In Italian cooking, basil is used quite often in pesto sauce and many other recipes. Pesto sauce was a mainstay at our house. My mother insisted on the classic Italian version which she made from scratch in season. My father raised some of the most incredible basil I have ever tasted and the difference that this great herb makes in this sauce is indescribable; it’s scrumptious. My father’s basil was always dark green and thick and crisp, yet tender. You could smell the basil patch on our farm from a distance. For those who know only the limp, thin, yellowish green hydroponically raised basil you find now in most supermarkets I pity you.
By the early sixties my father, who farmed both in Sicily and in the U.S., was raising dozens of varieties of specialty vegetables and herbs that were sold to gourmet and ethnic markets, restaurants, and hotel kitchens. By the early seventies, basil had become one of the first fresh herbs to be sold regularly at supermarkets. My father was always ahead of the curve so when the demand for this special herb expanded beyond the Italian and Middle Eastern specialty markets he supplied … in the late sixties he began seeding basil in his greenhouse in mid-February. He raised several greenhouses full of this herb each year.
He would seed outdoor basil the third week in May and on June first of each year he would transplant seedlings started in the greenhouse to the one acre basil plot outdoors. The year I turned fifteen he asked me to partner with him on 1 acre of basil. My job was to insure the basil was watered, fertilized, cultivated and weeded. The one acre turned into two acres and that year I succeeded as we had a bumper crop of tight, tall, firm green basil plants.
Once it was of marketable growth it was my job to harvest it. Unlike the tiny handful of basil one buys for $2.99 a bunch today these were big, whopping, generous fistfuls of basil stalks and leaves. Our customers were very serious about their basil and many of them made Pesto Sauce with it!
By summer’s end the basil patch was still yielding several dozen boxes of basil a day but I was released from my basil patch partnership to return to school. I have yet to see basil of this quality in store shelves in the past twenty-five years since hybrid varieties raised in over wet, climate controlled greenhouses have taken over. My end of the profits was enough to buy a cool pair of black English paddock boots that were all the rage.
Pesto sauce can have some interesting variations. Classic Pesto sauce is a perfect blend of fresh young basil, toasted pine nuts, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and plenty of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. One variation is to slice very ripe, fresh cherry tomatoes into pasta and add pesto sauce just before serving. Another is to top a baking dish full of pesto sauce covered macaroni with a thick layer of Parmigiano-Reggiano and placing it under a broiler until the cheese is golden brown. A third is to add grated Swiss or Emmental cheese into the pesto and pasta along with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The list of variations is endless.
Entrepreneur and Raconteur. Has taken Kyle Phillips (former Principle/Blogger for the About.com
Guide to Italian Food) to task on several supposedly “authentic” Italian recipes.