Why does basil always seem to grow best at the end of summer, just when it’s threatened by frost? Basil plants are very sensitive to cold, even if there isn’t an official frost. Once picked, fresh basil doesn’t keep all that well. After you cut it all down, you need to have a plan. Maybe there’s a cosmic message here: Make Pesto!
Classic pesto is a heavenly purée of basil, garlic, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. There are plenty of variations on this theme. You can use other nuts (walnuts are nice) or other fresh herbs, such as oregano, cilantro, and parsley. But you can’t beat the classic.
Here’s one key thing about using pesto: it should be served at room temperature. Heating it cooks the basil, leaving you with less flavor. It ends up with a sort of cooked green flavor, as if you’d cooked spinach. If you’re serving a pesto pasta, toss the pesto with the just-cooked pasta right before serving.
Basil and other fresh herbs are essentially greens, like spinach or chard or kale. You typically use smaller amounts of fresh herbs when cooking. Pesto is one exception. It takes a lot of fresh basil to make modest amount of pesto.
Like other greens, basil has the usual suspect nutrients:
- a variety of minerals, notably magnesium and potassium
- a bit of vitamin C
- folate and smaller amounts of other B vitamins
- vitamin A/carotenes
- lutein and zeaxanthin
- vitamin K
Pesto will also include protein (nuts and cheese) and healthy fats (olive oil).
I threw some pesto together recently, because… fresh basil! I picked the leaves off the harvested basil plants, and had to do something. Into the food processor went pine nuts, garlic cloves. After they were chopped a bit I added the basil leaves and a dose of olive oil. Process some more, add a handful of Parmesan and it’s done. I know this sounds pretty vague, but you can play around with the amounts, depending on your taste preferences.
12 ways to use pesto
- If you made a whole lot of pesto, freeze it for use during winter months. I like to freeze it in ice cube trays, then transfer the cubes to a plastic bag (labeled!). When you need some pesto, pull out a few cubes. NOTE: Thanks to the fresh basil and raw garlic, pesto won’t keep for more than a few days in the refrigerator, so be sure to have a plan to preserve any excess you make.
- Use it on pasta or cooked grains. Goes really well with farro or pearl couscous.
- Use it as a sandwich spread. Adds great flavor to turkey, cheese or cured meats. Or just make a vegetable sandwich and season with pesto.
- Spread on meat or fish, particularly chicken or salmon. Would work on sautéed tofu, too.
- Use it on pizza in place of tomato sauce. Top with sliced fresh tomatoes or sautéed eggplant slices.
- Make a pesto wrap with a tortilla, pita or leaf lettuce.
- Spread pesto on slices of fresh vegetables like tomato, zucchini, cucumber, sweet pepper, celery or carrot. Or on slices of cold cooked potatoes.
- Use pesto as a dip for crusty bread or whole grain crackers.
- Spread pesto on bruschetta for an appetizer or side dish.
- Make a salad with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and pesto.
- Make a pesto omelet. Add a bit of extra parmesan if you like.
- Spread it on your toast. I know, this might sound extreme, given the garlic content. But hummus has garlic, too, and lots of people spread that on toast or bagels.
Here’s a more detailed description of how I made my pesto.
Spinning the ingredients in the food processor takes less than 2 minutes. The longest prep time is cleaning the basil leaves.
- 2 cups loosely packed fresh whole basil leaves (about 2 oz or 50-60 grams)
- 4 TB olive oil, canola oil, or a combination. More as needed
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan
- 2-3 cloves garlic, cut into chunks
- Step 1 Sort and wash the basil leaves. Pat dry.
- Step 2 Put the pine nuts and garlic in a food processor. Process briefly. Do not purée!
- Step 3 Add the basil leaves and oil to the food processor. Process about 30 seconds until the leaves are minced up.
- Step 4 Add the Parmesan and process briefly to combine.
- Step 5 Taste and adjust ingredients. More Parmesan or pine nuts? More oil to tie it all together.
- Step 6 Use immediately, or put in a jar or other closed container and refrigerate. Will keep for 3-4 days. Or freeze for future use.
- Step 7 The mixture might turn a darker green on top, as the basil leaves lose color. Mix it up before serving.