I love basil. Its flavor really only pops when it’s just off the plant—and boy, does it pop. Sweet, Italian, lemon, lime, Thai, purple—there are so many options, all with a slightly different taste. Unfortunately, once the garden winds down, that fresh taste is difficult to find, particularly if your house, like mine, lacks a sunny windowsill. Dried basil is a kitchen staple off-season, but it lacks the full summer flavor.
That’s where pesto comes in. Its texture and flavor don’t match the basil leaf you pinch off the stem and slip into your mouth while you harvest, but it will remind you of that leaf when you drop a cube into a dish midwinter. I prefer to save my basil as a pesto base—minus the pine nuts and Parmesan—so that it’s versatile. The same technique lets you make pesto with other ingredients, such as pea shoots and garlic scapes.
Basil Pesto Base
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly ground pepper
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a food processor, combine all ingredients except the olive oil; blend to combine. Add just enough water to blend, and then puree until combined but still slightly coarse. Stir in the olive oil by hand. Spoon into two ice cube trays or five 1/2-cup containers and freeze. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- This classic recipe works with any type of basil, but I generally go for a sweet basil to give it that beautiful bright green color. If you use a paler basil, such as lemon or Thai, you can add 2 tablespoons fresh parsley for a color boost.
- A coarser pesto tastes most like fresh basil leaves, and I love the texture in pasta sauces or on pizza. If you prefer a smoother pesto, go ahead and keep blending.
- Blending extra-virgin olive oil at high speed breaks up the oil’s fat molecules and distributes its bitter polyphenols. You can use a more refined olive oil instead, but I prefer to keep the extra-virgin taste and stir it in by hand to prevent bitterness.
- This pesto base has many uses. I often throw a cube into breakfast potatoes, soup, or fish marinade, and it’s great spread on Sourdough Pizza Crust, with the standard toasted pine nuts and Parmesan added as toppings. You can also substitute it for fresh basil in wintertime Zucchini Pancakes.
- Of course, this pesto base is perfect for making a classic pesto pasta sauce. For the sauce, toast 1/4 cup pine nuts and grate 1/3 cup Parmesan. Toss these with the defrosted pesto base and hot cooked pasta, or puree the nuts and cheese into the basil first for a smoother sauce. If you’re feeling lazy, just roughly chop a frozen cube or two of pesto base, throw it in with the hot pasta, toss until the pesto melts, and divide into bowls, grating Parmesan directly onto each serving.
- Although pine nuts and Parmesan are standard, other flavors can add a fun twist. I like to mix chopped Kalamata olives, feta, and a bit of ground coriander for a Greek pesto. Add peanuts, goat cheese, and a few red pepper flakes when using Thai basil. Purple basil is beautiful in Indian dishes; replace the garlic with 2 tablespoons orange peel and add 1 teaspoon cumin, then mix in farmer’s cheese or queso blanco to serve. For other variations, add other fresh herbs or skip the basil altogether (see below).
Twice as Tasty
Once I started playing with basil pesto variations, the next step—half-basil or nonbasil pesto—was obvious. Suddenly I had a way to save other summer favorites, including arugula, cilantro, sorrel, and fava beans, simply substituting them cup for cup in Basil Pesto Base.
I make one of my favorite nonbasil pestos long before the basil plant is ready for its first haircut or the year’s garlic is ready for harvest. About the time the garlic begins to curl its scapes, we realize we’ve again overplanted the peas and need to pull out young plants to give enough room for the remaining vines to climb the pea fence. Fortunately, garlic scapes taste like mild garlic, and pea shoots taste like fresh peas. Blend them together, and you have a perfect springtime pesto.
Spring Pesto with Pea Shoots
1 cup pea shoots
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of freshly ground pepper
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
In a food processor, combine all ingredients except the olive oil; blend to combine. Add just enough water to blend, and then puree until very smooth. Stir in the olive oil by hand. Spoon into two ice cube trays or five 1/2-cup containers and freeze. Makes about 2-1/2 cups.
Tips & Tricks
- The garlic scape is the “flower” of a hardneck garlic plant. The long stalk grows upward from the center of the head, curling as it begins to form a bud. If left in place, the scape becomes woody and the plant puts all of its energy into setting seed rather than developing the bulb underground. Because garlic takes far longer to grow from seed, your best bet is to cut off the scapes while they are young, tender, and easy to use in any recipe that calls for garlic.
- Pea shoots are the youngest tendrils and leaves of your sugar snap or shell pea plant. They’re packed with nutrients and as delicious as young peas. You can sneak them from the tops of any pea plant; it will encourage the vines to be bushier and set more flowers. If you’re thinning your crop, add the roots and lowest, toughest leaves to your compost pile.
- For serving a pea shoot pesto base, I tend to add the classic Parmesan and pine nuts. Walnuts and goat cheese are a tasty alternative pairing; for an easy yet fancy dinner, mix goat cheese and pesto base can be used as a filling for wonton ravioli.
- The options for other pestos created using this same base recipe are endless; just about any green, leafy herb can be stored in the same way. Strongly flavored herbs, like mint, are best combined with basil or parsley, but arugula, spinach, cilantro, and even sorrel can stand on their own.