Finally it’s warm enough for basil seeds to germinate outside. With the first glimpse of their little green heads, every spare pot in the house has been filled with compost and pressed into action – to say we love pesto could be an understatement.
Anyway, to get down to the business of growing it: in my book, the classic large-leafed basil is the only way to go, however, if you have a passion for a more aniseed flavour buy the slightly crinkly-leaved variety. One seed packet can easily provide sufficient for pesto and salad usage throughout the summer, plus 20-30 packets of frozen pesto stacked in the freezer so that pesto-addicts need never go without.
Fill your pots with compost and sprinkle the seeds over the surface before covering with a thin layer of compost and gently firming down. Keep the compost moist, but not drenched, until you see a haze of green shoots. When the plants have produced their first crop of large leaves, pinch out the top shoot to encourage them to expand sideways and stop them from going into their seed-producing stage too quickly. As with lettuce, the trick is to keep harvesting the leaves as you need them, letting the plant rest and produce some more while you harvest off other pots.
I thought this was what everybody did until a friend of mine asked to take some basil home with him at the end of a barbecue.
“Sure,” I said, beginning to turn to go into the house for a bowl. Before my jaw even had time to hit the floor, he had snapped off four or five plants – he was a chef, not a gardener! Guillotined basil doesn’t live, but had the plants just had their leaves removed they would have continued to produce for one or two months more. While I may not talk to my plants – at least not when anyone’s within earshot – I do advocate being kind to them, it keeps them alive!
Try to remember to water your plants a couple of hours before you intend to pick leaves, then they are nice and plump, bursting with flavour and at their best for eating.
Personally I don’t like too much oil in my food which is why I always freeze pesto rather than keep it in oil in jars. Small bags take up very little space and make an easy instant meal with a bit of pasta and salad. If you are unfreezing your home-produced pesto in the microwave, do watch it carefully as it unfreezes very quickly and isn’t nearly as good if it’s “cooked”.
To make one bag (enough for about 400g of pasta) I put a clove of garlic, small handful of pine nuts (or since they’ve become so expensive, almonds), and some ground black pepper in a small food processor. Top this with basil leaves until they’re at the top of the container without being pressed down. Place 3 or 4 chunky slices of parmesan on top of the leaves and drizzle with a little olive oil. If the mixture is too rough add some more olive oil until it is the consistency you like. Either use it immediately, or scoop it into a small freezing bag and keep for later. For variation, pop in a few dried tomatoes to the mix, it makes the flavour even “warmer”.