Pesto Straight from the Garden
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Today was Pesto Making Morning. I have been waiting months and months for this day.
Nothing is more satisfying than opening up your garage freezer and seeing every shelf and cubby packed to the gills with food you’ve preserved yourself. People who actually know how to can have it even better, because those gorgeous jars lined up are easy to admire without any ice in the way. But I don’t have the patience for actual canning and, since most of it involves using a hot water bath, I feel it overcooks the food I’m trying to preserve. So, freezing in mason jars is my answer.
With any luck, I will have enough pesto to last me another year. My basil starts got off to a very bad start. Lethal, actually.
I have a big work desk up in my loft above the fireplace and the pellet stove. Sometime around February, Bill will hang two shoplights from hooks he’s screwed into the ceiling. I attach mismatched sets of chains to the ceiling hook, so that the actual lights sit only 2 inches above the top of the plant, whether it be tomatoes, or basil, or bell peppers. The chains can be adjusted as the plants grow.
You don’t need a fancy, schmansy gro-light to grow your own plants from seed. Forget those fancy lights the gardening catalogs feature (and charge a fortune for). All it takes is two regular old 48” shoplights, each with one “warm” and one “cool” bulb inserted. I usually start out with a 3 inch tall plastic tray that’s about 18 x 12 inches, filled with potting soil. I plant my seeds according to the packet’s directions (very important, the depth of your seeds!) and keep the soil moist with a daily spray of water. When the first green shows up, I turn ON those lights and keep up the misting on a daily basis. (Until the seedlings erupt, there’s no need for light).
When the seedlings are a few inches high, I drag the tray out to my wonderful, if leaky, greenhouse and transplant them to 4 inch pots. I bring those back into the house on an old cookie sheet (with a rim) and with any luck, I’ll end up with lots and lots of plants, ready to either transplant to one gallon pots, or put directly into the soil, when the weather warms up. Once they’re in 4 inch pots, I’ll switch from spraying with water to actually using a small watering can with a long spout. That’s why you want to make sure you have a good, solid rimmed cookie sheet under your pots to catch the draining water. But don’t overwater!!
Well, I have a tendency to get ahead of myself, when the endless Oregon rain and gray skies make me long for the gardening days to come. This last year I started my seeds way too soon. The basil seedlings were doing great, but I got a white fly infestation. I’ll need to make a note to myself so that I don’t make the same mistake next year. Basil plants are very susceptible to white fly indoors and I wasn’t able to kill them. Instead, those little buggers killed all 40-something basil plants. Ugh. My heart was broken.
And what’s worse is, by the time that happened, it was very, very late for starting all over again. But I can’t live without pesto and I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
So, I started them all over and was able to move the plants out to the greenhouse in late spring. I decided not to bother putting them down in the actual vegetable garden, because soon the weather will be changing and it will become way too chilly and wet for the basil to thrive. Besides, once those rains hit, I have no intention of getting down to that garden and working in the mud. No, indeed: I am a fair-weathered gardener.
So, I now have 57 one gallon pots of basil and to date have made exactly one tiny 8 ounce jar to freeze.
Today’s harvest was a lot more gratifying. It’s gorgeous! Mother Nature is something.
In the past, I would just pinch off the leaves in order to make my basil. But last spring, I added this nifty little tool to my arsenal. I love tools. Love, love, love them. Anything that saves me grief and aggravation usually finds its way onto my UPS driver’s truck. Thank you, Amazon, for spoiling us all with that 2 day delivery.
This micropruner allows me to cut off multiple leaves in one fell swoop. Not only does this save me time; it prevents me from having green stains under my nails for days. And since I’ve got arthritis in the old hands, it saves me some pain, to boot.
I use these babies all the time in the garden. They’re very small, so you wouldn’t want to trim roses or anything woody with them, but for small stems and for deadheading, they can’t be beat. They are super sharp and easy on the hands. You might want to try them out. Let me know what you think. Here’s the link: http://amzn.to/2y7dMcl
When all the stems have been cut off, I throw those stems into the chickens’ compost bin (an old cookie jar I keep on the counter) and get moving. I throw about 1/3 of the leaves into the food processor and whir away. If you’re not lucky enough to own a food processor, you can use your blender. When that brings the level of the basil down, I add another bunch. Then I pour extra virgin olive oil into the tube and whir away. I finish processing up the rest of the basil, then add in a dollop of garlic, being careful not to be heavy handed, like I tend to be.
When am I going to learn that lesson, by the way? You can always add more, but you can’t subtract. I remember when I was first learning to cook (a long, long process), I’d throw in a big dash of this and that, not having the slightest clue what those herbs or spices even tasted like. (What an idiot). Anyway, I guess by the fact that I’m even discussing this means I must be learning moderation, which is a small miracle. Now I need to work on consistency.
Back to the pesto. Add in a little salt and pepper, mix, stop and TASTE. You can then go back and adjust your garlic and olive oil and salt.
Some people will add grated parmesan to the mix now and some will add toasted pine nuts or walnuts, as well. I prefer to wait and add them after I’ve defrosted the pesto. The idea of frozen parmesan seems a bit yucky to me, personally.
Here are the best graters I have ever owned.
These are very, very sharp and very, very sturdy, and not very expensive. I own three of these and I use the one with the smallest holes for whole nutmeg and for very fine parmesan. I use the medium one for grating chunk parmesan and the grater with slots for topping off a pasta dish with shaved parmesan right before serving. The slotted one is also wonderful for shaving chocolate. A word of caution, though: make sure you don’t grate off your fingertips by getting too close to the blades. Only grate big enough chunks that you can do it safely. Here is the link if you want to check it out: This is the super fine grater for Parmesan and nutmeg: http://amzn.to/2yw2rUN . For a bit coarser grind for Parmesan, I’d go for this one: http://amzn.to/2y6fBqh. For the grater that gives you nice, even shaves for chocolate or Parmesan: http://amzn.to/2xmUO2S. Try and enjoy! I use mine nearly every day!!
When freezing in jars, it’s best to use ones that are straight up and down on the sides, that don’t have a “shoulder.” For a long time I would use mason jars that narrowed at the top, and inevitably, the jar would crack when I was defrosting. I found out that when the mixture expands while freezing, it will put pressure on the shoulder and when it starts to warm on the counter, it will crack the glass. Also, I gather that this cracking tends to happen more with liquidy things like, say, chicken broth and also with the larger sizes of mason jars.
My pesto fills about ¾ of an 8 ounce jelly jar, which is perfect for pasta for 4. I don’t like to make it in larger batches because it’ll just go bad in the fridge and I’d rather not refreeze any leftover pesto. But it depends on how big your family is and how much pesto you would use at one stretch.
p.s. Whether buying or growing your own basil, make sure they don’t have flowers! Once flowers start to form on your basil, the entire plant turns horribly bitter. I once lost half my basil crop to bitterness. Unfortunately, I only discovered the bitterness AFTER going to all the work of making pesto. I hadn’t kept up with the pruning to trim the tops and prevent flowers from forming. But if you ever do find a flower on your basil, pinch that flower off and take a bite of a leaf. If it’s bitter, cut the entire plant down to the ground and let it regrow. It will fine when it has grown again, in terms of bitterness. But I always test my basil before making pesto, just in case.
Good luck if you’d like to try it!