Pesto Change-o: It’s All About the Basil

heaven on a stem

Hands down, one of my favorite herbs is basil, there is just something about it that adds a bit of zing or flavor that I never get tired of, and I am a firm believer that just about anything you add basil to is better as a result.  Having only married into a family of Italian heritage, and not having any myself, I feel I have missed out on some significant basil eating opportunities, because while I may not be Italian by blood, I seem to share their love of this wonderful herb; Caprese salad, anyone?  Or pesto which I have to say is something really phenomenal in my mind?  Along with artichokes, my husband introduced me to pesto and can I just say that was a deciding factor in my decision to marry him.

Given the history and lore of basil, its only appropriate that its a herb I feel strongly about.  The early Greeks and Romans thought basil was awful, in fact they associated the herb with hatred.  Sandra Bowens, in About Basil tells of the medieval superstition that basil and scorpions were connected; if you grew a pot of basil, the scorpions would thrive beneath it.  In fact, if you so much as smelled that sweet smell of basil,  you would find scorpions growing in your brain!  Basil is considered the king of herbs) harkens back to Greek mythology, as it was thought to have gotten its name from the basilisk, a terrifying half lizard, half dragon with a fatal stare.

Along the way, I discovered why I never have much success in growing basil, according to those Greeks and Romans, the most potent basil would only grow if the gardener ranted and swore the entire time.  To that point, the French expression, semer le baslic (sowing basil) means to rant.  When I grew my ill fated basil, I was not ranting, but in a state of eager anticipation thinking how I would use my basiI and consequently starved it from the fortitude it needed to thrive.  Of course this makes me wonder what my mom does to get such incredible basil as her plants are really more like miniature trees.

options galore

Somewhere along the way the Italians’ animosity for this herb turned to love (sounds almost Shakespearean), and single maidens indicated their availablity with a sprig of basil in their hair.  I’m convinced it was the scent that proved irresistible, scorpions or no.  Regardless of how it was originally named, many cooks consider basil the “king of herbs” and they’ll get only firm agreement from me.

Since that first taste of basil, I was determine to master this sauce as my own, and with the bounty of the local farmers markets exposing me to so many varieties that I never new existed, I explored my options, and discovered how my pesto changes as a result of each tweak in basil varieties.  You may be more worldly than me, but I was amazed at the varieties of basil that existed.  The list below is by no means complete, but only a summary of the most popular varities.

Types of Basil

  • Sweet basil – This fellow is the most common and when you think of pesto, this is variety that is most commonly used.
  • Thai basil – sometimes called licorice base for its distinct licorice sent.  The leaves take on a lovely burgundy hue.
  • Genovese basil – similar to sweet basil
  • Cinnamon basil – you guessed it , has a strong hint of cinnamon, may also go by the name Mexican spice basil.
  • African blue basil has purple color in its leaves and a strong camphor scent
  • Greek bush basil can be a beautiful ornamental plant as its a round glove with tiny leaves and a delicious scent.
  • Licorice basil – also known as Persian basil or Anise basil.  This basil has silvery leaves and a licorice like smell.  This basil has the same chemical as anise.  Thai basil can sometimes be called licorice basil.
  • Spicy globe basil – the leaves may be small, but the flavor is not.  I really enjoyed this one in a pesto.
  • Purple ruffles basil – a dramatic purple colored basil with a more intense anise like flavor than the Genovese basil.
  • Fino verde basil – this variety has small leaves and is more delicately flavored than its larger leaf kin.  Pesto a bit on the mild side.
  • Nufar basil is a variety of Genovese basil.
  • Magical Michael – just an all around favorite in the kitchen
  • Lettuce leaf basil – the leaves are so large they are used as wraps
  • Holy Basil – this variety hails from India and is also known as sacred basil.  Its common in Thai cooking
  • Mammoth basil – no small leaves here, this basil is similar to the Genovese but with a stronger flavor.
  • Mexican spice basil – another name for cinnamon basil.
  • Red rubin basil – has an intesen magenta color and a flavor that tastes like sweet basil.  Another good addition in the pesto.
  • Dark opal basil – I confess to not remembering the specifics here, but it must be good as its an “award winning” basil from the University of Connecticut.
  • Cuban basil – similar to sweet basil but with smaller leaves and a more intense flavor.
  • Mrs. Burns lemon basil – similar to lemon basil with that familiar lemon scent
  • Thai lemon basil has that citrus odor with a distinct balm-like flavor.
  • Lemon basil – it actually has a bit of a lemon taste and is sweeter than some of the other basils.  It’s popular in Indonesia so it may be called Indonesian basil.  It also has less attractive name of hoary basil.
  • Lime basil – similar to lemon basil.
  • Osmin purple basil – a dramatic looking basil with shiny purple leaves complete with a jagged edge.

