Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Best Pesto Basil?

In the past, I've been pretty casual about buying basil plants for my garden. Basil is basil, right? You go to the nursery, buy some basil (Ocimum basilicum) and plant it. Well, if you're like me and you're mainly growing it to make your own pesto, you might be better off planting Italian varieties like 'Genovese', 'Italian Pesto', and 'Profuma di Genova' over plain old basil. The Italian cultivars are considered superior because of their larger leaf size, mild taste and complex fragrance.

The Cooks Garden calls 'Sweet Genovese' "Absolutely the best for cooking and for pesto."

Renee's Garden calls "Profuma di Genova" the "European greengrocers' choice" for its "bright basil flavor without minty/clove overtones, compact shape and excellent disease resistance."

So, pesto lovers, look for key words like "Genovese", "Genova", and "Italian" when shopping for basil seeds or plants. I will... from now on.

For a nice basil primer, see Fine Gardening's Basil Basics, by Susan Belsinger, coauthor of Basil: An Herb Lover's Guide.

What would all this basil talk be without a recipe?

While not a pesto recipe, it does use fresh torn basil leaves. Enjoy this easy-to-make, delicious dish. I ... (loosens belt)... just did.

Rachael Ray's "You Won't Be Single for Long" Vodka Cream Pasta

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, once around the pan in a slow stream
1 tablespoon butter
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 shallots, minced
1 cup vodka
1 cup chicken stock
1 can crushed tomatoes (32 ounces)
Coarse salt and pepper
16 ounces pasta, such as penne rigate
1/2 cup heavy cream
20 leaves fresh basil, shredded or torn
Serve with:
Crusty bread, for passing

Heat a large skillet over moderate heat. Add oil, butter, garlic and shallots. Gently sauté shallots for 3 to 5 minutes to develop their sweetness. Add vodka to the pan (3 turns around the pan in a steady stream will equal about 1 cup). Reduce vodka by half, this will take 2 or 3 minutes. Add chicken stock, tomatoes. Bring sauce to a bubble and reduce heat to simmer. Season with salt and pepper.

While sauce simmers, cook pasta in salted boiling water until cooked to al dente (with a bite to it). While pasta cooks, prepare your salad or other side dishes.

Stir cream into sauce. When sauce returns to a bubble, remove it from heat. Drain pasta. Toss hot pasta with sauce and basil leaves. Pass pasta with crusty bread.

(Tuesday, March 28 update: I found Genovese basil plants at Capital Nursery on Sunrise and Genovese and "Italian basil" plants at Windmill Nursery in Carmichael. Also picked up some seeds of Genovese. The plants are gonna hang out in the greenhouse until warmer weather. Ah... warmer weather.)

Mountain Valley Growers has a nice pesto recipe.


  1. Anonymous9:43 AM

    I'm a fan of "The Pesto Manifesto" by Lorel Nazzaro. Some of the recipes may sound gross (Pesto Hot Dogs?) but there's lot of good ones too.

  2. Thanks, Anthony. Pesto hot dogs don't scare me. Pesto ice cream on the other hand...