After just two months of growing our very own herb garden right in our front yard, we are finally making dishes that incorporate our fresh harvest. The garden began with 13 herbs, including thyme, mint, and oregano and increased to over 20 herbs, including chamomile, fennel, and lemon balm thanks to the generous spirit of Linda Johnson, a colleague and friend who owns Garden Gate Farm. Linda’s contribution to the green growing edible things in our yard was a birthday gift of sorts that will undoubtedly keep on giving.
Of our bounty, the herb that we have used the most is basil. We harvest, tear and toss a few leaves in pasta sauces, chop several leaves and combine them with fresh garlic, sun dried tomatoes and spinach for a heavenly combination of pizza toppings. But the dish we’ve been making most often is pesto, that green Italian sauce that consists most commonly of fresh basil, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese, and pine nuts and named pesto because of the pounding of the herbs and ingredients that go into making this sauce. In fact, the word pesto is Italian and is the shortened form of pestato, the past participle of pestare, which means to pound or crush.
The recipe for pesto that we began with came from an old edition of The Joys of Cooking and called for 1 1/2 cups of basil leaves, 1/4 cup of pine nuts, 1/4 cup of shredded parmesan cheese, 3/4 cups of olive oil, and salt and ground pepper to taste. Sometimes we pound our ingredients in the traditional way and other times we use a blender to pulse the ingredients until they are blended to the desired consistency. Because I just can’t help myself, I’ve made a few versions of that initial recipe, including using walnuts instead of pine nuts, because walnuts are less expensive and seemingly more readily available. And when my younger daughter, who is allergic to peanuts and, as a result, leary of other nuts, is in the mood for pesto, I eliminate the nuts altogether or use nutritional yeast instead.
Nutritional yeast is also my method for veganizing the traditional pesto recipe. This deactivated yeast has a flavor that can be characterized as buttery or cheesy and is commonly used by vegans and vegetarians as a condiment on popcorn, in soups, dips, and cheese sauces. It is a great source of protein and B vitamins, especially B12 and makes a great tasting substitute for the parmesan cheese in pesto.
Aside from being great tasting, basil, the main ingredient in pesto, has many health benefits according to dieticians, herbalists, and holistic practitioners. For one, basil is an herb rich in flavonoids which reportedly makes it effective in preventing cell damage from radiation and oxygen (but, according to some, does not provide protection for tumors treated with radiation therapy). The oils in basil are quite beneficial as they inhibit bacterial growth, have anti-inflammatory properties similar to aspirin, making it beneficial for those suffering from arthritis. Basil is also said to be good for the heart because it helps to prevent build-up in the arteries and fights free radicals. Furthermore, the magnesium in basil is good for blood circulation because it helps relax the blood vessels, and this amazingly delicious herb is also a good source of Vitamin K, iron, calcium, vitamin A, manganese, vitamin C and potassium.
Learning all of this has made me want to find more and more ways to incorporate basil into my repetoire of delicious main dishes, condiments, and even drinks.
I welcome you to join me and to share what you discover.