Don't Leave Me This Way, Basil Baby

In just nine short days, autumn officially takes over, which in this part of the country means bracing one's self for the end of so many warm-weather produce goodies, from Anaheim chiles to zucchini. I know, they'll all be back next year, but inevitably I get a bit wistful, pining for tangled cucumber vines and corn husks even as they disappear into the quickly fading sunset.

At many farm markets, it will likely be the last hurrah for corn, peaches, cucumbers, and the delicately-leafed basil.

Basil, on its way out for the season. (Kim O'Donnel)

Yesterday afternoon, I faced a harsh reality, watching two basil-y bunches in a pitcher of water on the kitchen counter wilt before my eyes. I knew I had to act fast and make the most of what would probably be my final basil moment for the season. These leaves were useless for garnish or as part of a salad, but pureed for pesto, they would be better than fine.

Chop, chop, I smashed some garlic and a handful of walnuts from the freezer, and into the food processor they went with my pathetic-looking leaves. Whiz, whiz went the machine, and within a minute, I had a pesto-in-progress, awaiting its moment of emulsification.

A handful of cheese and a spritz of salt later, I loudly exhale, relieved to have saved the basil in the nick of time before it disintegrated into compost.

Excited by the pesto-y dinner prospects, I rifled through the cabinets and the crisper drawers of the fridge, looking for suitable companions, other than pasta, the traditional pesto partner. Out came a handful of yellow-fleshed potatoes and a bag of yellow wax beans.

I put on a pot of water to boil and chopped up the potatoes (which in hindsight, I should have diced to allow for more pesto coverage.)

On the other front burner, I heated up some oil in a skillet, added half of a chopped shallot over lowish heat and tossed in those snipped beans for a quick sauté. Just before I turned off the heat, I threw in a handful of halved sun gold tomatoes for color and acid, to complement the fatty pesto.

The boiled taters were drained (save a smidge of cooking water to keep things moist) and then tossed with a few spoonfuls of pesto, just as with the crispy bean mixture in another bowl.

As we slurped up supper, I thought about other pesto possibilities -- sauteed zucchini and onions, inside an omelet, atop a bowl of gazpacho or bean soup, spread on bread for a magnificent turkey sandwich or BLT.

Quick! Before it's too late, share your tried-and-true basil-y bests. How do you do the pesto dance? Do tell. This weekend may be our last chance!

Basil Pesto
2 cups basil leaves, pulled from stems
1/4cup nuts - pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, coarsely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2-3/4 cup grated Parmigiano
salt to taste

Place basil, nuts and garlic in the bowl of a food processor and puree, occasionally stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl. Gradually add oil and whiz mixture until well combined and smooth. Scoop out of bowl and stir in cheese. Taste for salt and add to taste.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups pesto.

By Kim ODonnel |  September 14, 2007; 10:49 AM ET Seasonal Produce , Summer
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I love to spread homemade basil over salmon. Grilled, baked, or broiled, this is a wondeful centerpiece for an easy, healthy, and always yummy dinner.

Posted by: Zimmy | September 14, 2007 12:01 PM

You are describing one of our standard dinners, but we usually make it with some short pasta. In winter, we use sun-dried tomatoes, along with frozen beans and the (amazing) Costco bottled pesto.

Posted by: kb | September 14, 2007 12:53 PM

I made about 3 cups of pesto, topped off the container w/ olive oil (to preserve the green color), now I have pesto to last through January at least. One of my personal favs is mix basil and mayo about 50/50 and put it on any sandwich (I'm thinking I'll probably kill the last of it at a Super Bowl party).

Posted by: dbrue | September 14, 2007 1:26 PM

I had found directions in an old (1950's?) cookbook for "preserving" end-of-season basil by layering shreds of basil with grated parmesan cheese in a canning jar. I'm going to give that a spin here in a couple of days. The cookbook suggested using this concoction sprinkled on salad, in white sauces for chicken or pork, in pasta and a number of other ways.

Posted by: librarylady | September 14, 2007 3:39 PM

Don't say goodbye too hasitly! We've got 4+ weeks left with the fresh Basil - mine is on the S. side and protected from cool breezes. Common-down and get some! I've been clipping off the seed pods to keep the plant putting her energy into the plump leaves. Just before the first frost - we'll cut it all to the base and make a ton of pesto (your recipe, of course, Kim) Then, I like to put serving size globs into baggies and freeze. Some people use ice trays but I find they are open to freezer burn on one side. Anyway - just when summer memories begin to fade but you still have a few vine ripened tomatoes left - make yourself some pasta and bring miss summer back for an encore. Thank you for the memories, Mary Beth.

Posted by: Karla | September 14, 2007 4:07 PM

Uh...what happens to basil all of a sudden? Mine did the same thing earlier this week, even though I took excruciatingly gentle care with my plants. Very sad! :(

Posted by: Lester Burnham | September 14, 2007 4:15 PM

You can continue to have fresh basil, and other herbs, year round simply by growing them inside. They're very forgiving, don't require great soil (although I use a good potting soil) and don't require direct sun. I usually don't bring outside herbs inside in the fall because of the considerable possibility of bringing unwanted "guests" in on the plants. The grocery store usually has some (ridiculously over-priced) planted herbs. Bring them home, repot them, and they will have paid for themselves in a week. Be sure to pinch some of the new growth occasionally, which will force the plants to branch out and get bushy.

Posted by: Judi Hershel | September 15, 2007 7:21 AM

What I will miss most is my weekly fix of Insalata Caprese, with its amiable marriage of vine-ripened tomatoes, basil leaves, slices of fresh Mozzarella and (departing from extra virgin olive oil sometimes) a Balsamic vinegar reduction. I've been making and freezing pesto all summer long for a wintertime supply. When it's snowing outside, I can thaw some pesto and reminisce about summertime meals on the deck and cookouts with friends and family. Right now, I'm also making herbal oils and vinegars to use, as well as share. This winter, I'll try growing some basil indoors on a sunny window and under some grow lights in the basement. These preparations hopefully will tide me over until next season!

Posted by: Rebecca in VA. | September 17, 2007 4:11 PM

can you teach me how to made an lot of homemade basil/oil. this is so important to me where we live now we get snow bound and i wish to have it in my pantry .please help. i love reading the notes on basil .go to try them.
mary ann

Posted by: mary ann moss | September 18, 2007 3:40 PM

I read once that if you freeze pesto you shold leave out the cheese and add that when you defrost. Any comments or suggestions?

Posted by: Jackie C | September 27, 2007 11:37 AM

This has been a good year for my pesto making. Lots of basil from my backyard garden. My recipe is a little different. It's from Genoa which is considered the home of pesto. I use grated romano and permasian, and the pine nuts are toasted. As I write this, I am eating leftover Penne combined with the pesto I made last evening for dinner...yummy

Posted by: Winston | September 27, 2007 12:48 PM

What I do with all of my basil is chop it in my food processor and add enough olive oil just to bind it together. I then put it into ice cube trays until frozen, then put them into a freezer bag. With that I can make pesto in the winter or drop a cube into any recipe calling for fresh basil. You truly cannot tell the difference between fresh and the "preserved" basil in your recipes, and at much less the cost of purchased fresh basil in the off season.

Posted by: Eileen | September 28, 2007 9:20 AM

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