Tuesday, September 7, 2010
If I had to pick only two things to grow in my garden, they would be tomatoes and basil. Tomatoes because nothing tastes like a home grown tomato, and basil because it functions almost as a cash crop for me.
Nothing could be easier than growing basil. Packets of seeds of "Genovese" or "common" basil, the kind that is perfect for pesto and sauces, are readily available at the hardware and grocery store every spring for around $1.50. (Yes, they are hybrids; if you want an all-heirloom garden, you will pay up. But I promise, Genovese or common basil is the kind you want for pesto -- meaty, large leaves, strong aroma, dark green color.) Start your seeds about 6 weeks before your last frost date; I usually dump about a quarter of a pack of seeds into each of four small pots and treat the resulting seedlings as four plants. You could get more scientific. Wait until your ground is warm and no threat of frost remains, and plant them in a sunny spot.
You will wait forever to see a plant of any size, but when it starts to take off, prune the plant regularly at the leaf junctions, encouraging two more branches to sprout where you cut. Pretty soon, you will have a basil plant of mammoth proportions.
I think the best way to preserve the bounty is by making pesto. Pesto (coming from the Italian root for "paste," the same as pasta) is a sauce of any leafy green mixed with olive oil, salt, and frequently cheese and or nuts. I use the term "pesto" to refer to basil and oil, to which I add salt when I cook. I may or may not want to add cheese or other inputs, so I freeze it pretty plain.
In the store, small jars (3 oz.) of basil pesto are typically $3.39 (the most common price I saw when I looked this week at a few brands. If you assume that each ounce requires 38 cents worth of non-basil inputs (like oil and salt), making your own basil pesto will save you 75 cents per ounce. This can get into some serious savings quickly. Last year, I froze 14 half pint containers of pesto (a half pint will cover a box of pasta, which is my most typical usage). That means 112 ounces, or $84 in savings over buying a comparable amount in the store. This year so far, I have put up 6 containers, for a savings of $36. As you can see, most years the basil pesto alone will pay for a significant part of the garden seeds and plants (which typically run me around $250 a year).
To make pesto, wash your basil leaves and puree in a food processor with olive oil until you have a consistency somewhere between a sauce and a paste. Put in a container and freeze.
You can use this to dress pasta, giving you a quick meal that also has a fair amount of leafy green veg in it. Or, use it as a compliment to dipping oil for bread, or as a dressing between veg and bread on bruschetta. When you use it, you can add salt, cheese, or nuts to your liking. In the winter, I love to make a batch of pasta with basil pesto, sea salt, sun dried tomatoes, and a grating of Parmesan as a quick, healthy meal.
Fast: Processing basil to be frozen takes a little time, but not as much time as, say, freezing strawberries or canning tomatoes.
Cheap: See above. Every 8 oz. container of pesto you freeze now saves you $6 over buying the cute little jars in the store.
Good: Here's the kicker: nothing tastes as good basil pesto frozen the day it was picked, so the expensive little jars don't even taste as good!
Fall Thermostat Challenge Update: As of today, 6 hours saved. Yesterday was a cool day, and we were in and out of the house doing home improvement, so it made sense to turn off the AC. We turned it back on for night and for an expected heat wave.
Posted by Jennifer Lorenzetti at 10:54 AM