Get the most from your herbs II: Eat what you pinch!
Pinching your basil and other herbs will make your plants full, prevent blooms that can lead to bitter flavors, and provide you with great handfuls of fresh herbs. (See the first article in this series.) Pinching and snipping leads to sniffing and nibbling, and you realize you must put your herbs to use in the kitchen! Salads! Sauces! Grilled Chicken! Pesto! Fresh herbs make everything taste fabulous.
But where do you start?
Toss basil leaves with salad greens, and you’ll get an immediate sense of the intense flavor fresh herbs can provide. Salads are a great place to introduce your tongue to fresh herbs and discover your favorite combinations.
Add thyme to a citrus vinaigrette, or top a salad with orange sections and sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves. Minced Greek oregano combines well with feta cheese and tomatoes. Try it with a green salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and top it off with bright nasturtium blossoms. Flavor combinations that you like in salads will also work in marinades for meat or in side dishes such as herbed rice.
Fresh herbs aren’t only for gourmet cooks! Add a handful of minced fresh basil and some frozen peas to a batch of blue-box Mac & Cheese, and see what happens. Perk up your store-bought spaghetti sauce with fresh basil and thyme, or sprinkle your pizza with a little minced fresh oregano. Once you start using fresh herbs, you will find ways to add them to every meal.
If you’re used to cooking with dried herbs, use three times the amount of fresh herb to substitute for the dried herb quantity in your recipe. One tablespoon minced fresh herbs = One teaspoon dried. Fresh herbs often have different and stronger flavors than dried herbs, so start with less and taste as you go.
Basil is a wonderful partner for fresh garden tomatoes. It’s hard to beat a platter of thick tomato slices, dotted with the best olive oil and balsamic vinegar you can find, and crowned with fresh basil. These same flavors are in a bruschetta topping (pronounced “brew-sketta”) recipe taught to me by an Italian friend who grows even more tomato varieties than I do. For every cup of diced tomatoes, add 1 minced clove of garlic and 1 Tablespoon each of minced basil, good balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil. You can store this in the refrigerator without affecting the flavor of the tomatoes, but don't eat it cold. Irene serves hers with crostini, made by toasting thin slices of baguettes in a slow oven until crisp but not brown. See the DG Recipes forum (subscribers only) for more bruschetta recipes.
To chiffonade basil, cookbooks tell you to stack the leaves and roll them tightly, then slice across the roll to make thin strips. I’m less precise. I gather the leaves into a big wad and hold them in place with one hand while chopping away with the other hand, being very careful to keep my fingers away from the knife blade. Scatter this aromatic confetti across the plate, and your dinner will have 4-star appeal!
The classic response to a big basil harvest is to make pesto, which is a snap if you have a food processor. Green pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts, or you can substitute other nuts such as cashews, almonds or walnuts. Red pesto uses sun-dried tomatoes in place of the nuts. Either type of pesto can be added to cooked pasta or rice.
I often portion pesto into ice cube trays, 8 cubes to a batch, and freeze it for later use. Two “cubes” of pesto mixed with a stick of softened butter or half a cup of margarine makes a wonderful spread for crusty bread. If you reduce the oil in the recipe, you can add pesto to pizza or bread dough (one cube per pizza crust). One bite of pasta salad with pesto in January will convince you to plant a whole row of basil next year!
Pinch your herbs for shape and fullness, but more importantly, pinch them to add amazing flavor to summer meals! Eat what you pinch, and get the most out of your herbs this summer!
Green Pesto with Cashews
Adapted from The All New Joy of Cooking 
2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves
1/3 cup raw cashews
3-4 cloves fresh garlic, peeled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan and/or romano cheese
Removing most of the stems from the basil will make the pesto taste better.
You can substitute pine nuts or other nuts such as almonds or walnuts for the cashews.
Process the basil, garlic, and nuts to a rough paste in the food processor.
With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil.
Blend in the cheese.
Pesto should be a thick paste.
If it seems dry, add a little more olive oil.
Season with salt & ground black pepper to taste.
If not using immediately, store the pesto in a covered glass jar
in the refrigerator for up to a week. Freeze for longer storage.
Red Pesto with Sun Dried Tomatoes
Adapted from The All New Joy of Cooking
Prepare the sun dried tomato mixture:
1/3 cup chopped sun dried tomatoes
1 clove fresh garlic, peeled
6 fresh basil leaves
enough water to cover tomatoes
Snip the dried tomatoes into bits with scissors. Combine in a
microwave-safe bowl with the garlic, basil, and enough water to cover.
Bring to a boil by microwaving on high, then allow to stand about 20 minutes
until tomatoes are softened. Drain off excess liquid.
Now make the pesto:
1 large clove garlic, peeled
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
the tomato mixture
Put the basil and garlic into the bowl of the food processor
with the tomato mixture, and process to a rough paste.
With the machine running, add the olive oil.
Add the grated cheese, and process until blended.
Season to taste with salt and ground black pepper.