Saturday, August 23, 2008

Basil Perfume

Eating locally and organically can be an expensive proposition. Since we must eat though, cooking is at least the kind of hobby that can be justified relatively easily. I do try to be aware of the costs involved, and spend an inordinate amount of time weighing the warring merits of buying sustainably-grown/produced items with our attempts to stick to a budget. As long as the kids are still at home and I am contributing very little to the household economy, scrimping will be part of my lifestyle.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a scrimper. That will probably never change.

So I do my best. When my mother or grandmother, or The Carnivore’s clients, offer up the bounty from their gardens, I am elated. Organically-grown local produce for free? Yes, yes, and yes. And if it is more than we can eat right away, so much the better. Then I am able to freeze these summer treats for use in January when I’ve grown desperate. My next goal is to learn how to can, so I will be able to ‘put up’ jars of tomatoes and such in the pantry, but I believe that project may need to wait until Little Miss Piggy has detached herself from her perch on my hip. Maybe by next summer…

In recent years, even if I have planted nothing else, I have tried to keep a couple or three basil plants around during the summer. Organic basil from the supermarket is outrageously expensive, especially considering how prolifically I use it, so I have long attempted my own little patch of it. Alas, I always ended up with spindly, pitiful little plants that would give up the ghost long before summer was over and which never provided me with enough leaves at any one time to make pesto (which is kind of the point of growing basil, really).

Every year I would try again. And every year, I would stalk around the yard, flailing my arms about and railing against the injustice of it all when I would never find more than two or three half-inch-sized leaves to take inside and use as a garnish. A garnish! Oh, the humanity.

Finally I realized I was planting the wrong variety. And then I felt particularly ridiculous.

Sometime late this past winter, when I was lolling about on my mother’s sofa with a sleeping baby draped across me, Mom tossed me a seed catalog to keep me busy. I read it word-for-word, cover-to-cover, and then I started back at the beginning. It was the Seeds of Change catalog no less, and there were profiles of chefs who source their ingredients locally, and all sorts of fascinating information about heirloom varieties of tomatoes and such. I fawned over the pages of basil plants and discussed the different varieties with Mom (or whichever sibling walked through the room) until Mom handed me her seed order and told me to write down the basil variety I wanted.

I love her. And the lettuce leaf basil that I chose. She ended up with forty-eight (48!) plants and we are now up to our eyeballs in basil. Mom sends plastic grocery bags full of basil leaves home with any adult who comes to her house. It has gotten to the point where she’ll drive up and throw bags of it at me before peeling back out of my driveway. I have even threatened to leave some of it on the hoods of the cars at the farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.

But, oh, it is so utterly delicious. The flavor is strong and spicy, with hints of pepper, and the leaves are mongo-sized and crisp. I have even (I can’t believe I’m going to admit to this) rubbed the leaves on my neck as perfume. Basil just sings my song.

The harvest has been so plentiful that I have experimented with different ways of preserving it, but none has come close to the splendor of pesto. I have attempted freezing individual leaves for use in the winter with awful results. Preserving it in the fridge in a container full of salt worked okay, but the leaves lost their crispness and thus some of their appeal; and drying it destroys too much of the flavor. So I keep blending batches of pesto and freezing them in little containers. I'm going to need to get another freezer, for sure.

I have tried numerous pesto recipes over the past few years, using different cheeses, different nuts, with and without lemon juice, and with varying amounts of basil, but in the end, it was the simplest recipe that won out. Using too many ingredients muddies the flavor, and frankly the added expense of using nuts never really added enough to either the flavor or the texture to make it worthwhile (especially when making and freezing multiple batches at a time). Interestingly, the quality of the olive oil and the parmesan cheese is irrelevant, which helps considerably while I’m buying both in bulk right now.

The best part? The pesto freezes perfectly without compromising the quality, and can make even the dreariest winter day seem brighter and much more bearable. Not to mention, keeping batches of pesto on hand means dinner is ready in the time it takes to boil a pot of pasta.


BASIL PESTO (adapted from Everyday Italian, makes enough to serve with one pound of pasta)
  • 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  1. In a food processor, blend the basil and garlic until finely chopped.
  2. With machine running, gradually add the oil, processing until well-blended.
  3. Transfer to small bowl, and stir in the parmesan, salt and pepper.


Jennifer Jo said...

Rubbing your neck with basil---hahaha!

Another way to preserve basil (after the requisite pile of pesto, of course) is to whirl it in the blender with olive oil. Pour the green paste into ice cube trays and freeze, then pop them out into quart jars and return to the freezer. You can then add cubes of basil freshness to tomato sauces, alfredo sauces, soups, etc.


Sandi said...

Sarah, I found your blog and your Mom's and have really enjoyed reading. Both of you need to write a book. Ya'll have a gift of writing.
About the too much Basil: My brother is a Preacher at a small Mississippi church in the country and he told me that the church members started locking their cars during service to keep people from putting bags of Squash in them. You know you live in the country when this happens?? Keep on blogging and I will keep on reading. Thank you.

Sarah Beam said...

Mama JJ - that is a wonderful idea and I feel kind of silly for not having thought of it (of course I do not feel at all silly about using basil for perfume - go figure)

Sandi - we're glad to have you join us in here. And that squash thing is totally true. People have been known to hang bags of them from mailboxes. Can be quite a scourge, but then come January, all we can think about is that we wish there was some fresh squash around. Figures...

Sandi said...

Good Mornin' Sarah, I found a link that you might be interested in(or you may already know about it)anyhoo, I know you are into trying to eat healthy(except for your fall from grace with the Krispy Kremes)but what the hey!! The link is
It looks like a website that has healthy, but quick meals and snacks! Have a great day!!!

Anonymous said...

I, too, have been known to use basil as a perfume (and rosemary, also). The smell is intoxicating. Next year I'll try lettuce-leaf basil, as my three pitiful basil plants haven't supplied enough to make pesto.

I've been wondering, was the family green thumb passed down to you? You don't write much about gardening, though your recipes sound delicious. I'd love to see some vegan recipes, as my cholesteral levels don't allow for animal products...


Sarah Beam said...

LAH - I do love to garden, but haven't done a stitch of it since The Big Boy was born (in 2004). I have picked out a spot on our property where I want to do square-foot gardening next year, if the kids cooperate.

Alas, I do not have many vegan recipes. My addiction to cheese is a strong one, and I'm always striving to keep a carnivorous husband happy (which pretty much precludes too much veganism). I'm going to keep my eyes out now though, and see what I can come up with.