Flavor descriptors from Wikipedia.

Pesto

My kinda talk

Pesto is a sauce originating in Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy (pesto alla genovese). The name is derived from the Latin verb pestâ (“to pound, to crush”), and refers to the sauce’s crushed herbs and garlic.  The English word pestle also comes from the same word, which is appropriate given to make pesto in the classic fashion a mortar and pestle are required.  Note that like Mexican salsa, the name pesto is generic, so one man’s pesto might not be another’s.  To make sure everyone is referring to the same type of pesto when talking the classic combo of  basil, it is almost always referred to as pesto alla genovese.

Pesto is commonly used on pasta, traditionally with Mandilli de Sæa (Genovese for “silk handkerchiefs” which indicates how thin, almost transparent this pasta is required to be) close to lasagna,  trofie or trenette.  The pesto may sometimes used in minestrone, like the French do with their version called pistou.

Variations

If using the trofie, which reminds me of play dough when you roll it out, or the  trennette version of pasta, it is traditional to add green beans and potatoes.  In the town of Recco, fava beans may be added to the trofie pasta as well.  source:  Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, University of California Press

Pesto alla siciliana, sometimes called simply pesto rosso (red pesto) is the Sicilians answer to Genovese pesto.  They added tomato, and substituted almonds for the pine nuts, and reduced the amount of basil.

Pesto alla calabrese is a sauce from Calabria and includes grilled bell peppers and black pepper which give the sauce a distinctive spicy taste.

A German variety uses ramsons (a type of wild garlic) leaves instead of basil.

Genovese immigrants to Argentina brought pesto recipes with them, which spread in to other parts of Latin America. A Peruvian variety, known as “Tallarines Verdes” (literally “Green Noodles”, from Italian tagliarini) is slightly creamier, and may include spinach.  It may be served with roasted potatoes and sirloin steak.

Traditional

very traditional

Traditional pesto alla genovese is made with Genovese basil, salt, garlic, Ligurian extra virgin olive oil, pine nuts and a grated hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano or some combination which could include Grana Padano, Pecorino Sardo or Pecorino Romano).

Not so traditional

I’ve had pesto made with sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, roasted bell peppers, preserved lemon, mushrooms basically the combinations are only limited by ones imagination and what is in the pantry.  The herbs can be mint, spinach, arugula, sage, or whatever else is on hand.  Saveur asks, is it pesto without basil? , and the answer seems to be a resounding “yes!”  The same with the nuts, some swear only pine nuts, while others say its equal parts pine nuts and walnuts, but I’ve seen peanuts, cashews, and a host of other nuts.  Just thinking about it makes me, well nutty.

I’ve even managed to show my hubby a thing or two, as  I was inspired to serve pesto with a squash I roasted.  It was amazing, and now we prefer to eat our pesto this way.  The sweetness of the squash (we like acorn or kaboucha) pairs beautifully with  the pesto.  I’ve also heard, but never tried substituting miso for the cheese and salt for a vegan version.

