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I am a wife, mother, teacher, runner, baker, fund-raiser, reader, watcher of movies, dog-lover, writer, music-lover and foodie. So - I'm a woman of many moods! I write and share in order to teach and enrich. I currently have two blogs going: The Kitchen Refugee, and A Mile At A Time. The first is about time spent in the kitchen and the second about time spent on the road. Frequently the two roads intersect!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

B is for Basil

Since moving into our tiny 1915 home four years ago we’ve been so overwhelmed with gutting the old gal we haven’t paid much, if any, attention to landscaping and gardening.  There’s room for a garden or raised beds, but with noisy neighbors on each side of us, and a ‘For Sale’ sign in the front yard, we have the garden of transients; containers filled with produce.

"I have no idea what she's talking about!  Just look at me!"
This actually began after our pup, Lilly, dug up the few things we planted and then planted her exhausted little self right into a nice pot of fluffed up soil.  The beauty of a container garden is its mobility.  We quickly moved the pots to the other side of the fence and out of paws-reach from the dogs.  As a couple years passed and we realized we wouldn’t be staying here too long, we never invested ourselves in creating a garden space.  This year we have only the necessities; basil for pesto, and cherry tomatoes.  My mother in law has a garden big enough to feed the community, so we glean whatever we need from her. 

I’m now on my third cutting of basil.  Since summer in Eastern Oregon came so late, I’m holding out hope for a long, warm fall and plenty more clippings to come.  My sister has expressed her frustration with growing basil and it's the only real ‘crop’ I grow each summer. We fill our freezer full of pesto and enjoy it throughout the year. Basil needs full sun and a fair amount of water.  We give ours a shot of miracle grow at first - but if you wish to grow without any chemicals, it isn't necessary.  Another thing that's important to know about growing basil is that you shouldn't allow it to flower.  I never really understood this until my mother-in-law (a Master  Gardener) said that when a plant produces a flower, its life is over.  The flower then drops its seeds and the life cycle starts over.  Ahh...I get it now!   So, when you see a flower starting to rear it's lovely little head, do as Barney Fife would warn, and "NIP IT IN THE BUD!"  I either cut them off with scissors or just snap them off in my hand.

When the plants begin to look full and healthy, it's time for the first cutting.  Again, on the advice of my mother in law - one must be brutal.  I was way too polite the first time I cut some basil from her garden.  She took the scissors and whacked it down until it looked like sad little sticks, promising it would double in size in about 2-3 weeks.  Show the basil who's boss!

Before cutting...
After cutting.  Be brutal!

Once I've cut it, I dump it all in a sink full of cold water and rinse it well.  Watch the earwigs attempt the backstroke, and laugh a maniacal laugh!  (Earwigs give me the heebie-jeebies!)  The next job is usually delegated to my husband - picking the leaves from the stems.  Once this is done, I rinse just the leaves and allow the water to drain away.

*If you wish to dry basil to use as a spice, I suppose it may be easier to keep the leaves attached to the stems, and hang upside down for drying. 

To make pesto, you need a food processor and some freezer containers to put it in.  In the book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kinsolver, she suggests freezing everything in zip lock bags - once frozen, they stack easily and take up less freezer space. (animalvegetablemiracle.com)  I think this is a brilliant idea, but my husband wasn't crazy about trying to get pesto out of a zip-lock.  I guess we could scoop it out into a container once it thaws.  If you want little bits of pesto, you can freeze it in ice cube trays, or muffin tins.  Once frozen, dump them out, wrap in waxed paper, and put them all in a gallon zip-lock.  I like having a variety of different sizes for different recipes or uses.

Pesto can be an expensive endeavor.  I always buy the biggest container of olive oil I can find for the best price at the Grocery Outlet, Wino, or Cash & Carry.  I also purchase pine nuts from Winco, as they are much less per pound than Safeway, or even the local health food store.  I have no idea if they are organically cultivated or not, but when we are talking $12-19/lb. I don't ask.  (Safeway sells for about $27/lb. last I checked).  I also buy my parmesan cheese at an outlet store, like Grocery Outlet, or Cash & Carry.  I love high quality cheese and oil, but save the really good stuff for toppings and special things.  I look at pesto as a bulk recipe that works just fine with bulk ingredients.

Pesto Recipe - (this amt. fills the food processor)
3 full, packed, cups of Basil leaves
6 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of pine nuts (you may substitute walnuts or pistachios)
1 cup parmesan (shredded, not the powdered stuff that comes in a green can)
1 cup olive oil

Put it all in the food processor and whirl it until it's blended.  I generally have to wipe down the sides with a spatula and give it one more whoosh.  Store in the container of your choice and freeze what you're not going to use.  Don't be surprised if the pesto in the fridge darkens a little, almost looking brown. It tastes the same, it's just that the leaves change color.

Perfectly Pesto Cheese Cake - this is a show stopper at holiday parties!
1 TB Butter
1/4 C fine bread crumbs
2 TB Parmesan Cheese
Combine crust ingredients and press into the bottom of a 9" 
springform pan.

2 8 oz Cream Cheese
1 C Ricotta Cheese
1/2 C Parmesan Cheese
1/2 tsp. Cayenne Pepper
3 large eggs
1/2 C pesto
1/3 C pine nuts
Cream the ricotta, parmesan, salt & cayenne.  Blend well, and add the eggs, one at a time.
Transfer 1/2 the mixture to a medium sized bowl.  Mix pesto into the remaining 1/2, and pour over the crust.  then top with plain cheese mixture and smooth the top.  Sprinkle with pine nuts, and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until the center is set.  Refrigerate for several hours before serving.

Serve with an assortment of crackers, or toasted French bread rounds.

Now, if anyone knows how to successfully grow cilantro - I want to here about it.  It just seems to go to flower so quickly, I can never grow an actual bunch.  I LOVE cilantro best in mexican dishes – especially cilantro pesto!  
Another recipe for another day...

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