Monday, July 26, 2010


Ah, the fragrant basil of summer. So plentiful and overflowing when in season, it's easy to forget what a fleeting treat it is.  One massive bunch is a little overwhelming, its fragility at home a bit nettlesome, that I often neglect to truly appreciate just how wonderful fresh basil is.  I've been chopping it up and sprinkling it in whatever recipes I can, but of course the most well-known use for basil is pesto.

Before getting to the pesto, let me mention how I take care of the basil at home.  When I bring the basil home, I fill up a tall vase with water.  I thoroughly rinse the roots of the basil plant under running water--it's amazing how much dirt comes out.  Then, I run the leaves under very cold water.  I shake out the bunch as best I can, and place them in the vase.  This is messy.  There will be grit all over your sink and water droplets everywhere, and chances are more than a few basil leaves will fall to their peril. You also have to shake it out pretty well because ironically and annoyingly, basil leaves don't like wallowing in water--they turn black. Nice.

Oh, you think I'm done? No. In order to keep the water from building up bacteria and muck, and to keep the leaves fresh, each morning I replace the water in the vase, rinse the roots and stems, and run the leaves under water. Same old. I don't think I could take care of a baby, this stuff is too much work.

While you don't have to do this, at least in my apartment, the leaves go very limp and would not survive two days without some refreshing.  See below pic of the vase/basil arrangement--ignore the other stuff.

That's like, a tree of basil

My go-to pesto recipe is from Cook's Illustrated Best Recipe. I really like this cookbook because it explains the reasoning, science, and experiments behind the recipes, but the recipes themselves aren't terribly complicated.  What I like about this recipe is that you blanch the garlic first to soften the flavor, since raw garlic can be a bit harsh.

For 1 pound of pasta, you need:
  • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts (or whatever nut you want--I usually use slivered almonds. Pine nuts are $$$)
  • 2 cups packed basil leaves (honestly this is so unhelpful--how tightly do you pack it? I'm still figuring this out.  One time I packed it super tight and the pesto ended up tasting like grass)
  • 2 TBS parsley (the recipe calls for this but I never use it, even if I have parsley--I don't know why I just don't feel like it at that point)
  • 7 TBS olive oil
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan
Because I love tomatoes, I also add: 
  • 2 pints cherry tomatoes, halved
Bring a bit of water to boil and throw the garlic in for about 45 seconds.  Note: I doubled the recipe so you will see vast quantities of crap in these pics.

It's phenomenally difficult to take a picture of garlic in boiling water.

Remove garlic, run under cold water to stop cooking, and peel.

Lightly toast the nuts in a skillet or in a toaster oven (I did 350 degrees for about 2 minutes--better to undertoast than BURN).

What is also interesting about this recipe is the "bruising" step for the basil.  You're supposed to put the basil in a freezer bag, seal it (removing excess air), and bash it with a rolling pin to release the oils.  I think this step is to imitate the traditional mortar and pestle method, which more grinds the basil rather than just furiously slashing it to bits like in a food processor, the latter of which most of us use.  The bruising/grinding helps release the basil flavor better than just whirring it in a food processor.  I also read about the mortar/pestle v. food processor thing in a newspaper article years ago but I can't find it.

Two things about what I did: (1) I just mash the leaves between my fingers because I don't want to use up a freezer bag and pull out the rolling pin; and (2) I did this when the leaves were too wet, so your basil leaves may look different.

In a food processor, place in the basil, garlic, olive oil and toasted nuts.  Basically everything except for the cheese--apparently the heat from the processor will do something (very technical term) to the cheese and make it greasy.

Whir together, stopping occasionally to scrape down with a spatula.  Remove mixture to a bowl, and stir in that fluffy, salty, nutty, pungent parmesan.

Salt to taste.  Boil pasta according to directions, drain (reserving some of the cooking liquid), and mix well with pesto.  I throw in a little cooking liquid to loosen the pasta/pesto if necessary.  Toss in tomatoes.


What other ways do you use up your basil? 


  1. Can you believe I've never made pesto? I don't know why, it intimidates me. Maybe because you have to freaking rock the basil leaves to sleep every night. I'm not sure I can handle that. But that pasta looks amazing!!

  2. I'm torn between wanting to use my food processor and not wanting to go through all those basil cleaning steps. hm.

  3. oooh I like the idea of blanching the garlic. I'll have to try that next time. very interesting about not processing the cheese.

    and could you be any more crazy about your basil.