A few days ago a friend called to ask if I wanted any basil. He grows veggies for sale at a local market, and was pulling up his summer’s overgrowth of basil to plant a winter crop. He and his partner had already made enough pesto to satiate their palates, the rest was mine.
I grabbed a garbage bag and some sturdy scissors and headed out the door, thrilled by the prospect of my first New Orleans harvest/scavenge.
Boy was I the naive Alaskan.
He had said there was three plants left. Although he told me they were three feet tall, and the stalk an inch and a half in diameter, and had explained where the pruning shears were, I just couldn’t really hear him. My attempts (and I did try, valiently, year after year) to grow basil in Cordova had never yielded a plant more than 8 inches tall. With one stem, and a handful of leaves.
When I arrived at his garden, kiddie-entourage in tow, I realized the full scope of the situation.
For anyone else out there who doesn’t know, basil is a bush, and I don’t exagerate. Each “plant” had a one inch stalk, yes, but also half a dozen 3/4 inch stalks spreading out around it. By the time I’d wrestled all three bushes to the ground, I had a pile of basil branches the size of a shopping cart. So much for the garbage bag! I somehow managed to cram it all into the car, and drove home to get started on a truly epic pesto project.
The real work of it was getting all the leaves off. This took a few hours, and I wasn’t even very careful about it. I tried to pick out the very brown leaves, and all the flowers, but I didn’t worry much, I had too much to do! And don’t forget the toddler and three week old baby!
The pesto making went relatively easy, excepting a second trip to the store for more olive oil, garlic and parmesan. I used to put up a lot of pesto back home, made not from my wimpy basil, but from a wild sorrel that grows in the mountains. Plus I recently got a food processor from my mother-in-law, which makes pesto-ing way easier than the blender I’d always used at home.
I’d offer a recipe, but I’ve never followed one. Here’s the basic idea:
- Olive oil, garlic, basil (or your favorite wild herb), and salt. That’s the essentials. The oil, garlic and salt act to preserve the basil, and pesto can last for weeks in the fridge, or months in the freezer.
- This basic pesto is versatile. Don’t limit yourself to thinking it’s only good in Italian food. What about that beloved Thai basil curry? Just stir the pesto in at the end of cooking, for a fresh basil (and garlic) flavor. I also love toast with pesto and a fried egg for breakfast. Yummie.
- If you want to up the deliciousness, you can add parmesan and/or walnuts or pine nuts.
- If you’re using a blender, put the olive oil in first (a good half cup or so) then pre-crushed garlic (the blender just doesn’t cut it for garlic) then a handful of leaves. Keep adding the leaves a few at a time while the blender’s going. Add some salt. Keep adding leaves until the blades won’t suck them down anymore. Taste, and add more salt or garlic as you like.
- In the food processor, the order is not so critical. But then, I noticed there seemed to be no cap on how much leaves the oil would hold, meaning I think you could add too many leaves and you’re pesto would spoil faster. As a rough guide, your oil should make 2-3 times as much pesto. ie: one cup of oil should make 2-3 cups pesto. I think.
- Either way, you want to
blend the shit outa that pesto. There seems to be an emulsion effect going on. It starts out dark green and gets kind of yellowish-green. That’s what you want. The first time I made pesto we didn’t have electricity, and I used my ulu to chopchopchop it all together. It really wasn’t the same. It was just minced leaves and oil, not the ambrosial paste pesto is supposed to be.
Now what to do with all that ambrosial stuff?
I don’t like storing acidic or otherwise corrosive stuff in plastic. So I put my pesto in half-pint glass canning jars, and then into the freezer. The jars have to have straight sides so the freezing/expanding thing doesn’t break them (leave extra head space at the top too). Pesto keeps beautifully frozen. The flavor is hardly compromised at all. And when you take a jar out, you can use part, and put the rest in the fridge, no problem. Bear in mind that any pesto exposed to the air will turn brown. It’s no big deal.
Make sure you label your jars! And then, make sure you remember they’re there and actually take them out and use them up! Pasta, pizza, curry, toast, and just throw a spoonful or two in whatever for a flavor boost.
Or, if you wanna trade me for some of mine, just let me know. Looks like I’m going to have plenty.