Recipes at Sound Food

Basil for keeps

There’s nothing like the smell of basil to bring a little bit of summer into a cold midwinter day. And now is the time to make sure you have enough basil to get that summer fix all winter long.

If you don’t have your own basil patch, head for the Farmers’ Market this Saturday and grab all you can. Last week Farmhouse Organics, Leapfrog Farm, Persephone, Tani Creek and Butler Green Farms all had ample supplies. Once you’ve got your basil stash, plan to go into preservation mode the same day. Fresh basil doesn’t like to sit around, and it definitely doesn’t like the refrigerator. If you stick it in the butter part of the fridge it will last a little longer. Or you can put it in a glass of water like a basil bouquet for a day. But the sooner you process it the more precious basil flavor and color will be saved.

Basil Preservation Tactic #1: Pesto. This glorious green goop does a marvelous job of keeping that basil flavor alive for months in the freezer. There are many recipes aPestond methods. The traditional mortar and pestle method is great for small batches, but for large scale pesto preservation the food processor is the answer. Don’t skimp on the ingredients; fresh basil deserves good extra virgin olive oil, quality imported cheese, fresh pine nuts (from the bulk section at T&C), and Betsey Wittick’s garlic (Laughing Crow Farm, at the Farmers Market). Betsey offers several different varieties or garlic that range from spicy to mellow; allowing you to customize your pesto to your taste. 

Using Pecorino cheese and more garlic will yield a more potent, sharply flavored pesto. Some recipes suggest toasting the pine nuts. Using walnuts yields a richer, earthy flavor. The amount of olive oil can be adjusted depending on the desired final consistency (thicker or thinner). The type of olive oil makes a difference as well – some are very peppery, some are fruity.

As soon as you’ve gathered all the ingredients, rev up your processor and begin. If I’m planning to freeze it (keep reading), I don’t add the cheese until after I’ve thawed it for use. Read on for the classic pesto recipe, and more basil preservation tactics.

Marcella Hazan’s recipe for basil is the gold standard for basil pesto:

Marcella Hazan’s Classic Pesto
(from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Knopf, 1992)
2 cups tightly packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, peeled
pinch of salt
1/2 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
2 Tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese
3 Tablespoons butter at room temperature

1. Wash the basil in cold water and pat dry (I skip this step unless I can feel grit on the basil. Dry is better).
2. Put basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and an ample pinch of salt in the food processor and process until creamy.
3. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the grated cheeses. Then mix in the softened butter. (I save these steps until serving time if I’m going to store it) Serve on pasta or vegetables.

For short-term storage in the fridge (a week or so), just put your pesto in a glass or ceramic bowl with saran wrap pressed against the top of the pesto to keep it from turning dark. For the long haul, it goes into the freezer. I usually just put it in ziplock bags in small enough quantities so I can press them into really skinny flat packages. Then I can stack them in the freezer and just break off what I need. Another method is to put the basil into ice cube trays (I wipe a little olive oil in them to prevent sticking), freeze them, and put the frozen pesto cubes into ziplock bags. Again, it’s best to freeze without the cheese, but I’ve frozen cheesy pesto before and it’s still eminently edible.

There are many variations on the pesto theme. I made a batch last week with pistachios instead of pine nuts, and served it with shrimp on pasta. Just whir up 2 cups of basil leaves with 3 garlic cloves, 1 cup of pistachios (without the shells), ¼ cup of pine nuts, and then drizzle in a cup of olive oil. No cheese in this pesto. Mix it with cooked shrimp and some pasta from Mon Elisa’s. Besides the shrimp pasta, pistachio pesto is also good with salmon or mahi-mahi.

Once you’ve made pesto, you’ll never want the store-bought version again. You’ll find yourself digging into your personal pesto stash all winter long for an easy pasta fix. Add a little of the pasta water for a lovely creamy texture. Pesto is also great mixed into smashed potatoes, or drizzled over grilled tuna. Swirl it into minestrone. Use it up, and next year you’ll remember that the first jacket morning is the time to make a fresh batch.

Basil Preservation Tactic #2: Freezing. The only trick to freezing basil is to keep it from turning black. One method is to blanch it for 15 seconds, then lay on cookie sheets before zipping into bags. Handling all those individual leaves like that is time-consuming, but it does work. A simpler black-prevention technique is to coat it with olive oil first – kind of like pesto without the fixins. Put 2 cups of packed basil leaves in the food processor with ¼ cup of olive oil. Whir that up, then press it into ziplocks and freeze. It’s easy to break off what you need for a recipe and put the rest back in the freezer.

Basil Preservation Tactic #3: Salt. Another interesting basil preservation tactic I found online is to layer basil leaves in salt and put it in the fridge. I just did some according to the instructions below, and will update this article in a few weeks to let you know how it turns out. It received glowing reviews from other online posters:

Starting in a 14-ounce plastic container with a tight fitting lid, pour a layer of kosher salt to cover the bottom. Add a single layer of basil leaves-not overlapping-cover them with salt and continue the process until the container is full. That’s it!

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