Finally, the traditional method as mentioned earlier called for using a pestle and mortar.  I’m sorry to say that I never made pesto that way, I blame it on two things, one I am lazy and two I lost my large mortar and pestle in one of my moves and have not replaced them.  When I first started making pesto I used a blender and that seems to be by far the most common technique.  However, I’ve sensed learned, thanks to my Sophia Loren cookbook, about making pesto with the aid of a sharp knife or a mezzaluna, as Heidi Swanson does in her Italian Grandmother’s pesto recipe.  We both share a preference for the different texture and that it looses its paste like consistency.  If you’ve never made pesto this way, trust me it does not take that much longer, and is a great stress reliever chopping things into itty bitty bits.

minty fresh

I’ve long since  stopped needlessly limiting myself to using basil strictly in savory dishes.  I’ve found basil is nearly magical when used in sweet foods, which makes sense when you consider it is a member of the mint family.  I love making basil infused simple syrup and adding it to freshly squeezed lemon or limeade, adding it to my morning smoothies.  Peach and basil smoothies are bliss in the morning.  With all the bounty of strawberries this summer, I made plenty of my strawberry basil sorbet, which is an enduring family favorite.

Strawberry Basil Sorbet

About 4 cups

Ingredients

1 c water
1 c sugar
1 c loosely packed fresh basil leaves
4 c quartered hulled fresh strawberries
2 T limoncello

Directions

Combine water and sugar in a sauce pan over medium heat and stir until the sugar is incorporated.  Turn off heat and add the basil leaves.  Let the pan cool to room temperature.  Strain the leaves from the simple syrup.  Puree quartered strawberries in blender until smooth. Add the simply syup and limoncello, and stir well.  Chill mixture until cold, about 1 ½ hours.  Transfer mixture to an ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer’s instructions. Spoon sorbet into container; cover and freeze until firm, about 4 hours.

Note: you could leave some fresh minced basil in the green looks gorgeous against the red of the strawberries.  I’d add them at the end before you chill the mixture.

Other ideas:  Thip of Bonbini! uses basil seeds to brilliant effect in her Basil Seed Drink on a Stick

Resources:

Gardening guides – basil

Spice Pages – Basil

Basil Legend and Lore

Basil the Green Leaves of Summer

NOTE:  I’m looking for anyone interested in guest posting.  If you want to talk about the food where you live or have something on your mind please let me know.  These next few months are going to be hectic for me.  I can cross one of my bucket list items off as I’ll start teaching at a local university next week, just one class on International Business and Strategy to compliment my consulting and then in October I have a bit of traveling going on, so I’d love some help if you want to try your hand or want to reach different readers.  Let me know what you’d like to write about and when you think you could have it ready.  Thanks for your help.

Update me when site is updated

36 comments for “Pesto Change-o: It’s All About the Basil

  1. August 25, 2010 at 7:51 PM

    I’ve never thought of pairing pesto with Kabocha squash or using miso instead of cheese! What great ideas!

  2. August 25, 2010 at 8:22 PM

    After reading your list I realize that I’ve been using the same names for certain types of basil, such as Thai basil and holy basil – I thought they were the same thing. I’ll have to try making pesto in a mortar and pestle, I’d be interested in the difference from the processor.

    I’m available to guest post, let me know when.

  3. August 25, 2010 at 9:48 PM

    GOSH! I never knew there were so many kinds of basil. How naive am I! One basil I really love to try is these purple one.

  4. August 25, 2010 at 10:22 PM

    This is a very thorough, informative, and enlightening post! Good for you. Many thanks, Dan

  5. August 25, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    I’ve been wilting in this recent heat spell, but I keep hoping it’ll do my basil plants a lot of good. My friends and I have noticed our basil plants aren’t nearly as lush this year, because of the unseasonable cool summer. Here’s hoping more pesto is in my future with this 99-degree heat of late.

  6. August 26, 2010 at 5:51 AM

    I loving coo at my basil seeds and yield 40-50 basil plants every year. The sorbet does sound wonderful and shall give it a whirl. Basil is for me – food for the gods. I never tire reading about it! Kudos.

  7. August 26, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    Basil is one of my favorite ingredients to work with. Great info on the many different types of basil.

    Best of luck with your new endeavor.

  8. August 26, 2010 at 11:18 AM

    I adore basil and pesto! I wish I could taste all those deffirent types of basil… I really love Thai basil.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  9. August 26, 2010 at 11:20 AM

    My favorite herb – if only my basil plants hadn’t suffered so in NC’s record heat this summer!

