Summer is here, bringing garden-fresh vegetables and herbs that can be used in a variety of recipes. One of my favorite herbs to grow is basil. Basil’s aromatic leaves can be used in so many delicious ways, and because it thrives in hot weather, the plants can be maintained, harvested, and kept on hand all summer.
Maintaining and Harvesting Basil
Regular pruning, or pinching back of the herb, encourages growth and prevents the plant from becoming leggy. It’s best to harvest from the top of the plant down, and to cut or pinch directly above a cluster of leaves instead of leaving a stub of the stem. This encourages the plant to fill out. As a general rule, you can cut the plant back to a third of its total height. View Ann's video for tips on growing and harvesting basil.
If you cut basil before you intend to use it, what’s the best way to store it? After some trial and error, my preferred method is to place the stems in a glass of cool water, like a bouquet of flowers. Change or add fresh water every few days and avoid washing the basil until you are ready to use it. Basil doesn’t like cold temperatures, so if you’d like to store it in the refrigerator, I recommend covering the glass with a vented plastic produce bag. I have successfully refrigerated basil for nearly a week with this method.
Leaves or sprigs can be frozen in a freezer bag or container. The basil keeps its flavor, but the leaves become wet when they thaw, so it is best to use thawed basil in soups or stews.
Another option is to grind the leaves in a food processor and mix with a small amount of olive oil—about 1 tablespoon per cup of basil—to preserve the flavor. This mixture can be frozen in ice cube trays and transferred to an airtight bag or container for later use.
Homemade Sunflower Basil Pesto
If I were to choose just one condiment to get me through the summer, it would be pesto. In addition to being packed with flavor, pesto is an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Depending on the recipe, it can also be high in omega 3 fatty acids from nuts and seeds, along with heart-healthy olive oil, which contains healthy monounsaturated fats.
Pesto is highly versatile and can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes—you may want to make several batches to use throughout the season. It also freezes well, so you can enjoy a taste of summer all year ‘round.
My Sunflower Basil Pesto recipe includes sunflower seeds instead of pricey pine nuts for a nut-free, budget-friendly pesto. This recipe is also gluten-free. You can make it using home-grown basil or pick some up at your local farmer’s market or grocery store.
- 2½ –3 cups packed basil leaves
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ¼ cup sunflower seeds
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1–2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- ¼ cup dried sweetened cranberries, optional
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- ¼-⅓ cup olive oil
- Place the basil leaves in the bowl of a food processor. It’s okay to use some of the stems.
- Top with all remaining ingredients except olive oil.
- Pulse a few times to coarsely chop, and then process in a few longer bursts; you want the mixture to be evenly chopped but still have some texture.
- Scrape down the sides and, with the machine running, add olive oil* in a fine stream through the feed tube. Use ¼-⅓ cup to get the thickness you prefer. Process until pesto is mostly smooth.
- Use immediately or transfer the mixture to an airtight container and refrigerate.
* The precise amount of oil depends on how thick or thin you’d like the final pesto to be. I prefer the consistency of a spread (perfect for pesto bread, pizza, or spreading on salmon or chicken), which can easily be thinned with pasta cooking water, broth, white wine, or even water when a thinner condiment is desired.
Suggestions for Pesto
- Use as a sauce for pasta or zucchini noodles
- Marinade shrimp before grilling
- Mash into a baked potato
- Toss with cooked veggies
- Spread on a sandwich, pizza or flatbread
- Fold into scrambled eggs or an omelet
- Whisk into salad dressing
- Stir a spoonful into marinara sauce or soup
- Add a dollop to grilled steak or chicken
- Make pesto bread instead of garlic bread
- Add a smear to a grilled cheese or tomato sandwich
- Toss with rice or your favorite grain
Per ounce or 2 tablespoons using unsalted sunflower seeds and 1/3 cup olive oil: Calories per serving 110, total fat 10 gm, saturated fat 2 gm, cholesterol 4 mg, sodium 155 mg, total carbohydrate 2 gm, dietary fiber 1 gm, protein 3 gm.