Embarrassing confession: After our first winter back in Iowa, basil brought me to tears. I was in the grocery store when I saw its bright green leaves, grabbed a container, and breathed in its fragrance that is the scent of summer. The smell made my eyes misty with relief. After months of shoveling and cold, this beacon seemed to say the worst was over (until next year).
Since then, a local grower with a greenhouse has started making basil available all winter long, which is like some kind of miracle. Every time I pick up a packet on an icy day, it feels like a flower has sprouted up from underneath piles of snow.
Even though I have year ’round access to basil, in the summer it’s especially savored. It’s the time when we’re swimming in it, and bags of it at the farmers market come cheap. It’s when basil explodes in gardens, aching to be picked. And of course, the best way to use all of that basil is with big batches of pesto.
Something I like about pesto is how much room there is for play. Basil can be replaced in part with cilantro or spinach. Peas can be added for more green color and variety. Garlic can be swapped with garlic scapes. Pine nuts are the standard, but pistachios are my favorite. (And they’re cheaper too!) Other tasty nut options include walnuts, almonds, cashews, or hemp seeds. Depending on your salt proclivities, olives, jarred artichoke hearts, and/or sun-dried tomatoes are all tasty add-ins. Some people go heavy on olive oil, and some go light or oil-free.
But there’s one non-traditional ingredient that is never missing from my pesto – white miso paste.
Miso paste is a fermented paste made from soybeans. It’s typically thought of as the main ingredient in miso soup. However, I use it anywhere I want added depth of flavor like vegan cheese sauce, spinach and artichoke dip, cashew filling for squash blossoms, and mushroom or lentil spreads. Miso paste balances the floral quality of basil, and gives some saltiness, richness, and umami. (If you’d like even more cheesiness, add a tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast flakes.)
This is the recipe for my favorite pesto with cilantro and basil. Toss it with hot pasta, gnocchi, or rice, spread it onto sandwiches, or on pizza. (I like to put tomato sauce on my pizza, and then add generous dollops of pesto all around the pie.) It’s also wonderful tossed with roasted, steamed, or grilled vegetables like broccoli or green beans.
For this post, I topped pesto pasta with red wine-infused mushrooms, fresh tomato, and basil for garnish.
Now for some non-food news:
I was so excited to learn that David won first place in the Twin Peaks Festival film contest! David is a huge fan of Twin Peaks. This film, which he wrote, directed, edited, and starred in was inspired by the cult TV show. I have a small role in the film, and David even sewed my waitress costume for it. We shot the film at several locations, including one very cold, wet, and muddy night in a local hiking area. If you like Twin Peaks, creepy short films, or vegan cherry pie, check it out!