The end of summer is always a bittersweet time for me. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love the fall—but growing up in the produce business, you realize there’s nothing like the incredible bounty we have access to throughout the spring and summer here in the Garden State. Thankfully, there are still a number of delicious, locally grown items available this month, which will help us transition from the abundance of the warm-weather months to the crisp joys of fall. One such item? Basil.
THE BACKSTORY ON BASIL
In most cases, there’s a powerful difference between fresh herbs and packaged dried varieties. Just brushing your hand across a bunch of fresh thyme or pinching a leaf of basil or rosemary will release these herbs’ rich fragrance and put you in the mood to cook.
Part of the mint family, and originally native to central and tropical Asia and Africa, basil is an aromatic herb that’s been a favorite in the Mediterranean region for centuries. Basil, garlic and tomatoes seem to have been made for one another; their fusion is the backbone of a lot of Italian cooking.
Leaf basil (as opposed to bush basil) is the variety that’s most commonly seen in markets. It grows on long stems with oval leaves that can span two inches or longer. Though available year-round, leaf basil is ideally purchased from local sources from June to the first frost (typically in late October/early November).
A rich source of antioxidants, basil helps protect against cancer, heart disease and inflammatory conditions like arthritis. Studies show that basil also plays a positive role in regulating blood sugar levels. And it’s believed to support mental health, too, by improving cognition, elevating mood and reducing anxiety.
When selecting basil, look for leaves that still have their roots attached. Avoid leaves that are wilted or dried out. Basil is very susceptible to the cold, and cold-damaged basil can end up with brown leaves or spots. (In this case, the flavor may still be acceptable at first, but it will deteriorate quickly—so use it immediately). You can store fresh basil with its roots in a vase of water, much as you would cut flowers. Basil in good condition can last for a week or more at room temperature that way, but only if you’re careful to change the water at least once a day.
Basil can be used to flavor poultry, lamb, pork or seafood. And it’s especially good snipped into salads (I think it’s in its full glory in a simple salad of tomatoes, basil, garlic and olive oil). I also love tossing basil into pasta or adding it onto a pizza.
You can preserve fresh basil by drying it, freezing it or packing it in oil. To dry it, rinse off the roots and hang the whole plant, roots and all, upside down in a warm, dry, airy spot, out of direct sunlight. When you’re ready to use it, just brush the leaves off into your hand. Once it’s completely dry, store it in a capped jar. Some cooks coarsely chop or tear fresh basil leaves into ice cube trays, cover them with water, freeze them and then add these “basil cubes” to tomato or pasta sauces as needed.
When I was growing up in Bergenfield, the father of one of our friends, Alfred Garbarino (affectionately known as “Gabby”), was a fantastic cook and had a great restaurant in Tenafly named Gabby’s. Thinking about him always brings back great memories. I can still taste his amazing pesto sauce, which featured fresh basil and truly made a plate of plain pasta come alive! Gabby’s wife, Tess, was kind enough to share his famous pesto recipe with me years back. I know you’ll enjoy it, too, and I hope you’ll get your fill of delicious local basil while it’s still in season.
GABBY’S PERFECT PESTO SAUCE
- 3 bunches fresh basil, leaves only
- 1 head garlic, peeled and separated into cloves
- 1 bunch fresh Italian parsley, washed, with stems removed
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- ½ cup olive oil
- 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
Chop the basil, garlic and parsley in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. While the motor is running, slowly add the olive oil until the mixture becomes a smooth paste (about 30 seconds). Transfer the mixture into a small bowl; set aside. Place the cream cheese, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper into the food processor; pulse 3 or 4 times to blend. Add in 4 to 5 tablespoons of the basil-garlic mixture and process for 2 minutes. (Place the remaining mixture into a sealed container, which can be frozen or refrigerated for future use.) The pesto sauce can be thinned with a little extra olive oil if necessary. Toss with cooked pasta and enjoy!
About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 70 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author and TV personality who’s appeared on a highly popular segment on WNBC’s Weekend Today in New York, every Saturday morning for over 30 years. For more information, visit producepete.com.
About Susan Bloom
A regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for over a decade.
Pete and Susan are the coauthors of Pete’s award-winning memoir/cookbook, They Call Me Produce Pete, available on Pete’s website and wherever books are sold.
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