Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pesto Cubes

The leaves of basil on my deck, the only food crop I've ever had consistent success with save for that one ginger sprout1, are ripe for the picking. In days, almost overnight it seems, these plants will send up seed stalks leaving the now lustrous leaves dull and limp. All is forsaken if we have just one night of frost, which will turn the leaves black. I've got to do something and I've got to do something now.

Freeze them.


Several basil sprigs (I use a Mediterranean sweet basil.)
Several parsley sprigs (I use an Italian flat-leaf parsley.) (Parsley is optional.)
Extra virgin olive oil

1   Pluck the basil and parsley leaves from their stems. Rinse several times in cool water. Spin, towel, or air dry.

Note: It's best if the leaves are almost completely dry. It will concentrate the paste and reduce formation of ice crystals.

I subdue the strong basil flavor by using about half as much parsley as I do basil. I love the basil-parsley blend. To some, I am a sinner.

2   Mince the basil and parsley together.

Note: If you're working with several cups of leaves, a food processor does a great job of mincing. If you're working with just a few leaves, then a sharp chef's knife, a dishwasher-safe cutting board, and a finely-honed mincing technique will perform better. Even a dull knife, a plate, and a free-for-all chopping motion does a better job than one of these:

3   Transfer the minced herbs to a bowl. Blend in enough oil to make a paste. Spoon pesto paste into compartments of ice cube tray. Cover with plastic wrap, then with aluminum foil. Freeze overnight.

Note: For oil-to-herb proportions: I often end up with about 3/4 cup minced herb to which I add at least 1/4 cup olive oil. I used to scrimp with the oil but I found it protects the pesto in the freezer, keeping it greener and fresher-tasting.

Don't add salt before freezing. It will hasten the breakdown of plant cell walls, another fresh-taste depleter.

I also don't add garlic, cheese, etc. to this mix, but you can. I find it's easy enough to add later, producing a fresher-tasting and more phytonutrient-rich (especially in the case of garlic) pesto sauce.

4   Pop frozen cubes from tray and store in a freezer-safe bag or container in the freezer until ready to use.

Note: Cubes may be thawed in the refrigerator overnight. Or, my favorite, toss a couple frozen cubes into the microwave and heat for 2, 10-second intervals (no more, you don't want to cook the paste or it will lose its green color).

These cubes are actually the raw material for a homemade pesto sauce. Of course, nothing beats fresh herbs, but under the demands of time and a full harvest, I've found frozen pesto cubes aren't a bad alternative. Once the cube(s) are thawed, whisk together the following ingredients for a mouth-watering pesto:
  • 1 thawed pesto cube
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or very finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated cheese (I use Locatelli, a hard sheep's milk cheese. Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, both from cow's milk, are also good.)
  • 1 tablespoon toasted pine nuts or walnuts, finely minced (optional)
  • Pinch ground cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Couple pinches black pepper
  • Salt to taste
Note: Multiply recipe as needed. One pesto cube makes a little more than a tablespoon - about what you see in the picture, which is sans nuts.


1 Here's a picture of my basil plant, taken on a beautiful clear sunny afternoon. Can you guess why (one reason at least) I don't have success as a grower?

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