Savoring basil fresh or as pesto all winter



Fresh annual herbs and summer dishes go together — dill with cucumbers and yogurt, cilantro in salsas, chervil in creamy soups. But it’s hard to keep them productive. In hot weather they quickly go to flower, leaving barely enough foliage to garnish a deviled egg. That’s why basil is such a wonder. It flowers too, in pungently fragrant white spikes. (Pink-flowered, purple-leaved varieties such as Dark Opal or Purple Ruffles’ are especially gorgeous in bloom.) But this does not mean the end of its culinary season. With regular pruning it can stay productive as the summer wears on.

Pinching the plant’s tips by removing the top two pairs of leaves on each stem is the key. Every time you do this, two

Fresh Basil

new leafy stems will grow from the cut. This keeps the plant bushy. You’ll find many ways to put those leaves to use, from salads to Mediterranean fish stews. If you need extra-large leaves, say, for a layered arrangement of tomato, basil and mozzarella, it’s fine to take big ones from the bottom, but keep picking the tips regularly. If you have trouble using them up you can put them in plastic bags to give to friends, or make a batch of pesto sauce from time to time, mashing the leaves with garlic in a mortar (or briefly in a food processor), then adding grated Parmesan cheese, ground pine nuts and olive oil.

Picking off the flowers also will promote branching and prolong leaf production, though one feels a reluctance. They’re beautiful, and alive with bees. But they’re also handsome in bouquets, and deliciously edible. I leave some for the bees, and as long as I continue to cut off enough branch tips, the plants keep soldiering on.

After a while there will be so many tips — and flowers — that you may not be able to keep up with them all. It’s fine to snip whole branches, or even cut back the entire plant by about a third. This would be a good time to make lots of pesto, which can be frozen.

I usually make a quicker, more versatile version for freezing that consists of just olive oil and basil leaves. (Other ingredients can be added later, in cooking). Sometimes I’ll freeze it by pouring it into an ice cube tray, then ejecting the hard cubes into a freezer bag for easy removal. I’ve also just spooned it into canning jars. It is fairly easy to remove the amount you need from the jar with a knife or a sharp-edged spoon, and it keeps its green color better with this method. I find this a good hasty solution for the real basil emergency — frost. Even the lightest touch of frost will bring basil to a blackened end, so if it is forecast, gather ye fragrant armloads of it while ye may, along with the last tomatoes, and have a glorious end-of-summer party.

 

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

 

 

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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