As summer fades into fall, don’t forget about your precious basil plants. If they are starting to flower and turn woody, you may still be able to get several more weeks of good production if you act now. Go out to your garden and pinch back all of the flowering tops. My plants are enormous by this time of the year, and I harvest my basil and make pesto every week or two. Your basil plants should have multiple stems, so make sure you are harvesting five to six inches down each stem to a point right above an opposing set of leaves. Never cut or pinch your basil mid-stem, because you won’t get further growth on that stem. Luckily, my plants have not yet begun to turn woody (brown at the bottom of the stem toward the root end of the plant), but when that happens, I’ll know that I only have a brief amount of time to harvest all my basil. Basil is an annual, and it’s not going to survive the first frost, so when your stems become woody, that is just the plant starting to protect itself against the coming cooler weather.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll gather all of my basil and make a gargantuan batch of pesto to freeze for the winter. I simply multiply my basic recipe based on how much basil I’ve gathered. I usually try to gather the basil in the morning, because that’s when the plant’s essential oils are at their peak. I freeze my pesto in four-ounce jars, which are the perfect size for one recipe. I love dipping into my freezer in January and pulling out a tiny green jar that reminds me of summer. Remember, if you are freezing your pesto, never add the cheese.
I am a very flexible pesto maker, and don’t always use the same proportions. Pesto is a very forgiving sauce, and as long as all your ingredients are fresh and delicious, it really won’t matter if you use a little more or less of certain ingredients. Make sure you always use only the basil leaves—never the stems or the tops that have begun to flower. The flowering tops will make your pesto taste nasty!
I also have a dynamite pesto chicken recipe in my book that is super easy and delicious. Don’t let your basil die a slow death. Make good use of your basil and put up a batch of pesto this weekend!
- 3 cups fresh basil leaves
- 3–4 garlic cloves, pressed
- ½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
- Sea salt
- About ⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 3–4 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (optional)
- Wash your basil and spin it completely dry in a salad spinner. Put the basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, and a tiny bit of sea salt into the food processor. Turn it on and begin drizzling in the olive oil, blending well. Scrap the sides of the food processor.
- Taste and adjust the salt (but use a very light hand, because you’re still going to be adding cheese). If you are making this batch to freeze, never add cheese at this point. You’ll freeze it without cheese and add cheese when you thaw it out for your pasta.
- Assuming you’re eating it tonight, and are using the pesto for pasta, here’s what you should do: before you drain your pasta, reserve a cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta in a colander and put it back in the hot pot. Add the pesto, toss well with a couple tablespoons of unsalted butter. Then add the cheeses. Toss again and add a little of the pasta cooking water to thin the pesto slightly so that it will coat the pasta like silk. Serve with additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.