Saturday, September 29, 2012

If Basil always came back like this, things would have been much different for Dorian Grey

So you find that it's spring. The birds are chirping, green is returning to the lawn, and the garden center is finally stocked with things that will most likely die in an late frost scheduled by mother nature about six hours after you plant whatever it is you've just bought. This year, I tried to thwart this by using cloches and growing delicate starts, like basil, outside early. The result of this is that this year, instead of lovely petite basil plants that yield up a few leaves to my occasional caprese salad, I grew monstrous, towering shrubs that have to be fought back almost weekly. At first we didn't know this, and we picked delicately, only a few leaves at a time from the tips. Slowly I grew bolder, and cut large enough pieces to root in a jar on the kitchen window sill. Which went really well, so I planted it out and soon had at least half a dozen MORE towering basil plants. Which meant... well... it was time to start squirreling away pesto like garlic before an impending vampire attack.

Or do vampires even avoid garlic any more? I know they used to fear sunlight, but evidently now sunlight is like sexy-juice for vampires and it just makes them sparkle while oozing teenage-appropriate sex appeal. But I digress. The point was my kitchen, while smelling heavenly, was full of this:

Too bad this isn't scratch and sniff.

That's about 12 cups, loosely packed of washed and trimmed basil. I usually submerge the basil in cold water because we've kept a largely organic garden this year and sometimes you get a few hop-ons in the harvest. I also pick out any bits with eggs stuck to the underside of the leaves and pull off the woody stems. Then I rinse it all again in the basket of a salad spinner and spin to remove most of the water. With that prep done, the rest is smooth sailing.

There's a lot of debate over whether you have to use the classic pine nuts in pesto. To me it comes down to cost. At Sam's Club (which is where we buy most of our groceries), pine nuts are available in a 15 oz package for $9.93. If you've ever bought a tiny 8 oz package of pine nuts at the grocery store for $6, you know this is a great deal. However that's $10.59 per pound. That's a LOT. Walnuts, on the other hand, run $11.74 for 32 oz.  (again, at Sam's Club) for a total of $5.87 per pound. I use 1 cup of nuts per 12 cups of basil, so my total cost per batch (for the nuts) is $1.47 with walnuts. That would be $2.64 with pine nuts, calculating nuts at a 4 oz. cup per the nutritional info. Not a huge difference to some, but when you take into account that I made at least ten batches of pesto like this, it adds up. 

And I'm full of omega-3, too!

Whichever nut you choose,  I prefer to toast them before adding them to the pesto. I'm sure this is also the improper thing to do, but here's the thing about cooking - if it's "right" but doesn't taste good, it's not really right. You can toast them in a pan on the stove or on a microwave safe dish for a minute or two in the microwave, just be careful not to burn them. 

When it comes to garlic in the pesto, you definitely DON'T want it cooked. That raw garlic bite helps to balance the anise-y flavor of the basil. I use home grown garlic which tends to be both smaller and milder than what you'd buy at the store, so I added two full heads, peeled, to the bowl of the food processor.

A good food processor will change. your. life.

Add in the toasted nuts and a little bit of salt and pulse till it gets fairly smooth. Now you start stuffing in basil by the handful. If it gets hard to mix, drizzle in a little olive oil or lemon juice and keep going until all the basil is mixed in. While the processor is running, slowly add more oil - probably at least half a cup. Now comes the tricky part of seasoning. Obviously the more oil you add, the better it will be, but then you're eating a lot of oil and you're wasting freezer space to store a larger volume of oil (which is shelf stable) than basil (which isn't).

Cheese is also a big part of a classic pesto, however the cheese you would use such as Parmigiano Reggiano is, by definition made using calf rennet. I know a lot of people who won't eat veal because it kills baby cows, but have no problem with Parmesan or other cheeses made with animal products. As a vegetarian, I have mixed feelings about this, but on the whole I try to avoid cheese made with non-vegetarian rennet. And since I make this to freeze, I don't use cheese. It's fantastic, but cheese doesn't freeze as long and it's just as easy to add it fresh when the pesto is thawed. If you plan to eat it fresh and you don't have moral objections, then knock yourself out. You will probably need at least a teaspoon and a half of salt, probably more. If it tastes bland which can happen with basil as the season drags on, you might want to try adding lemon juice to brighten the flavor or garlic or onion powder to make it richer. I also like to add black pepper. There's really very little you can do wrong here, so just keep adding whatever you think will taste good. 

Would you believe me if I told you it tastes better than it looks?

Once it's yummy, spray ice cube trays with cooking spray and then spread in the pesto as best you can. Tap it on the counter a few times to work out air bubbles. Put these in the freezer a few hours or overnight until they harden. Once they do, pop the cubes out into a freezer-safe ziplock bag to store indefinitely.

Well, as it turns out, this is sort of like what happened to Basil Hallward after all. :-O 
If storing fresh pesto, put it in a air tight container covered with a layer of olive oil to protect it. To make the recipe slightly less vague, here it is.

Vegan Pesto

12 cups basil, washed and drained with thick stems removed.
1 cup walnuts or pine nuts, toasted.
2 heads garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
3/4 cup olive oil (adjust to taste)
1 1/2 tsp. salt (adjust to taste, you use more than you would in a pesto that includes cheese)
1 tbsp. lemon juice
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste.

Try throwing these cubes into anything and everything tomato-based. Soup, spaghetti sauce, ketchup... It's also great thawed and spread on pizza dough or used as a dip for home made baguettes. You could also just toss some pasta in it and call it a meal. Pesto tastes like summer all year long!


  1. What variety of basil did you grow? I have success with either globe or sweet basil BUT I can never work out OR remember which one it is that survives and which dies a horrid death within days of planting.

  2. I started sweet basil from seed and I think that was also the basil I bought. I had some just pop up from seeds left by the basil last year. None of the purple basil came back, but I had decided not to plant any this year anyway because purple pesto is somewhat disconcerting. Next year I want to plant at least on Thai basil to throw into curries and such. Mmm!