When I began growing culinary herbs, it was more for the growing and not necessarily for the using.
As far as fresh herbs went, I didn't know how to use the, and although the books and magazines offered advice and charts on herbal how-tos, when it came right down to it, I probably wasted more than I actually used.
But as I grew more and more herbs, I began to learn what goes well with what. I discovered ways to preserve them to have on hand all winter, and it wasn't long before I started choosing my favorites, mainly sweet basil.
Vegetable tortellini soup gets an additional kick when a couple tablespoons of pesto are adding just before serving. This soup is hearty enough for a meal on a cold fall night or as a lunch when served with crusty bread on the side.
Growing and saving my own fresh herb worked out well, but it was when I learned to make pesto that my basil growing went from just a few plants each year to sowing several rows.
At first, I primarily used basil as a seasoning in pasta sauces. I learned to throw handfuls of washed leaves into my food processor along with garlic and Parmesan cheese and mixed it with pork and ground beef for meatballs and tomato sauce. I learned to deftly roll stacked leaves and thinly slice them to adorn bowls of pasta and soup. I secretly slipped fresh leaves into salads without my skeptical family figuring it out.
Preserving basil for the winter is a little tricky. Basil leaves are tender, and unlike thyme, sage and oregano, you can't just hang bunches upside down on a hook to dry. Leaves should be dried quickly in a low heat oven, dehydrator or microwave. If using a microwave, be sure to keep a close watch, only setting the oven for a few seconds at a time. When the leaves are the texture of potato chips, they are ready for storing in airtight containers. Another easy method is to wash the leaves, chop and stuff them into ice cube trays. Pop the frozen cubes out and store them back in the freezer in plastic bags to pull out when needed to flavor a dish.
Hearty Vegetable Pesto Soup
1 small onion diced
2 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 to 2 cups mixed vegetables of your choice
2 diced and seeded plum tomatoes
1/2 can white beans
1 package cheese tortellini
4 tablespoons pesto
In a large saucepan, saute onion and garlic in oil until tender. Add broth, vegetables, beans and seasonings and heat through. Add tortellini and continue to simmer another five minutes. Before serving, stir in pesto.
Chicken with Pesto Cream Sauce
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed or pounded thin as cutlets
1 tablespoon olive oil
Flour, for dredging chicken
Equal parts, about 2 tablespoons each, sour cream,
Dijon mustard and pesto.
Cube chicken or pound cutlets thin as desired. Dredge the chicken in flour to coat lightly and then saute in olive oil until cooked through, about 5 to 7 minutes per side. Remove chicken from the pan and set aside. If there is still a lot of oil in the pan, drain until the pan is only lightly coated. To the pan add sour cream, mustard and pesto. Amounts can be adjusted for your own desired flavor. On low heat, stir the sauce until it is smooth and creamy. Place the chicken back into the pan and let it heat through on low heat, about five minutes.
I've read suggestions on preserving basil in oil, but the product is fragile, and the risk of botulism is high. If not used within a few days, mold can form on the basil and render the oil rancid. But I have made herbal vinegars using basil and other herbs, although their use is limited to salad dressings and meat marinades.
Basil is easy to grow. Sow the seeds in shallow furrows after all danger of frost in late spring. Give the rows a little water and wait. In about two weeks, tiny plants will begin to emerge. In the heat of mid-summer, basil will set flowers on the top of its stems. Pinch off the flowers (they taste great in salads) to enable the plants to send out side branches. But after a while, the plants begin to get leggy. To keep it going all season, start another row of seeds about every two or three weeks.
Pesto, because of its versatile ingredients, can go in everything from soup to sauces. I like to make pesto in huge batches and freeze it. Traditionally, pesto is made with pine nuts, but I substitute walnuts because they are healthier, easier to find in stores and less expensive. Otherwise, go for the best, freshest ingredients, including a good quality extra virgin olive oil and fresh Parmesan-romano cheese.
To make a batch of pesto, I stuff about two cups washed and dried basil leaves into my food processor. To this I add about a third cup chopped walnuts, three or four garlic cloves and about a half cup grated Parmesan-romano cheese. Give it a few good spins in the food processor to mince the basil and get everything well combined. While it's going around in the food processor, I pour extra-virgin olive oil, keeping an eye on the texture. I like my pesto a little on the wet side but spreadable. Everyone's tastes are different, so add enough oil to make it however you like.
To store, I put it in ice cube trays or mini-muffin tins for individual servings, half-cup portions in freezer bags for pasta and spreads.
On cold winter days, when soup is the only comfort food that makes sense, I like to drop in a frozen square of pesto. For brown-bagging to work, it's a healthier sandwich spread than mayonnaise and goes with just about everything, especially lots and lots of fresh vegetables. It also works well in a warm, creamy sauce on chicken, fish or pasta.