    Congratulations on the new job.

  10. August 26, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    I’m thrilled to know I need to swear more often around my basil plants! I think I must have been too polite in the garden this year; the plants were bigger and stronger last year. I’ve never made pesto with a mortar and pestle either, but I keep thinking I should get one some day. The sorbet sounds delicious too!

  11. August 26, 2010 at 6:31 PM

    Wow! I had no idea that there was such a variety of basil. I love the stuff. I think they’d have to be my favorite herb also. I’ve been so used to the kind that’s always sold in store. One of the thing I’ve wanted for a long time was to grow my own basil plant. Now you’ve got me craving for pesto. First pasta, now pesto. :)

  12. August 26, 2010 at 10:42 PM

    Perhaps my basil will grow better if I go out and rant and rage around it! I do love it but had no idea there were so many varieties. In fact, after reading this, I’m not sure I know what type I do grow.

  13. admin
    August 27, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    Kitchen M – The use of squash was an inspired choice, to this day I have no idea what made me pair them

    Christine – You and me both on the names – I had no idea of all the options until I started getting my plants at the farmers markets. Its been awesome. Thanks so much for the offer to guest post, I really appreciate it!

    Angie – I’m with you the purple ones are so dramatic in any dish they in, they make such a great presentation, plus they’re just tasty.

    IslandEAT – Thank you, and glad you stopped by.

    Carolyn – I was just down in your neck of the woods and it was 108 – pesto would indeed be good.

    Claudia – 50 to 60 basil plants, oh wow. I am envious.

    Lazaro – Its versatility is one of the reasons I am convinced its the king of spices.

    Rosa – I agree a side by side taste test would be a wonderful way to really understand the differences.

    Lynn – I am sorry to hear about your basil – mine suffered a long slow decline before giving it up. Had I known I would have soundly cursed it out.

    Lisa – I’m with you, I was totally channeling the wrong emotions, and now I am lacking basil. No more nice girl.

    Jenn – Sorry for causing some unecsessary cravings – you have no idea what you do to me with your production eats!

    Tammy – After all my research, when I finally get a garden I think I want a basil plot to grow the different types of basils and of course rant and rave in a productive manner.

  14. August 27, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    Excellent info on basil! I just had the cinnamon basil from the farmers market, and loved cooking with it!

  15. August 27, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    I did not know there are so many types of basil too. :) I know the names Sweet, Thai and Holy but don’t think I will be able to differentiate them if they are right in front of me.

  16. August 27, 2010 at 9:32 PM

    Mm…strawberries marry basil so well. Basil is one of my fave herbs, too. It’s just so…refreshing and enlightening, and is good in practically anything, even sweet desserts like this one.

  17. August 27, 2010 at 10:23 PM

    My basil is not doing well this year, but I get it at the farmers’ market every week. Tonight at a wine and dessert pairing there was a great blueberry basil jam as a component of the dessert.

  18. August 28, 2010 at 10:12 AM

    I used & tasted a lot of these variaties of basil.

    That strawberry basil sorbet sounds so amazing & tasty! I love the added limoncello!

  19. admin
    August 28, 2010 at 7:44 PM

    5 Star – I am curious, what did you make, or will I found out soon in a post?

    Tigerfish – I agree, I think a side by side comparison is in order.

    Sophia – That sorbet is the bomb – so incredibly refreshing, and the basil just adds such a yummy depth.

    Judy – The basil blueberry jam sounds amazing. I have the worse luck with basil, maybe I didn’t swear enough, or more likely when it was too late so I’ve resigned myself to getting it at the farmers market.

    Sophie – Do you have a favorite variety?

  20. August 28, 2010 at 10:53 PM

    Wow! I knew that there were all of these different types of pesto, but who knew that there were so many types of basil? Wow! Great article! Love basil and love pesto!

