Basil & Pesto

It’s time to plant basil when night temperatures are staying above 45 degrees. Put it in too soon and temperature sensitive leaves can blacken and plants become sensitive to fungus like botrytis. Come early to mid-July when soil is warm try sowing directly in the ground for a bumper crop in late summer.

I’m often asked which variety is my favorite, a bit like asking a mother which child is her favorite. Genovese is sweet and fragrant with the faintest anise undertone, large green is our best selling and my favorite for pesto. It’s always nice to have a plant or two of lime, lemon or Thai growing in the garden. Because I’m always looking for good container varieties I’m wowed by both our Green Columnar and variegated Pesto Perpetuo, probably a sport from Greek columnar. These plants are propagated by cuttings, they never set seed because they don’t flower. No flowering means they keep vigorously producing leaves. Plants grow two to three feet tall and produce lots of fragrant savory foliage. If you are short of space and are looking for a good container variety give these a try.

There’s no end of wonderful ways to use basil. Try adding whole leaves to your summer sandwiches. Pesto is always a favorite and I have two recipes I like to use. The second with chicken broth is much lower in fat which makes it healthy every day fare.
Genovese Style Pesto
4 cups fresh basil, packed, coarse stems discarded, rinsed and spun dry
½ cup pine nuts
2-3 garlic cloves
2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

Chop basil, nuts and cheese in processor until pulverized. With machine running, gradually add olive oil. Stop and stir down sides of container and process until smooth. Taste before adding salt as it may be unnecessary. Serve on pasta, spread over freshly grilled chicken breasts or zucchini.

I really like Pesto, especially freshly made in summer when basil is abundant in the garden. For every day use I find traditional recipes are a little too luxuriant with oils and fats so I’ve taken to substituting almost all the olive oil with broth, and reducing the amount of cheese and pine nuts. Try this on hot pasta with fresh chunked up tomatoes and a generous amount of sauce. A generous spoonful of soft goat cheese stirred in gives added depth of flavor but is not essential.

Reduced Fat Pesto
1-2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups fresh basil
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
½ cup chicken or vegetable stock

Rinse basil, shake dry and remove leaves from coarse stems. Press or mince garlic before adding garlic, basil, cheese, pine nuts and olive oil to food processor or blender. Process for a few seconds and then slowly add broth until a soft paste is formed. Add salt and pepper as desired.