonly, but it also gets slathered onto fish, whisked into biscuit dough, dabbled on pizza, dolloped in soup, blended into rice or couscous, spread on a sandwich or maybe applied as a beauty treatment.
I sat down to talk with Jackie about her global travels, the blessings of local produce and Hoosier tastes.
NUVO: How did you get started cooking?
JH: I went to culinary school in England but left home at age 20. I wanted to go traveling like a gypsy. I went to the south of France. I knew someone who was working on a private yacht. I found a job cooking on a boat. I was there for two weeks when the boat caught fire and sunk. I lost everything. I had nothing, not even a toothbrush. This was in Cannes. I would spend the summers working in France on charter boats and go to Antigua to work on a sailboat for the winter season. I was a sous chef in Australia, Sydney and Cairns. I visited Asia, Greece and Portofina, Italy.
NUVO: You used to cook for wealthy folks on yachts … how was that?
JH: I was the private chef for the mayor of Barcelona on his boat. I worked for Burt Sugarman, Mary Hart’s husband, on his yacht. I was the sous chef for media mogul John Kluge, who had one of the largest private yachts in the world. And I would do chartered yachts. After four years, I had had enough yachting. I cooked privately for financier Theodore Forstman, who had homes in the Hamptons, Manhattan and Beverly Hills. I cooked for guests like Oprah Winfrey, Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Connery.
NUVO: As a private chef, do you make what you want or make what they want?
JH: Before we leave port, they’d send me a list of everything they like or don’t like. They might want to have light salad lunches and then a four-course meal in the evening. The chef must listen. It doesn’t matter if I’m entertained, as long as they’re happy. That’s the secret to my success.
NUVO: What brought you to Indiana?
JH: A woman who bought a yacht belonging to one of my clients lured me to Indiana. I came and catered her private parties. She offered to send a letter to all her friends recommending me. I now lease a kitchen at Northwood Christian Church on Central. I do private events, corporate catering and larger events. I’m the primary caterer for the Yellow Rose Inn.
NUVO: How did you get into the pesto trade?
JH: Someone suggested that I promote my catering at the Carmel farmers’ market. I thought it would be good to bring along a sample, to showcase the fact that I like to use local produce in my catering. I did some research on other pestos, and some experimentation. I started with the basic basil pesto.
NUVO: What is your philosophy about pesto?
JH: What I love about pesto is its versatility. You can use it for so much more than just pasta. You can make it with walnuts instead of pine nuts, but I think it tastes better with pine nuts. I use only imported Romano cheese. There’s a freshness I can’t explain.
NUVO: Do Hoosiers look at you funny when you talk about pesto? Are we seeing the democratization of pesto?
JH: With the four farmers’ markets I attend, I’d say I’m the least busy at the City Market. I do well in Broad Ripple since there are so many vegetarians there. Pesto is a great vegetarian product.
NUVO: Which farms are your sources for produce?
JH: I work with Bakers’ Acres out of Noblesville. I’m using their wonderful salad mix and vegetables, like zucchini flowers, in all my catering.
NUVO: What ruins pesto?
JH: You have to use high-end ingredients. My pestos taste fresh and they last up to a month in fridge. You can freeze them, too. Some of them, like the arugula, get a more potent flavor the longer they’re stored.
NUVO: Which of your own pesto innovations are you most proud of?
JH: The two I like are the spicy red pepper and basil, and the mushroom and truffle oil. When you go to Italy, you can buy a fungi sauce. It’s basically wild mushrooms and cream. Add cream to my mushroom pesto and you have an extravagant but simple dish.
NUVO: Tell me about your travels to Genoa, Italy.
JH: In Europe, it’s all about freshly made sauces that you can get at the markets. Pick up some pasta and fresh sauce, and you have a two-minute meal. A great sauce turns something bland into something good. The question should always be, what can I do with what’s at the market? What’s local that I can use? Good chefs can go by the seat of their pants. I’m the Queen of Winging It. When I was yachting, and we were in Antigua, there were times I couldn’t find an egg on the entire island. You have to improvise.
NUVO: What are your favorite local restaurants?
JH: I like Tavola di Tosa in Broad Ripple. It feels very European. Believe it or not, I think Bravo Italian Kitchen is the best Italian in town. I love R Bistro for their frequently changing menus. In Bloomington, I love Le Petit. They don’t have a menu. It’s whatever they want to cook for you tonight, and it’s wonderful.
NUVO: Where do you live?
JH: On the Northside with my two dogs, Bella, a shepherd-collie mix, and George, a Jack Russell terrier.
NUVO: How are Hoosiers coming along in the area of palate development?
JH: It will take time. If you can get them to try something once, it’s OK. It’s hard to get them out of the steak mode. I encourage all Hoosiers to be more adventurous!
Reach Jackie Hensley at Culinary Creative at 418-5289.