  21. August 29, 2010 at 3:55 AM

    i also love basil and always cook more pesto and then to the freezer when needed !! Pierre

  22. August 29, 2010 at 1:26 PM

    I have been enamored with basil ever since that day when my aunt made it in Lebanon with some local pine nuts and her garden herbs. I now have her recipe and was surprised to se she mixed parsley too in the mix.
    I need to thank you for enlightening me every single time with your exhaustive research.

  23. August 30, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    I love basil and pesto!Wow! I didn’t know all those types of basil. Thanks.

  24. August 30, 2010 at 12:17 PM

    Excellent and informative post…Basil is a favorite :)

  25. August 30, 2010 at 4:19 PM

    so many varities, how wondeful to learn something new for my garden…basil is a must every year and it has endless possibilites!! congrats on your new job, bucket list mark offs always feel super special!!Yeah for YOU!!
    sweetlife

  26. August 30, 2010 at 9:25 PM

    Never knew there were that many types of basils out there in the world. Thai basil is the only one we’ve used before. Thanks for enlightening all of us.

  27. August 30, 2010 at 10:25 PM

    I didn’t know the different type of basils, so many…and I adore pesto, the traditional one :)
    The refreshing sorbet is gorgeous!

    Have a great week!

    Gera

  28. August 31, 2010 at 12:40 PM

    Oh! I want so badly try this…strawberry and basil…but do not have a ice cream maker :-( Must taste SO SO good :-) And thank you so much for the information about all the different basils.

  29. August 31, 2010 at 1:52 PM

    What a wonderfully complete article on basil. It is one of my favourite foods since my mome first made it from basil grown in our garden when I was very young. Love it.
    Caprese, when tomatoes are ripe locally, is irresistible

  30. August 31, 2010 at 8:30 PM

    I love the idea of pesto and squash. Genious! The sorbet I have had before and it is delicious.

  31. September 3, 2010 at 7:33 AM

    Orange-basil creme brulee, basil-mint lamb, oh my girl you have just tapped into my memory and smell-0-blog…I miss cooking, and reading this site! I am back! Well at least until I return from Spain in October…read on!

  32. admin
    September 3, 2010 at 8:50 AM

    Jamie, The number of basil options threw me at first too, but then my eyes opened to the possibilities.

    Pierre – Unfortunately we never have enough to freeze, but I love the idea.

    Taste of Beirut – Just having fun!

    Erica – The more to experiment with, huh?

    MoS – Most Definitely

    Sweetlife – Super Excited – I survived the first night and am looking forward to many more.

    Duo – The options and variances are amazing.

    Gera – Have a great weekend yourself!

    Juliana – I think you could try making it in a flat pan, freezing it and then scraping it out. May not have the same consistency but nice and refreshing.

    Joshua – Thank you. Nothing beats a good Caprese

    Sarah – I can vouch for the pesto and squash very good indeed. It converted my husband into a squash lover.

    Chef E – so many options with basil. Woohoo – your trip to Spain is going to be EPIC, cannot wait to hear all about it.

  33. September 5, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    Our basil tends to do well around here as long as it is out after any risk of frost. However, this year it was attacked by caterpillars! This is the first time its happened to me and they seem to love basil. I was hoping to get some made into pesto and frozen, but they got to it first.

    I have only had about 3 or 4 varieties of basil, but I still have to rate sweet basil as my favorite. Like you, I like it with just about everything.

  34. September 8, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    I love your strawberry and basil sorbet! I once made a salad with the combo and it was really a lovely match. I’ve made all kinds of pesto – it’s my go to when I can’t come up with a sauce. I don’t think I’ve ever had it on squash but I love the sound of it! It’s good on grilled cheese too.

  35. September 20, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    love fresh basil with feta cheese and warm pita bread! this is a very informative post. thank you!

  36. admin
    September 25, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    Lori – That seems criminal to have your prized basil attacked by catapillars, I hope you were able to enjoy some of the varieties anyway.

    Reeni – That sorbet is just so refreshing and the basil compliments the strawberries like nobody’s business. Pesto is just an amazing sauce, it goes so well with so many options.

    Azita – oh, that sounds just delicious. What a treat!

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