2016-08-18 / From The Garden

The Plusses of Pesto

By Cynthia Gibson


Basil pesto is made to taste, based on the ingredients at hand. Most pesto recipes call for Parmesan cheese, but Romano can be used for a stronger flavor. Walnuts can be substituted for pine nuts. Basil pesto is made to taste, based on the ingredients at hand. Most pesto recipes call for Parmesan cheese, but Romano can be used for a stronger flavor. Walnuts can be substituted for pine nuts. Pesto and balsamic vinegar have been at the top of the taste charts for the past 20 years and do not seem to be moving down the ladder of popularity.

Why is pesto so good? Because it has a taste made from leaves that are pungent, tangy and sweet. It is a versatile sauce that is great with pasta, of course, but it’s also fantastic when drizzled over sea bass or a grilled steak.

Pesto has become the all-around sauce for summer and August is the month to pick basil leaves to start making and storing your pesto for the fall and winter.

Indigenous to Africa, sweet basil, or what we refer to as Italian basil, grows as a perennial and non-woody stemmed shrub. Yes, a shrub. Americans typically grow the herb all summer long in gardens, on window sills, or in pots on the patio and then toss the spent stems in the fall.

What many do not know is that you can bring your plant indoors, place the pot in a saucer in a south-facing window, and nurse it all winter long. It will continue to produce smaller but still pungent and very tasty leaves. By spring, the leaves will be large and can be replanted in a larger pot with fresh potting soil, ready to go for the coming summer.

There is a chemistry to basil that creates distinct scents and flavors. First of all, it is a member of the mint family. Basil contains methyl chavicol, eugenol and linalool, chemical compounds that are real even though they sound like extraterrestrial plants. Sweet basil, or Ocimum basilicum, has more eugenol than others, as this substance imparts its sweetness. Methyl chavicol lends tastes of anise and cinnamon, while linalool adds floral flavors. The different varieties of basil – lemon, cinnamon, Thai, or purple opal – simply have different proportions of these components.

The very best thing about basil is that it is so easy to work with. If you are not in the mood to make pesto, just place a leaf or six in a salad to give it a zing!

Homemade pizza is the perfect vehicle for fresh basil leaf garnish, but it is best not to bake basil leaves on top of a pizza, as they will look like charred pieces of cloth.

Garden tomatoes and basil peak simultaneously, and this is the month for this dynamic duo to dance on your taste buds. The tiniest bit of sea salt and fresh pepper and a drizzle of olive oil is all that is necessary for a perfect salad or lunch. Add a bit of crusty bread and you will swear you are in Tuscany.

One of the simplest sweet-savory summer hors d’oeuvres is a thin slice of fresh fig (for sweetness) and a small dollop of chevre wrapped in a basil leaf and secured with a toothpick.

For those who do not care for the strong flavor of goat cheese, soften the taste with a small slice of homemade or fresh mozzarella. These sultry summer days also call for dishes that are cool. Cold pasta with cold basil pesto and freshly grated Parmesan cheese is always delicious.

Add a quarter cup of fresh basil leaves to your favorite gazpacho recipe and you will have a winning cold soup. Serve the gazpacho in a lovely martini or squat champagne glass, and presto! You have summer in a glass.

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport.

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