Basil pesto

I know — basil pesto is so mid-90s.

But it has staying power, and who doesn’t like it (outside of my three children)? Yes, we can outdo ourselves from time to time, experimenting with other herbs like parsley, or nuts or arugula — but basil is so classic, and infinitely usable.

Not to mention freezable. Which is why I harvest my basil in large amounts, and make a couple batches at a time for that purpose. We eat pesto pizzas and pastas all winter long, enjoying a brief reminder of summer during the long, dark nights of January.

About 8 or so years ago, I grew my first basil plant. When it was large enough, I began harvesting leaves to make a batch of pesto. Problem was, I didn’t know how to harvest the plant — so I picked individual leaves off my 2-foot plant until it looked naked and ashamed in the daylight, unable to find a single leaf with which to cover itself. The plant was pretty much history after that, and I was left wondering how in the world people make multiple batches of pesto. Do they just grow a lot of basil plants, and hope for a single batch from each one?

Then there was the year I figured out that, once your basil gets those flowers on the top, your basil pesto will no longer taste right, but rather wrong — something like pesto mixed with black licorice. I found myself at the Broad Ripple Farmer’s Market a couple weeks ago, and felt genuine panic when I saw a vendor selling live basil plants with huge stalks of flowers already growing atop. What if someone bought those, and planted them, and tended them, and used the leaves, only to end up with an anise-flavored dinner? How could the farmer be so irresponsible in her herb vending? Like the me of 2002, not everyone knows not to eat flowered basil (unless, of course, you’re into that kind of thing, meaning, a person who likes licorice pesto).

We’ve covered before the fact that I’m a slow learner. I finally figured out that it’s best to harvest basil before it flowers — and that if you do, it’ll even keep growing. And when you harvest, you cut stalks just above the point where two more stalks venture out. Only then do you remove the leaves for use. When I treat my two basil plants kindly (is it kind to vigorously pinch off the first sign of a flower?), I get many batches of pesto from each one.

My go-to recipe for pesto is from Ina Garten. But it’s a variation of countless similar recipes — hers calls for both pine nuts and walnuts. I like the combo, but in a pinch I make it with all walnuts (esp. when pine nuts are crazy expensive, or — as I was told by the guy at Trader Joe’s yesterday — held up by the FDA at the shipping docks for some bizarre reason, explaining why the shelves of many groceries are pignolia-bare right now). Hers was also the first recipe I came upon that implored the reader to cover the pesto with a coating of olive oil before freezing, to preserve the green color. A great call — it works like a charm. Her original recipe is linked here — but I’ll reprint my modifications, which include using a little less olive oil and salt:


Basil Pesto (adapted from a recipe by Ina Garten)

Feel free to use all walnuts rather than a combo. To freeze, pour pesto into small glass (baby food) jars, or into ice cube trays. Cover with a drizzle of olive oil, and freeze. (Pop pesto cubes out of ice cube trays when frozen, and keep in plastic ziploc bags for thawing one or a few at a time.) This recipe halves well.

  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup walnuts
  • 3 Tbsp minced garlic (about 9 med. cloves)
  • 5 cups (gently-packed) basil leaves
  • 3/4 tsp fine-grain salt
  • 1 tsp ground pepper
  • 1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 cup freshly-grated parmesan

Place the nuts and garlic in a food processor. Process for about 15 seconds. Add the basil leaves, salt, and pepper, and process until finely minced. Scrape the sides and corners of workbowl to incorporate. With the machine running, slowly pour the olive oil through the feed tube until pureed. Add the parmesan, and process another 30 seconds. Taste for seasoning.

Use immediately, or store in the refrigerator/freezer with a thin layer of olive oil on top to protect from air.

11 thoughts on “Basil pesto

  1. Seat me at the kids’ table because I don’t like basil at all. It doesn’t have to be picked at the wrong time to have that strong licorice taste to it, with a VERY unpleasant aftertaste. I might try that recipe with parsley, though — it’s a little bitter but WAY milder, to me, than basil.

    1. Parsley pesto is a good one to try. The recipe should work (you can half it) using an equal substitution of parsley. Good with grilled sausage.

      I can’t call into question anyone’s dislike of an herb, since I am that way about cilantro.

  2. I dont know what you’re talking about with this “old school” thing. Which shows how not up on food I am…probably! Pesto is always in style if you ask me.

    I am interested in this freezing basil thing. I have a garbage bad half full with basil right now. Help!

  3. Once upon a time, my brother unplugged a second freezer my parents had for storing garden goodness, ruining an entire summer’s worth of basil pesto variations. I think tears were involved. It was tragic. Classic pesto never goes out of style, and a top ten culinary memory of mine is eating basil pesto with gnocchi at a tiny train station/house/restaurant somewhere in Italy. I think I cried then too, it was so delicious.

    1. oh, sounds DIVINE! (the whole Italy thing… not the unfortunate freezer incident…)

      I’ve yet to make my own gnocchi. It’s on the kitchen bucket list.

  4. Ok, Im on the pesto…its the only thing I usually make with the basil. I was under the impression you froze the basil itself! But after re-reading, I was mistaken. I was picturing fresh basil in the winter months for a moment……
    Pesto will have to do! And I havent tried Ina’s recipe yet. So thats exciting. I trust her…and you. ALthough you’re the only really slim cook I really trust.

    1. You know, I do think I’ve read about freezing basil. But you have to pre-chop it, and freeze it in ice cube trays, covered in olive oil. If you don’t put it in oil, it will turn black.

      I’ve never tried it this way — but might be a nice addition to winter pasta sauces.

  5. Thanks Katy. I discovered the pleasures of homemade pesto last summer but hadn’t gotten the guts to freeze it– was sure I’d do something wrong. We’ll also be thanking you come January, when we have homemade pesto chicken pasta on the table.

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