Dispatches From Whitcomb Street

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basil pistou or pesto to freeze

After years of spindly, stunted, slug- and squirrel-chewed plants, our basil grew mightily this summer. What started as ten tiny seeds has grown into two monstrous hedges of bushy green leaves, staggering under their own weight. 

This is a good thing.

Here are some basic proportions for making basil pesto (or pistou) in the fall, to freeze and use all winter long. That little hit of chlorophyll in deepest March—it can change everything.

We prefer to process and store basil into a very basic pistou (Provence—garlic, basil, and olive oil) rather than in a full-on pesto (Genoa—the same, plus pine nuts and cheese). For one thing, pistou is more concentrated and takes up less space in our always-too-full freezer. It’s also a little more flexible, usage-wise (we just add cheese and nuts when we use it, if we want them). 

Add pine nuts during processing if you want pesto. Leave the cheese out for storage in any case—it goes stringy and weird in the freezer. Just stir in plenty of cheese before using.

Pistou or pesto to freeze

When harvesting basil, always cut just above a leaf junction, where you see two tiny mini-leaves nestled in the crotch of the stem. These will grow into new stems, encouraging your plant to bush out.

Pick your basil in the morning, before the heat of the day has wilted the leaves. Strip all the good-looking leaves off the stems, discarding any flower heads. Do this outside if possible.

Let the leaves soak in cold water for fifteen or twenty minutes; then spin or pat dry and spread out on kitchen towels. Let them air dry thoroughly, until you see no more droplets of water on the leaf surfaces.

Meanwhile, gather some extra-virgin olive oil and peel a head of garlic.

Weigh your leaves. Our basic proportions for pistou/pesto are:

  • 75 grams of basil leaves
  • 2 tablespoons of pine nuts (if making pesto)
  • 1/2 cup of olive oil
  • one medium clove of garlic
  • 1/8 tsp table salt
  • 1/8 tsp fresh-ground pepper

Yes, pesto and pistou both mean “pounded”. But we make our pesto in a food processor, come and get us, pesto police. If you are interested in making pesto the traditional way, check out Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking—she has a wonderful description of the method.

Begin with your garlic—drop it and a few grains of coarse salt into a food processor fitted with a steel blade and let it run for a few seconds until the garlic is well-minced. Add pine nuts, if using, and let it run a few more seconds, until the nuts are reduced to a crumbly paste.

Begin adding your basil leaves and olive oil in batches—stuff in a handful of leaves, close the processor, and drizzle in some oil as it runs. When that handful of leaves is fully chopped, add another. Keep going until all the basil and oil has been used up.

A double batch of this fits comfortably in an 11-cup processor. This pesto is liquid enough to be a serious inconvenience if it leaks out of the machine, so don’t make so much at once that it goes over the blade’s center head.

Stir in salt and pepper and pour into a small pitcher or a big measuring cup. 

Scrape the paste into oiled ice cube trays, filling each area about 3/4 full—or, better yet, in silicone muffin or ice trays. Set on a baking sheet and freeze till hard, at least 6 hours.

Pop the cubes out (if you have used hard plastic, dip the bottom of the tray in hot water to help loosen them, and have a thin spatula handy) and place into storage containers. 

Use a cube or two at a time. Stir into soups, use on pasta, spread on bread—man, basil is the best.

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