Our basil was slow to start this year, but it decided to spring up while we were on vacation. Now the plants are almost as big as me! In order to keep the plants lush and producing big flavorful leaves, Mama picks off the flowers. She says otherwise, the basil will get woody. “Woody?” I ask. “Woody,” she confirms. (I was being too much of a stinker to let Mama get a good picture of me with the basil, but you can see how tall the plants are here.)
She also has to harvest the stems and leaves if she wants to keep using the plants. It sounds funny to me that you have to take off leaves to get more, but Mama is sometimes right about things, so I’ll trust her on this one.
Aside from tossing chiffonade basil (that’s thin ribbons) into salads and over tomatoes & mozzarella, Mama likes to make pesto. Though pesto is decidedly of Italian origin, Mama told me she first had fresh pesto while in college on a visit to a friend in Germany (she says I’m not allowed to say how long ago that was ). She wrote down her friend’s mother’s recipe in her little journal and used that recipe for many years. Now she makes her own, and you’ll see that it’s not only simple to prepare but simple to store—and so much tastier than the oily stuff that comes in jars.
Mama showed me how she whirrs everything in a food processor. She usually does it to taste, which is helpful when you don’t have a recipe handy. She said if you want to keep your pesto looking as bright as the day you made it, blanch the basil leaves in boiling water for all of 20 seconds, then plunge them in ice water and squeeze dry. Otherwise, if you don’t really care that the color fades, skip the extra step.
The last thing I’ll tell you about pesto is that you can use just about any green, like kale, cilantro, or parsley, as well as just about any nut or seed, such as walnuts or pumpkin seeds. If you find yourself with a bunch of herbs or a head of greens, try making your own variation on a classic pesto.
Now, I told Mama, “I don’t like pesto,” but she and Papa claim I’ve eaten it before. I’m not so sure, so I’ll give this one both a “hit” and a “miss.”
What would enjoy a dab of pesto? What wouldn’t?!
Béchamel (white sauce)
Meatloaf, burgers, meatballs (add to the mix or serve as a topping)
On top of grilled portabellas or eggplant with mozzarella & tomatoes
Pizza (spread on pizza crust or a pita or anything else you’d consider a “pizza”)
Mix with softened butter and slathered on corn on the cob
Bruschetta with roasted red peppers
Broiled or grilled chicken or fish
Hummus or white bean mash
Thinned with a bit of balsamic vinegar and use it as a vinaigrette
1 cup packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts (Mama uses raw, but go ahead and use toasted if that’s what you have)
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/3 cup olive oil (extra-virgin, if you like)
¼ cup grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan (Parm is more traditional, and lends a nuttier taste, but Mama likes to change it up and likes the subtle sweetness of the sheep’s milk cheese. That, and she had pecorino and didn’t feel like running out for Parm.)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
few grinds of black pepper
½ tablespoon fresh lemon juice
In a food processor, process the basil, pine nuts, and garlic into a paste.
Add the oil, cheese, salt, pepper, and lemon juice and process until well blended. If you want to be able to drizzle your pesto, add more oil or cut back on the cheese.
A little goes a long way, so it pays to experiment with how much you prefer on pasta, etc. Pesto will keep in the fridge for at least a week; or, freeze in ice cube trays, then store cubes in zip-top plastic freezer bags for a few months.
Note: Mama says this pesto will taste salty, which is a good thing as it generally tops plain pasta. If you’re concerned about the salt, start with a little less—or use kosher salt. The bigger grains cause you to use less of it.