I had homemade pesto for dinner last night. And the night before, and last weekend, too.
Now that this year’s crop of basil is up and growing strong, I don’t mind using up the rest of last year’s batch of pesto, which I froze in Pesto Cubes. All winter long, I carefully ration out the cubes, savoring a pesto-rich meal every now and again but taking care not to use up my stash. For me, having pesto in the freezer is like having money in a savings account. It makes me feel secure — even wealthy. I realize how ridiculous this sounds, but it’s the truth.
Some years I freeze homemade applesauce; other years I can tomatoes or make pickled beets. But every year I make one or more big batches of pesto and freeze it. Basil is so easy to grow, and making pesto couldn’t be simpler. A few common ingredients, a minute or two in a blender or food processor, and you’ve got your own aromatic ambrosia.
How to Grow Basil
If you’re growing basil from seed, it will take three to four months for the plants to get large enough for a substantial harvest. Basil is a heat-loving plant; frost kills it outright, but even temperatures in the 50s slow its growth. If your first fall frost arrives before the middle of October, you may want to hunt for basil seedlings to plant instead of starting from seed. Another option is to grow basil in containers that you can move to a warm spot during early cool stretches in fall.
The standard basil used for pesto is called Genovese. However, there are more than three dozen other types of basil, including specialty varieties with overtones of lemon, cinnamon and lime.
You can sow basil seeds directly in the garden, but I prefer to sow them in cell packs or small flats so I can coddle them for the first four weeks or so. In the garden, grow basil in full sun and moist but well-drained soil. The plants grow slowly at first but pick up steam once they get established.
Basil prefers growing in a lightly moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil that contains lots of organic matter. Like most herbs, basil is not a heavy feeder, so there is no need to add any fertilizer to the soil around your plants.
It’s not too late to plant basil. The seeds germinate and grow quickly in warm, moist soil. Buy a few plants and you’ll get your first harvest that much sooner. Basil is a very forgiving plant; harvest half or more of the leaves and the plants will regrow quickly and be ready for another harvest in a month or so.
Have you seen the price of pre-made pesto at the supermarket? Five dollars or more for a 4-ounce container. I easily freeze twenty or thirty of these during a summer, and probably give away almost as much. Maybe my “savings account” of frozen pesto cubes isn’t so ridiculous after all.
Use the recipe as a guideline, adjusting the ingredients to suit your taste.
- 3 cups packed fresh basil leaves (picked off the stems)
- 1/2 cup almonds or walnuts
- 3/4 cup grated parmesan
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- salt to taste
- water (optional; amount varies)
Method: Put all the ingredients in a blender or food processor until finely chopped. (If you’re ambitious you can use a mortar and pestle.) You can leave it a little chunky or process the mixture until it’s smooth. I often add a few drizzles of water so it forms a soft paste, especially if I’m going to freeze it.
Freezing is easy: Just spoon the pesto into Pesto Cubes or some other small containers, leaving a bit of space at the top, because the pesto will expand as it freezes.
More pesto recipes: Read Make Your Own Pesto.
By summer’s end, my freezer is well-stocked with Pesto Cubes.
- Most pesto recipes call for fresh garlic but I’m not a fan so I leave it out.
- Most recipes also call for pine nuts, but I usually substitute almonds or walnuts, which are less expensive.
- Many recipes also call for fresh parsley but I prefer straight basil.
- Toasting the nuts in a heavy skillet or 300-degree oven brings out their flavor — but watch them carefully so they don’t burn.
- Some people leave out the parmesan cheese in pesto they plan to freeze; they add it to the defrosted pesto just before serving.