Standing at the Farmer's Market, I watched a seasoned woman with sparkly eyes examine some French filet beans. She had the air of someone who has just found something very special. She bought all the beans that the farmer brought to market, intending to freeze them for year-round cuisine.
"You plant zee right seeds," she said to him, in a thick French accent.
Down the market, a small stand was selling enormous peaches, which excited shoppers were buying by the box for freezing and canning. Other savvy food savers were buying melons to slice thin and dry on their dehydrators. Still others were on the hunt for tiny cucumbers to pickle.
Here we are at the apex of food season, this blissful moment of inertia when the agricultural bounty is more diverse than ever. As Janis Joplin advised, "Get it while you can!" Pluck zee nectar and relish its divine fragrance; pluck zee nectar and stash it away for the months ahead, when you'll need a taste of summer to ward off the advancing gray. Freeze grated zucchini for baking; freeze huckleberries; can tomato sauce.
Now is an especially good time to stock up on basil, either from your garden or from the farmers' market. It's bolting as we speak and will turn brown at the rumor of frost.
My new favorite way to store basil is called pistou, a version of the ultra-popular pesto. Pistou is simpler than pesto and less hassle to make. What's also nice about it is that six months from now, when you want pesto, all you have to do is take your pistou, add some pine nuts, garlic and cheese ... and presto! It's pesto!
And if you don't want pesto, but you do want to basil up that coconut and turmeric curry, a spoonful of pistou allows you to stay in Southeast Asia, rather than yanking your dish to Italy like pesto would.
With a large mortar and pestle, or in a food processor, grind up basil leaves, adding a pinch of salt. Mix in some really good olive oil and spoon the mixture into ice cube trays and freeze them, then transfer the frozen portion-sized nuggets to plastic bags for long-term storage.
Some people like to add garlic to their pistou. Personally, I think it makes more sense to add the garlic fresh, down the road when I'm using it. That way you get to eat fresh garlic, rather than frozen.
During a spell this summer, I hit my basil plants so many days in a row that I had to lay off and give them a rest. The next time I found myself preparing to make toast, I took out one of my last ice cubes of pistou from last year and dropped it -- enclosed in a plastic baggie -- into warm water to thaw. Meanwhile, I crushed pistachios, Brazil nuts and fresh garlic in a mortar and pestle. Then I mashed in my thawed pistou and salted to taste. It was at least as good, and possibly better in some ways, than the fresh pesto I had been making.
How could that be, you ask? You think I've finally lost it? Frozen better than fresh? Maybe. If your pistou is frozen immediately after grinding, it stays nice and green. And a year in the freezer weakens the cellulose bonds in the leaves, allowing for more complete crushing. The result is a softer texture with an earthier flavor, brought alive by the fresh garlic. It's a bit less aromatic than the fresh stuff, but still very much tastes like basil. Some might dispute that the year-old was indeed better than the fresh, and it's a worthy debate. None would or could argue, however, that the year-old wasn't worth eating.
Pesto, pistou, peaches, French filet beans. You've been advised. Now go, pluck zee nectar, and freeze, dry and can it while you can!
-- Chef Boy Ari