Seasonal Pantry: Aromatic basil ready for the kitchen

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Basil season is in full swing, its aromas wafting from stalls at our farmers markets and from our own gardens. No other herb signals summer in the way that the scent of fresh basil does.

The most common variety of basil is Genovese, often referred to as Italian basil. It is one of nearly two dozen varieties and is the best one to use in Italian dishes, including those two popular classics, pesto and Caprese salad. It is easy to recognize by its medium-sized leaves, thick stems and brilliant green color.

It is often called sweet basil and has, historically, been known as St. Joseph’s Wort. It originated in India and Persia more than 5,000 years ago and today is used throughout the Mediterranean. You see it in Southeast Asian and Chinese foods, too, though traditionally it is not the Genovese variety that is used in these cuisines.

When you bring basil home from the market or in from the garden, it is best to use it right away. If you can’t, put it into a wide glass jar or vase, as you would flowers, and then cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. This will help it retain its freshness for a couple of days.

In almost all instances, basil should be added to a dish after that dish has been cooked, as prolonged heat turns basil black.

Pesto pizza has become quite popular in recent years, and the best versions apply the condiment to the pizza after it comes out of the oven, though, sadly, this is not the most common practice.

Heat also alters the taste, eclipsing its engaging freshness and turning it rather cloying. If you make pizza at home, bring your pesto to room temperature and use a pastry brush to “paint” the pizza with it.


Pistou is the French cousin of pesto; it is popular in the south of France and best known for the soup that carries its name, Soupe au Pistou, a recipe for which you can find at “Eat This Now” at For other uses, refer to the list at the bottom of the recipes.


Makes about 2 cups

5 large garlic cloves

— Kosher salt

— Black pepper in a mill

5 cups fresh Italian basil leaves, torn into pieces

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and minced

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 ounces dry jack, grated

In a large heavy mortar or in the bowl of a suribachi, use a wooden pestle to crush each clove of garlic. Add several generous pinches of salt and several turns of pepper and pound the garlic until it is smooth.

Add the basil, a small handful at a time, and continue to pound until the basil is crushed and incorporated into the pistou.

Fold in the tomato and stir in the olive oil and cheese. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Cover and set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.

Suggested uses:

Stir 2 tablespoons into summer vegetable soups and gazpachos.

As a condiment with omelets and scrambled eggs.

Over creamy polenta.

With green beans.

On sandwiches.

Spooned over grilled eggplant.

Spooned over pizza after it is cooked.

Spooned over bruschetta that has been topped with sliced fresh mozzarella.

Spooned over plain whole milk yogurt.


If you have a garden, you know it can be hard to keep up with basil. During its season, you should pinch off any flowers and use them in salads and sauces.

If you love pesto year round, you can freeze it but it is best to do so without the garlic, cheese and nuts that finish it.

By adding these ingredients just before enjoying it, you’ll have a fresher, brighter taste, with none of the off flavors garlic develops over time.

Whenever you make pesto, you should add some Italian parsley, as it will help the color stay vibrant green.

Pesto to Freeze

Makes about 4 to 5 pints

10 cups, approximately, fresh Italian basil leaves, lightly packed

2 cups fresh Italian parsley leaves, lightly packed

— Kosher salt

4 ounces (1 stick) butter

1 cup olive oil, plus more as needed

To finish, for each cup:

3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

1/4 cup grated cheese, such as Estero Gold, Vella Dry Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano or similar cheese

2 tablespoons pine nuts, lightly toasted, or 2 tablespoons walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped

— Kosher salt, if needed

Use a sharp knife to chop the basil and parsley until it is all reduced to small pieces but isn’t quite minced. You don’t want it to start to release its liquid.

Put the chopped herbs into a large bowl and season generously with salt, using about a tablespoon.

Fold in the butter and olive oil and mix until smooth.

To freeze, pack into half-pint jars, leaving about 3/4 of an inch of head room.

Pour about a quarter inch of olive oil in each jar so that the mixture is completely cover.

Add the lids, refrigerate for several hours and transfer to the freezer; it should keep for about 6 months.

To finish, put a jar in the refrigerator over light or for several hours, until it is thawed, and then spoon the mixture into a medium bowl. Add the garlic, cheese and nuts, stir well, taste and correct for salt if necessary.

If the mixture is thicker than you prefer, thin with a little warm water

A half-pint (1 cup) is enough for a pound of pasta.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of five books to date, including “The Good Cook’s” series. Email her at

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