Fresh basil is abundant in both our gardens and the Farmers’ Markets right now, a most welcome fragrance and flavor indeed. High summer is basil season, wonderful torn and tossed into salads, sprinkled over flavorful heirloom tomato slices, perhaps adding fresh mozzarella cheese.
A great favorite is fresh basil pesto, the classic Italian “paste,” if you will, combining the complimentary tastes of basil, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, garlic, and pine nuts. Most often tossed with hot pasta, pesto has many other more interesting applications. I use it as a sauce for grilled pizza instead of the usual tomato, and stir it by big spoonfuls into hot brown rice, even wild rice. But don’t overlook tossing it in with the locally grown new potatoes and fingerlings so tasty right now. Pesto new potatoes might just become your favorite potato salad, served at room temperature with grilled chicken or fish.
Spoon pesto onto slices of sourdough bread, top with a slice of tomato, a pinch of salt and pepper, and a thin slice of Mozzarella cheese. Grill over indirect heat until the cheese is melted and the bread lightly toasted, and serve as an appetizer or even dinner in this hot weather.
Pesto is delicious stirred into wilted spinach along with chopped sun-dried tomatoes. A huge hit at Saturday’s Farmers’ Market was fresh pesto stirred into sautéed summer squashes cooked with a handful of sliced purple spring onions now available. Summer squash has little flavor of its own, and fresh herb pesto steps up to the plate as a flavor addition. Stir it into steamed green beans. Add it to cooked dried beans such as Great Northern or Cannelini, and serve it on toasted sourdough bread.
Buy it now in quantity, make up a large batch, and freeze it in small containers or even ice cube trays, popping the cubes into a freezer bag for storage. Over the long winter, pesto reminds us of the lush days of summer.
While basil is most typically used, substitute fresh parsley, mint or cilantro for basil, walnuts or pistachios for pine nuts. Use it as a sauce for grilled chicken, fish or pork, or roll it into flank steak pinwheels. Play with your food, experiment—you’ll find combinations you’ll love, fast becoming new family favorites.
Fresh Basil Pesto
1-2 cloves garlic, rough chopped
½ cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
¼ cup pine nuts, dry toasted (nuts are optional)
freshly ground black or white pepper to taste
salt to taste
¾-1 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 cups fresh basil, leaves only
Place all ingredients except basil in a food processor and process to a paste. Don’t over-process it—leave some texture to it. Add the basil and process again. Taste and correct the seasonings, and enjoy your creation in imaginative ways!