I just harvested my mini crop of basil from the front garden. Until now we have had unseasonable warm temperatures so I left it in the ground,wanting the leaves to eke out every possible gram of flavor from the soil. But today the temperature is dipping and if the plants stay in the ground much longer, the risk is leaves blackened by the cold. That would leave me and my family and friends without our winter pesto, which is unthinkable.
My basil grows tall and thin, with the leaves a good six inches from the soil, so they’re nice and clean. I don’t rinse them – drying basil leaves is an exercise in futility. I shake them gently but thoroughly, then once I’ve plucked off all the leaves, I rifle through them to dislodge any possible things that don’t need to be there and they are ready for use.
My winter pesto isn’t really pesto. It’s simply garlic, basil leaves, and gorgeous extra-virgin olive oil from my friends at Lucini. (Their Tuscan farm produces the most flavorfully delicate yet robust oil I know, and I use it in all my cooking.)
I peel and trim the garlic cloves, which come directly from Lautrec in south central France, and are among the best the country produces. Called l’ail rose de Lautrec, the fat braids are a thing of beauty, the flavor of the cloves peppery and fulsome, the tradition surrounding them marvelous. The cloves go into the food processor along with the basil leaves and I whir them into a chunky puree, then quickly pour in oil. The resulting mixture is pale green because of all the air in the oil – it calms to a deep green within minutes after being made.I use this blend as a base – for pesto (I added minced walnuts, pine nuts, or almonds and a handful of finely grated Parmigiano), for pizza topping, as a dip for bread or toast or fresh vegetables, in soups and stews.
I always serve some right away as a dip – after making it, the kitchen is filled with the aroma of basil and garlic and it begs to be tasted. The rest, however, I freeze in ice cube trays. Then, when I need some summery, basily zing, I take a cube or two from the freezer and add it to whatever I’m making. Bingo, summer on the plate!
2 large cloves garlic, trimmed
Pinch fine sea salt
6 cups (25g) fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
1 cup (250ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1. Place the garlic cloves and the salt in the work bowl of a food processor, and pulse until finely chopped. Add the basil leaves, and process until you have a chunky puree, then immediately add the oil, with the processor working, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Transfer the mixture to a bowl to serve immediately, or freeze in ice cube trays or the container of your choice.
Makes 1 generous cup (250ml) pesto base