Tell people that you’ve got an herb garden and you’ll get some funny looks. Most of them think herbs are those dried flakes you get in little plastic bottles in the grocery store. They seem to add more color than flavor half the time. Why on earth would you go to all the trouble to grow your own?
Now that grocery stores are starting to carry fresh herbs more people are getting turned on to the huge flavor you can get from fresh. But even the best handling puts at least a couple of days between harvesting and cooking. I haven’t done any blind taste tests, but the herbs I’ve brought in from my yard always seem to be more flavorful than anything at the store.
One of the easiest I’ve found to grow, and most useful, is basil. You only need one or two plants to supply all you’ll need for an average size family. If you think it’s going to be a little tiny thing and plant a dozen of them (don’t ask me how I know this) you’re going to have a huge harvest by the end of the summer.
Fortunately, it’s really easy to turn all the leafy goodness into pesto. And pesto freezes nicely, so you can have fresh summery flavor throughout the year.
fresh basil leaves
extra virgin olive oil
fresh garlic cloves
Strip enough leaves from the basil plant to fill a loosely-packed cup. A little stem left in won’t kill you, but the texture will make you fee like you’re grazing. Put the leaves in a food processor with one clove of garlic, one-half teaspoon of salt, and one tablespoon of olive oil. Don’t bother measuring the oil, you’ll be adding more as you go.
Run the food processor until the leaves are mostly chopped. Take the lid off and scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Keep repeating the cycle of adding a little more oil, processing, then scraping the sides until you have a thick green paste. Not quite as stiff as peanut butter, but more than mayonnaise.
Your one cup of leaves will probably reduce to less than a quarter-cup, including the oil. If you have a big processor you can do several cups at a time.
Now comes the great tip. Get some plastic ice-cube trays at the local dollar store. Don’t try to use the same ones you use for ice. You’ll never get the flavor out of them. Fill them with pesto and freeze them overnight.
To remove them you’ll probably need to do a partial thaw. Fill the sink with about a half-inch of hot water. (Don’t boil it, just hot tap water is fine.) Lower the tray into the water but don’t let any water come over the top. Give it about 20-30 seconds then bang the tray upside-down onto a paper towel on the counter. Most of the cubes should pop right out. The ones that don’t, stick a paring knife down the side and pop them out.
Let the cubes sit for a half minute for the edges to re-solidify, then put them in a zip-top freezer bag. Each cube will probably be about two to four tablespoons. If you want to follow a recipe closely you can measure your tray to see how much each cube holds.
I’ve stored pesto this way for up to a year and it still tastes fresh when you add it to a sauce. One cube added to a 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes makes an instant red sauce.
One cube plus one tablespoon each of butter and extra virgin olive oil makes a great pesto pasta. Add crushed, toasted pine nuts and grated Parmesan for this one.
Or my personal favorite: melt one stick (¼ lb) of butter until it is just softened all the way through, then mix in one cube of pesto. Spread on crusty bread and toast for garlic-basil toast.