Growing basil is high on my garden list of priorities because I love pesto. Defrosting a container in mid-winter, releasing the rich basil aroma, transports me right back to my sun-filled veggie garden in summer. Besides using it on pasta, try it as a yummy sandwich spread, raw veggie dip or corn chowder spicer-upper. Since pesto in those tiny little jars is so expensive I have the added advantage of saving money.
If you’re growing your own plants, start six weeks before your average last frost date. Make sure you have a strong light source so the seedlings don’t get leggy. You want short, stocky plants to put out in your garden when the soil has warmed up. Basil likes heat and will not tolerate even a light frost.
Your soil should be amended with at least three inches of compost prior to planting and a light dressing of organic fertilizer. I space the basil plants a foot apart in each direction and fill a garden bed with them, watering them in well with a dilute solution of fish and seaweed emulsion.
If Japanese beetles are a problem in your area, cover the bed with very light row cover. This will keep the voracious critters from eating up all the basil leaves. An added benefit is that this will keep the basil clean, saving lots of time in the pesto preparation.
It’s time to harvest when the small bushes are full of lush, green leaves and before they have gone to flower. Simply cut off the plants a couple inches from the base – leave more stem if you still want to continue to harvest fresh basil – and pop them into a big plastic bag.
In the kitchen, strip leaves from the stems directly into the bowl of your food processor. Add enough extra virgin olive oil to make a paste and process well. I use those little Chinese restaurant plastic sauce containers to store my pesto in the freezer. When I’m ready to use it, I gently saute crushed garlic in a little extra virgin olive oil, add the defrosted basil mix, salt, and more olive oil. I don’t use pine nuts because of the expense, but they could be processed with the basil leaves before freezing. Either way, it’s the best pesto you’ll ever taste. Pour over hot pasta or rice and sprinkle on Asiago or Romano cheese – so simple and so delicious!