The summer soup I planned to feature today relies on tomatoes and sweet peppers. I had anticipated harvesting some from the garden by now, but they are taking their sweet time. However, we have basil in abundance. One can never have too much, but it is starting to form flower heads, which means harvest time. The best way to handle a glut is by making and freezing basil pesto.
This delicious herb can be dried, but the flavour and aroma become a dim reflection of its fragrant self. Few things bespeak summer like fresh pesto, and it freezes well. The handiest way to do this is in ice cube trays.
Pesto can be made with any dark green herb or vegetable. Eager early spring shoots of stinging nettle can be foraged, steamed and made into pesto d’urtica, a delicious and nutritious boon for winter-weary palates. I have also used spinach successfully, and would like to try substituting mint. Cilantro, parsley or well-steamed kale of chard should all work well. However, none offer the classic clove-like redolence of sweet basil.
It can be harvested repeatedly through the season. Leave at least one healthy pair of leaves on the stem and new shoots will emerge from the axils. It is an annual and will stop growing once it sets flowers, so harvesting the tops encourages it to remain prolific through hot weather, which it loves. Frost kills it.
Like all aromatic herbs, basil is best harvested in the morning when its essential oils are most concentrated, before hot sun hits the foliage. Unlike many other garden-fresh herbs, it quickly loses its advantage. If the foliage sits for any length of time, especially if it starts to wilt, that heady fragrance evaporates. Immediately making it into pesto ensures the other ingredients absorb the elusive essence.
Pesto is adaptable and welcomes experimentation. Still, the basic recipe is hard to improve upon.
- ¼ cup roasted pine nuts
- 3 cloves of garlic or more, coarsely chopped
- large bunch of fresh basil
- ¼ cup freshly-grated parmesan
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Pulse pine nuts in a food processor until coarsely ground.
- Add garlic and pulse until there are no large pieces and the mixture sticks together.
- Strip basil leaves from the stem and add to fill the processor compartment. Pulse until mostly blended. Add more basil if desired and pulse until mostly blended.
- Add parmesan and pulse until blended.
- Pour olive oil into the top of the processor so it drizzles down and run until well blended.
- Use within 24 hours or freeze.
- To freeze: fill compartments of an ice cube tray and freeze solid, then remove and store in freezer tubs. One or two pieces are enough to add to most recipes.
Here are some of my favourite ways to use basil pesto:
- On a pizza with cooked chicken, artichoke hearts and a mild cheese such as fontina or mozzarella.
- In a ricotta cheese sauce with green vegetables for pasta.
- Spread over shrimp, rolled in foil and roasted for a few minutes at 400°F/200°C until shrimp are pink.
- Spread on a big slice of beefsteak tomato.
What is your favourite variation on pesto? How do you like to use it?
I will share one of my favourite soup recipes as soon as my tomato plants get their act together.