There is nothing like burying your face in a garden fresh bouquet of basil and this has been a great summer with plenty of sunshine for this hot weather herb.  Local farms offer many varieties at the local markets or if you are growing your own and you can manage to keep it watered and the flowers pinched back it will be good for another several weeks. Of course, it is simple and delicious to throw a few basil leaves into a sauce or a salad, but when I find myself with a lot of basil all at one time, I make pesto.

From the Italian word ‘to pound’, pesto was traditionally (i.e. before food processors) made with a mortar and pestle.  The simplest form of this flavorful recipe was basil, garlic, salt and just enough olive oil to make a paste.  I usually use a food processor, but this morning as I worked on this column, I made a half batch with the mortar and pestle method and I can attest that it works well. It did take a little extra time to do all the pounding, it was like a mini arm work-out and the cleanup was easier than cleaning out my food processor.

There are many variations on this basic recipe depending on what you have available and what you like. You can substitute other fresh leafy herbs such as cilantro, parsley, mint or tarragon for some or all of the basil.  Other nuts can be used in place of pine nuts, which can be pricey.  My ‘go-to’ is walnuts, but cashews and almonds also work well.

An important word of advice when it comes to storing excess pesto is that fresh basil will turn a very dark color when exposed to air.  It’s not dangerous, just un-lovely. To prevent this from happening to my pesto, I store pesto in small ziplock bags.  That way whenever I want a scoop of pesto, I open up the bag, scoop out what I need then squeeze all the air out of the bag before sealing it.  In this form, pesto will keep in the fridge for a week or so, and in the freezer it can last all year until your next crop of basil is ready for picking.

Pesto

2 cups of packed basil leaves and small stems

½ cup nuts: pine nuts, walnuts , almonds, or cashews

1/3 cup parmesan, romano, pecorino or other hard cheese (optional)

3 cloves garlic (or more if you like)

salt and/or a few drops of lemon juice as needed

1-2 Tbs olive oil

*for a vegan option delete the cheese and add miso and or brewer’s yeast if desired.

If using a mortar and pestle, start with the garlic and nuts. When you have pounded those two ingredients into a creamy paste, add basil and cheese while continuing to pound.  When using a food processor, add the garlic, nuts, basil and cheese all at once to create a paste  Drizzle olive oil as needed to make a paste. Add salt and/or lemon as desired for taste.

Use Pesto as a topping for pasta or other grain, on pizza, potatoes or on grilled meats.  If you find yourself with a lot of basil, make several batches at a time and freeze the extra.