Summer’s First Pesto Sauce!

Basil plant
When basil threatens to bloom, it’s time to make pesto.

My herb garden has taken off this summer, with basil leading the way. It seems like I had just planted the little green and purple basil seedlings; but pretty soon they were bushy, tall, and straining for more light and water. And before I knew it, on my morning garden-check, I noticed that the crazy plants were already putting out flower buds!

As you know, basil doesn’t taste as good when allowed to flower. To keep them from blooming, and to keep the plants bushy, regular haircuts are in order. Haircuts mean harvest; harvest means basket full of basil; and basket full of basil means pesto! It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

If you’re growing basil in your garden, making homemade pesto is one of the easiest – and most satisfying – things you can do with it. And regular light harvests will keep your plants in good shape and get dinner ready, all at once.

Basil plants
Just a haircut is all it takes.

Pesto (I mean, Basil) Harvest

To shape up spindly basil plants, cut back only 3” to 5” off each stem, making the cut just above a leaf pair. Remove the flower bud and a few sets of leaves from each stem. When you finish, the plants should look a little shorter, but no less full. For more harvesting tips, check out our article on How to Harvest and Use Fresh Basil From Your Garden.

Basil leaves in bowl
Basil cuttings.

Take the cuttings into the kitchen, and pinch or cut the leaves off the stems. Rinse the leaves with cool water, and pat, air dry or run them through the salad spinner. Now you’re ready to make pesto!

There are lots of pesto recipes out there, and you may already have a favorite. I started with the basil pesto recipe from the Joy of Cooking, but by the time I tweaked it to suit my taste, it ended up something like this:

Basil Pesto Recipe

Fills a standard-size food processor, and ends up making about two cups of pesto:

Pesto ingredients ready for blending
Pesto ingredients ready to blend.
  • 4 cups basil leaves
  • 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 2/3 cup pine nuts (or one small package)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves (1 teaspoon minced)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2/3 to 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Put the basil leaves, Parmesan, pine nuts, and garlic in a food processor. Turn it on for a few seconds to grind up the leaves, then slowly begin drizzling the olive oil through the hole in the top of the running machine. Start with 1/2 cup oil, and add more until it makes a stirrable paste.

I like my pesto to be about the consistency of cottage cheese – if you prefer to make yours thicker, you can always stir in more oil later if needed. Add salt and pepper, but be sure to taste it first – the Parmesan cheese adds quite a bit of salt already.

Pesto in bowl
Yummy pesto!

As you can see, it’s not an exact science! If it tastes too “green,” add more cheese. If it’s dry, add more oil. If it’s too garlicky . . . well, you’ll probably need to give it to somebody who likes garlic.

At our house, this recipe makes about enough pesto for three boxes of whole-wheat linguine. We toss it with chicken, white beans, and whatever veggies we have on hand, for an easy and yummy dinner.

Since we don’t eat three boxes of pasta at one sitting, the pesto stores for about a week or so in an airtight container in the fridge, or you can spoon it into zipper bags and pop them in the freezer to enjoy all winter long.