In honor of my grandmother’s 86th birthday this past weekend, I harvested an armful of basil and made pesto. My Nona was born in a tiny coal mining town in western Wyoming to immigrants from northern Italy. Italian was her first language and she learned to cook on a wood burning stove. Growing up she fed me a steady diet of simple, delicious food—polenta, gnocchi, fresh pastas, and pesto, lots of pesto!
She always grew a huge crop of ‘Genovese’ basil against the brick wall in her backyard. All summer long she’d make pesto, freeze small mounds of it, wrap each mound in plastic, and stick them in the deep freeze. Then, during the fall and winter, she would distribute little Tupperware containers packed with pesto to her lucky family.
I’m keeping up the tradition by growing lots of basil and freezing pesto so that I can share it with friends and use it in pasta dishes, dressings, and soups this winter. While my Nona isn’t able to cook anymore, I know that she’s happy I’m carrying on the tradition.
Pesto can be made with all sorts of herbs and nuts, but this recipe is traditional to the core, just basil, pine nuts, Parmesan cheese, and olive oil. It is incredibly easy to make and absolutely delicious. If you scale the recipe up or down, err on the light side with the garlic at first because you don’t want it to overpower the basil’s sweet, spicy flavor. This pesto adds a welcome dash of summery flavor to winter dishes, so stock up on it now! You won’t be sorry come January.
What you’ll need:
4 packed cups of fresh Italian basil leaves (I use the variety ‘Genovese’)
3 cloves of garlic
½ cup pine nuts
½ cup Parmesan cheese
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt to taste
1. In a food processor, blend the basil, garlic, pine nuts and Parmesan cheese into a smooth paste. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Then, with the blade running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Process until the olive oil is thoroughly incorporated and the pesto is smooth. Give the pesto a taste and add salt if necessary.
2. The pesto will keep for up to a week if refrigerated in a covered container. Bring it to room temperature and give it a good stir before using it in a recipe. To freeze, fill the individual cells of an ice cube tray with pesto and place in the freezer until solid. Then, wrap each cube of pesto in plastic and place back in the freezer. To freeze larger portions, line a small cookie sheet or pizza pan with waxed paper. Drop ¼ cup mounds onto the wax paper and freeze until solid. Wrap each mound tightly in plastic and store in the freezer. Drop the frozen cubes of pesto into soups or sauces. When using frozen pesto in a pasta dish, allow the pesto to unthaw and then stir in a few teaspoons of pasta water before tossing it with the cooked pasta—this helps distribute the pesto throughout the pasta evenly.