Wednesday, September 15, 2010

BASIL, BASIL AND STILL MORE BASIL!

This time of late summer means that some things in our gardens are bursting in abundance and screaming to be used in some manner or other.  During this long, hot summer one of the things that everyone has growing like wildfire is basil. 

I've already harvested entire batches from our garden and last week it had regrown again and required  further attention.  Our little tomato garden had 3 basil plants, all of which did particularly well this year.  Poor Cathy has been doing her best to eat it fresh, as have I, but there's only so much fresh basil you can use in a given month. 

To answer questions I've been asked about saving the basil on it's own, it's been my experience that it just cannot be done successfully.  You can dry it, crumble it and store it in a jar - but the flavor evaporates almost immediately.  You can slice it, put it in ice cube trays with water and then freeze it - I've heard this can be acceptable used in soups but you certainly couldn't use it in pasta sauces with much success. 

To my way of thinking there is only one way to get fresh tasting basil all year round and that is to grow it.  Fortunately, basil plants do quite nicely indoors in the winter and I almost always have one on my windowsill.  Even basil bought in little containers will sprout roots if put in a vase of water on the window.  These will obviously never be nearly the bountiful plants we get during the summer, but they make due out of season.

But if you don't want to grow your own all winter, the answer - of course - is PESTO! 

Pesto lets you capture that fresh basil flavor for use all winter long when the gardens are long past even finding buried in the snow.  With the addition of some high-quality ingredients from the store, a little strategizing, and a couple hours in the kitchen, you can save that basil without it turning to black mush.

Pesto is not cheap to make (nor buy for that matter), but it is extremely good and you can do a lot with it.  Put it on sandwiches, stir it into soups, use it on pizzas or turn it into a great sauce like the recipe I'm giving you below. 

I stopped at DiViti's Italian Market for the cheese and pine nuts and while there checked out the cost of their own frozen Pesto.  Frozen 4-oz cost $4.99.  I'm figuring that the cost of all 12 ounces I got from one batch of basil cost me around $4.  I used real imported Parmesan and some pretty decent olive oil.  If mine came out to less than half the cost of buying, I'm darned OK with that!

A short digression here will remind you all that DeViti's happens to be a great 3/50 project shop.  They've been around the Akron area for over 50 years and in their present location since 1950.  In the store you'll find fresh produce, imported Italian specialty food items and cooking supplies but the most popular area is the deli case that holds fresh mozzerella, sausages, cheesecakes and salads.  Check out their web stie for daily lunch specials and please shop often to ensure this fabulous place stays with us for years to come.

I've bought pesto from the store in the past and some of it was good, some not so much.  In this case, the saying 'you get what you pay for' applies.  If you make your own, you can adjust seasonings or add other things to make it custom for your own palate.  If basil is overpowering to you, substitute parsley for some of the basil.  If you lean towards Greek flavors rather than Italian, substitute mint for some of the basil and walnuts for pine nuts and you have a whole different flavor.  If you're like me and had oodles of tomatoes and made some sun-dried versions of them, you can add some of those for a new twist to the pesto. 

The trick to all of this though, is to use really great ingredients.  Good olive oil, fresh pine nuts and real Parmesan cheese elevate this "sauce" to something special. 

So first - here is my basic pesto recipe.  This recipe is everywhere in every Italian cookbook or web site I see with very little deviation.  But, as I said, feel free to tweek to suit your own tastes.

BASIC BASIL PESTO

2 cups fresh basil leaves - washed and dried with a clean towel or in a salad spinner
1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese - grated
3 Tbls. fresh or toasted pine nuts
dash of salt
olive oil - 1/2 cup to 2/3 cup

In the bowl of a food processor, put in the basil, cheese, pine nuts and salt.  Put in about 1/3 cup olive oil and process until everything is well chopped.  Scrape down the bowl, add more oil and process again.  Repeat until you have a sauce consistency.

Pesto ready for the freezer
TO FREEZE PESTO
Since I only use a little amount of this at a time, I took a trip to my local catering supply store and found some little 2 oz cups with lids that I use to freeze a lot of my make-ahead items.  I purchased a long sleeve of these and use them all the time to carry around condiments for my bagged lunches, freeze small amounts of things in or bring my vitamins and supplements to work to keep in my desk drawer. 

Anyway, these are perfect for pesto.  I fill each cup with pesto, top it off with a little extra oil, cover with the lid and bag them for freezing.  Voila!  Pesto for the future!

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