Intensely flavourful, herbal, cheesy, and garlicky – what’s not to love about fresh basil pesto? If you’ve got a bounty of basil in your garden, you’ve got the makings for this classic Italian sauce that livens up every dish you can think of to plop it onto.
However you say it, basil is a herb beloved by many people. Its name comes from Greek and means ‘king of herbs’. Basil is a delicate herb — not handling cold weather well, turns black when cut or exposed to heat, freezing, or acid, loses much of its flavour when dried, and doesn’t keep more than a few days once cut. But basil’s fantastic flavour is what makes it the king of the herbs. Use it fresh in recipes or add it in the last few minutes of cooking to preserve that taste, which is herbal, slightly licorice, even a bit sweet and perfumy, yet pungent — hard to describe.
Basil’s most well-known use is in a classic Italian pesto; vibrantly green and intensely garlicky, slightly cheesy, pungent, yet with that herbal sweetness from the fresh basil leaves. A dollop of basil pesto can elevate any meal to gourmet status. Slather it on pasta of course, but you can also coat steamed new potatoes with it, add a spoonful to vinaigrettes or salads, plop some on top of freshly grilled or pan-fried meats or seafood, stir it into eggs, plop it onto pizza, layer it on sandwiches and burgers . . . . the possibilities are endless.
The word pesto comes from the Italian word ‘pestare’, which means to pound or crush. If I was going to be strictly traditional, that’s what I’d do. But I’m lazy. Plus, I don’t have massive, muscly biker arms or Italian mama pesto-pounding shoulders. I use my food processor. I’m done in five minutes and have jars of beautiful green pesto to use now or to freeze for a taste of summer when we’re in the depths of winter.
Kitchen Frau Notes: Don’t worry if you don’t have exactly the right amount of basil leaves on your hands – there’s no little kitchen police who define exactly what ‘lightly packed’ or ‘tightly packed’ means when relating to springy leaves. Just use a couple of good big handfuls — anywhere from two to four cups of leaves would work. If you’ve got more leaves, just add a drizzle more oil at the end to get the right consistency.
The same goes for the other ingredients, too; a big handful of Parmesan, a small handful of pine nuts, and a sprinkle of salt work as well as the amounts I’ve given below. Trust your instincts. Go by taste.
Classic Basil Pesto
- about 3 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves (100gms), thick stems removed
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts
- 2 cloves garlic
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to drizzle on top
Place the basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, garlic, salt, and pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Process until coarsely ground.
Keep the motor running and add the olive oil in a thin stream, until the pesto is emulsified and smooth with a slightly chunky texture.
Divide into jars, and smooth the surface of the pesto with the back of a spoon. Coat the top with a thin layer of olive oil. This helps prevent the top from oxidizing and turning black. (And no worries – the blackened bits are fine to eat, even if they don’t look as bright and fresh.)
Fresh basil pesto lasts for up to a week in the refrigerator and also freezes well.
*To freeze pesto: Either fill ice cube trays with pesto and pop the frozen cubes into a freezer bag — they’ll keep for up to six months. Or fill small jars or containers, leaving a half-inch headspace, then pour a slick of oil on the surface of the pesto, seal, and freeze for up to a year.
Makes 1 and 1/3 cups.
For more great recipes visit my food blog at www.kitchenfrau.com