Culinate editor’s note: Here’s Kristy Athens’ advice on growing and preserving that beloved summer herb, basil.
The best way to store basil is to freeze it — either whole leaves or as pesto.
To collect the leaves early in the season, pinch or snip the biggest leaves. I tried to have enough plants that I could forgo any leaves that had been burned by the sun or excessively nibbled by bugs. I had small, pointy clippers that were faster than pinching and didn’t result in turning my thumbnail and forefinger black. As the season wore on, I also clipped off any flower stalks that emerged from the center of each branch. As soon as the plant starts flowering, it stops making leaves, so you’ll get more yield from the plant if you stunt the growth of its flowers.
I washed and thoroughly dried the leaves, and laid them out on a large, clean dish towel and folded the top over them, gently turning it over every once in a while. To freeze whole leaves, put them on a cookie sheet in the freezer, then into a storage bag or container.
Regardless of your diligence with removing the flowers, the plant will stall out in August. At that point, I cut the plants at the stem, shook them out a bit to encourage any spiders to vacate before I rinsed them, allowed them to dry, and then meticulously snipped every leaf of every size into a bowl. Wear comfortable shoes; this takes a while.
There are many pesto recipes in the world; I basically chopped up the leaves I had and then did approximately one-third that volume each in pine nuts (smashed in a mortar), Parmesan cheese (grated and then chopped), and garlic (pressed). I threw in some salt and a lot of olive oil. It’s a consistency thing — you want the oil to hold everything together, but not be drippy. Try a little and see how the flavors balance — can you taste the cheese and nuts? Feel a little zing from the fresh garlic? Enough salt? You’re ready.
Rip off about six inches from a roll of waxed paper and tear that in half. Spoon a heaping tablespoon onto the center of each square and fold the sides over to make a little, flat bundle. Put the bundles into a storage bag or tub [in the freezer].
Or, freeze the pesto in an ice-cube tray and later empty the tray into a storage bag. If you do this, you should dedicate the tray to pesto (unless you like garlic-tinged ice) — the strong flavors sink into the plastic even after a thorough cleaning. I have read of leaving the garlic out, as it can turn bitter in the freezer; I never had this problem.
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