Basil in Abundance

One of the things I enjoy about gardening is the ebb and flow. This year, my cucumbers are struggling. First it was a battle for germination. I think I had a storage issue over the winter, or for some reason, did not extract my seeds from last year’s fruits correctly. After I finally got sprouts, the plants didn’t mature long enough to develop true leaves – groundhogs bowled over the bunny-fencing, and all the critters were having a feast. And now, because everything got started so late, I am picking off cucumber beetles and squash beetles.

On the other side of the productivity scale, I have basil. My plants this year are about three foot high bushes. When I go out to pick off the tops to prevent them flowering, I come in with 2 or 3 cups packed with leaves. To use them fresh, I just add them to salads, or stack the leaves, roll them, and using kitchen shears, snip the leaves “chiffonade” over grilled vegetables, or sliced tomato, or sliced tomato and mozzarella, drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Basil is also wonderful in salad dressing:

Basil Vinaigrette

  • ½ C olive oil
  • ¼ Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T sugar or honey
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ C chopped basil

Combine all ingredients and process in a mini-processor, or blender. You can also just combine all of the ingredients in a jar and shake it up until the sugar/honey is dissolved. The oil won’t emulsify the same way, but it will still taste really great.

How does one preserve this bounty?

Dehydrating is one way. In my opinion, the Genovese Basil, most commonly grown in the garden, does not dry as well as other varieties. The variety I choose to dry is the Purple Basil that when dried has a flavor most similar to fresh Genovese Basil.

Another way is to make pesto, which can be frozen in ice-cube trays (for 2 tablespoon portions: 2 cubes = ¼ cup), or larger quantities in freezer bags. I like both methods. The cubes are handy to add to roasted potatoes for something a little different, and the bags are easy to store, and defrost quickly for a fast dinner. Measure 1 cup of pesto into a small freezer bag and press the air out. In the process you will flatten the bag. Put the bags onto a cookie sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next morning, take them off the sheet and store them in your freezer. So here’s a quick, easy dinner:

  1. Defrost 1 bag of pesto.
  2. Cook 1 pound of pasta
  3. Beat three eggs in a large bowl
  4. Drain the pasta and combine with the eggs immediately and toss thoroughly. The heat in the pasta will cook the eggs and make them coat the pasta.
  5. Add the pesto and toss until the pesto is well incorporated.

I’ve done this recipe doubled, and frozen half of it. I reheated it in a casserole, topped with extra parmesan.

Pesto: Home Made is Best-o

The past few weeks have been crazy.  Therefore sitting and “doing nothing,” as I was instructed to do on Mother’s Day morning, was a lovely indulgence.  I used to lie in bed and wait for breakfast to be brought on a tray, but to be honest it drove me crazy.  I am accustomed to getting up at 4:30 am during the week and find it difficult to sleep past 6 on the weekends.  Lying in bed until 8:30 was torture.

This year, I watched the film Fresh, and am considering it as an introductory film for the Politics of Food unit that I teach to my Contemporary Studies class.  If you are just starting on a Journey of Awareness, as Joel Salatin likes to call it, Fresh is a great place to start.  Afterwards, while eating a lovely breakfast cooked by the family I love, we watched cooking shows.

I find the popularity of the Food Network and the Cooking Channel very heartening.  Growing up, I watched the French Chef and the Galloping Gourmet (both on PBS) with my siblings and mother.  And I can remember playing French Chef with my sister.  My husband and I bonded over Ciao Italia, Julia and Jaques Cooking at Home, and America’s Test Kitchen.  To see the popularity of cooking shows grow to the point where they are no longer a PBS thing, but a two-network thing, makes me glad.  It means that people are interested in cooking, even if I don’t have much time to sit and watch these shows anymore.

One of the shows, however, gave me pause.  The challenge was to fix a day’s worth of meals based on what was in the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer.  OK.  I like that idea, since many of us find ourselves staring onto the refrigerator thinking “Hmmm…how am I going to feed everyone today with ketchup, mustard, relish and a half gallon of milk?”  But I found myself immediately removed.  It is a set-up of course, like Bear Grylls – he isn’t really alone in the wilderness, there is a film crew there.  So whatever this woman planned to make for her show, the ingredients would be in her pantry.  But I suspended my disbelief and tried to buy into the fiction.

She got a basket and started taking things off of the shelves in her pantry.  Really?  A basket?  And what was she putting in the basket?  All pre-made, jarred up industrial food.  When she snuggled in the jar of pesto I was disheartened.  All of her talk about making things at home, and preparing healthy meals for her family kind of flew out the window.

The whole show felt like such a sham!  It felt as if it was doing more to support dependence upon the industrial food system, than encouraging people to make things themselves.  Do I grow my own garlic? Well, no, but I use cloves of garlic and leaves from homegrown basil and put it in the blender and make my own pesto.  It really isn’t very challenging.  And it freezes quite nicely in ice-cube trays, which measure out to be 2 tablespoons of pesto.  I would have been much more impressed with this program if the hostess would have pulled the pesto out of her freezer.

In this way, even these cooking shows that nominally claim to promote kitchen survival skills, slinging the “make it yourself” mantra, are modeling industrial food dependence, using ingredients like pancake mix, canned or powdered soup mixes, and commercially prepared jars of pesto.  The media has the public caught in an interesting conundrum: On the one hand, viewers see whole-foods being promoted by the “Health Industry,” and on the other hand, Industrial Food is showing us pre-packaged, pre-made foods that if used to prepare a meal at home have become synonymous with “home-made.” Which they aren’t.  Home-cooked, yes.  Homemade, no.

Another interesting aspect of this show was that as the woman was putting her pantry ingredients in her basket, she was turning everything so the brand name was away from the camera.  That’s normal.  However, this exposed the back of the jars and bags, which exposed the ingredients lists, most of which were rather long.

Making pesto isn’t exactly rocket-science.  Why pay $6.95 for a six-ounce jar of pesto when you can make a gallon of it for the same price?  I know the reasons: I don’t know how; I don’t have time; It’s just easier to pop open a jar.

I can’t really argue with the last reason.  It is easier to pop open a jar.  But not knowing how?  Not with the internet at your disposal!  You can find a recipe for anything!  And not having time?  Pesto takes about 10 or 15 minutes.  Spend a little less time on Facebook and make some pesto to have in your freezer.

You can do this.  One small step for you; one giant step away from Industrial Food.

Pesto

  • one small head of garlic, separated, peeled and chopped
  • one large bunch fresh basil
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts (or almonds)
  • Olive oil (about 1/2 cup)
  • salt and papper to taste
  1. In a blender or food processor, add all of the ingredients except the olive oil.
  2. Pulse the blender a few times.
  3. Add about 1/4 cup of olive oil and pulse a few more times.  If the ingredients are starting to grind, let the processor run until the ingredients are a paste. If the ingredients are NOT starting to grind, add a little more olive oil.  Keep adding the olive oil a little at a time until the ingredients are grinding.
  4. When it has all become a nice paste, mix in salt and pepper.
  5. Use some now and freeze some for later:  Put unused pesto in ice-cube trays and cover with plastic wrap. Freeze for 24 hours.  Pop the pesto out of the trays and store in the freezer in a plastic freezer bag.  Each pesto cube equals 2 Tablespoons of pesto (2 cubes is a 1/4 cup).

We love this to dress sauteed potatoes and green beans.