If you grow basil in your yard or a container, or if you’ve been buying bunches at the farmer’s market, you know the days for this must-have delicate herb are numbered… like nearly down to zero. It’s becoming leggy and thin and its leaf color is beginning to fade. So now is the time to freeze it away for the hearty pastas, soups and casseroles you’ll make this winter.
Basil is a fragile herb. If you’ve ever had the experience of inadvertently cutting it up too soon during food prep (I have.), you know it turns black quickly. But with a little special care during processing, your basil from the freezer will be as spring green as the day you picked it.
When I freeze basil, I do it two ways now—thanks to an herb grower at my farmer’s market who gladly shares her success secrets. I freeze a batch to use as just basil and another batch of almost-complete pesto. Both are incredibly easy, so let’s begin:
You need only two ingredients for this: a big bunch of your nicest basil leaves with stems removed and a few tablespoons of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. The olive oil is the protection for your delicate herb so that it does not discolor.
Put your basil in the bowl of your food processor—pack it in, so maybe four or five cups of leaves, depending on the size of the processor bowl. Open the chute, and with the machine running on low, stream in four to five tablespoons of olive oil until you see the leaves begin to form a verdant green paste—this should not be totally processed so this is only going to take a minute or less, usually.
Immediately transfer your basil paste into a dated freezer bag, using a rubber spatula to get every last bit. Seal the bag and flatten it as much as you can into a “sheet” of basil. Place in the freezer.
You’ll be able to break off just what you need for a recipe and return the rest to the freezer for another few times. This method uses very little freezer space because the bags are just flat little sheets that stack nicely.
Pesto has to be one of my favorite ingredients for anything Italian, but I also put it in vegetable soups and scrambled eggs. I’ve found it to be pretty versatile if I just use my imagination a bit. It is richer than just using basil leaves, since it contains pine nuts, as well as olive oil and usually a good Parmigiano-Reggiano, so consider the desire for richness as you experiment.
Since I’m freezing my pesto for the winter, I won’t be adding any cheese at this point—I’ll add cheese later, if I need it, during the actual dish preparation. Also, when I freeze I make a double batch that I place in the compartments of an ice cube tray so that I have 12 completely full cubes. Then, I can pop out a cube or two using a butter knife whenever I need it.
Six cups of packed basil leaves These really don’t need to be pristine leaves, just “useable.” When Keith Biver of Biver Farm harvests the last of his basil, I usually get a large bag—most of it needs to be carefully sorted through, but that’s fine with me. The pesto comes out just great in the end.
Two-thirds cup of pine nuts Pine nuts are traditional for pesto, but they are not exclusive. You can make pesto with walnuts, for instance. Market vendor Lony Less has a reputation for making the best pesto on the planet because he uses walnuts—probably worth a try. Pecans, cashews, even pistachios are fair game, as far as I’m concerned. Be brave.
Six large cloves of garlic You can use any garlic, but my favorites for pesto are Purple Italian and Spanish Roja.
One cup high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil
Place the garlic in the bowl of a food processor and give it a couple of pulses to get it going. Note: If you have a smaller processor, you may want to make half the recipe and then repeat.
Add the nuts of your choice and the basil leaves. Pack everything down. Start the processor on low and slowly pour your oil in a steady stream (about the width of a pencil) through the top chute. Once the oil is in, be ready to shut the machine off. You want to be careful not to over-process the pesto.
Using a serving spoon, immediately begin spooning the pesto into the compartments of your ice cube tray. You’ll want to get the last bits out with a rubber spatula so nothing is wasted. Cover tightly with foil—I double wrap. Place in your freezer. You can leave the cubes in the tray or wait until they are frozen and pop into a dated freezer bag—up to you and whatever works best for the space in your freezer.
Try it out…
My basic pesto and still-favorite recipe come from a long-ago issue of Bon Appetite Magazine. Several years ago, I had to give a large dinner party and was looking for a pasta dish that could feed a big crowd, be paired with grilled shrimp kabobs and grilled lamb kabobs, and also work for vegetarians. Plus, I wanted it to be no work to prepare because I had a lot going on with this meal. The following is what I chose, and I’ve been choosing it ever since—whether it is for a quick week-night dinner or a fancy party buffet.
Farfalle with Pesto and Tomatoes
- Half the pesto recipe from above (You can make the pesto the day before and store in a jar in your refrigerator, just place a little extra oil on top to keep discoloration away.)
- One to one and a quarter cups Parmigiano-Reggiano
- One large bag farfalle, which is bow-tie pasta (I’ve substituted pasta shells with great success.)
- Three cups chopped and seeded plum tomatoes (To be honest, I’ve always used whatever tomatoes were in season—even cherry tomatoes, halved. The key is fresh, peak season fruit, so can’t do this in the winter. And, I never seed the tomatoes—too much lost flavor.)
- Fresh basil leaves for garnish
- Make the pesto as above, but stirring in three-quarters cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano after processing.
- Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still carrying a firm bite—al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving half cup of cooking liquid.
- Return pasta to the same pot and add the pesto and some of the cooking liquid (Do this a little at a time so you don’t get the sauce too thin; I have never used the entire half cup). Toss.
- Mix in the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Transfer the pasta mixture to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and garnish with sprigs of basil.