Even with our recent cold, wet weather, gardeners who planted basil starts are likely already nibbling on fresh leaves. I confess to sneaking a few even as I transferred plants into our hoop house. Soon, they’ll be growing visibly each day and prime for pesto.
Although most people think of basil as the classic pesto herb, you can make the sauce in many flavors. My first pesto of the growing season typically uses fresh pea shoots, which I pinch off the sugar snap plants to make them bushier, and the first few inches of tender scapes that appear on fall-planted garlic. Later, I make cilantro pesto with ginger or garlic, mint-parsley pesto to spike goat cheese and several basil varieties with Italian, Greek, Indian and Thai flavorings.
I tend to go big when making pesto, blending up a larger batch than we’ll eat fresh and freezing the rest to use all year. If I plan to freeze pesto, I make a base sauce, leaving out the pine nuts and Parmesan. Adding them later makes the base more flexible for dropping into soups or other sauces, and freshly added nuts and cheese have better flavor.
A food processor quickly creates pesto, especially when freezing large batches, but I recently learned that I mix the creamiest pesto in a mortar with a pestle. It takes me about 15 minutes to prepare a batch, but the texture is unsurpassed, especially on homemade pasta. Depending on your mortar’s capacity, you may need to halve the recipe.
Garden-Fresh Basil Pesto
Makes 2-1/2 cups
6 cloves garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 cups fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
1/3 teaspoon flaky salt, or to taste
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Wash and dry the basil leaves so that just a little water clings to them.
If using a food processor, place all ingredients except the olive oil in the processor; blend to combine, scraping down the processor sides as needed. If necessary, add a teaspoon or so of water so that the puree blends into a slightly coarse or smooth mixture, as desired. Stir in the olive oil by hand until combined.
If using a mortar and pestle, place the garlic in the mortar and use the pestle to pound it into a paste. Add the pine nuts, crushing and then grinding them into the paste. Add basil leaves to the mortar by the handful, sprinkling each with a pinch of salt, and then use the pestle to crush them into small pieces against the mortar’s sides before adding the next handful. Continue to grind the basil into a creamy emulsion. Add the pepper, lemon juice and cheese, mixing them in completely. Work in the olive oil a tablespoon at a time to keep the paste creamy.
Use fresh within a couple of days or spoon into two ice cube trays or five 1/2-cup containers and freeze. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.
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