What’s cooking: strawberries and basil

Fresh-picked and fragrant!

Well, not strawberries and basil together, though that would be interesting.

Despite our continuing drought, July brought just enough rain to perk up my kitchen garden. I’ve been harvesting heirloom tomatoes by the basket, and I’ve got several pounds of golden and ruby beets I’ll pull and roast this weekend; the chard, cabbage and cucumbers will need picking soon.

What has my attention right now though is my strawberry patch. My plants, a mix of ever-bearing varieties including Fort Laramie, bear fruit all summer. But they’re most productive in June and from mid-August until the first frost in September.

I don’t have a big patch, but it’s enough that I harvest a cup or so of sweet, juicy, intensely flavored berries every couple of days. Sometimes I eat them as I pick, or give them away, but often I save them until I have enough to make Richard’s favorite strawberry jam, a simple recipe involving very little sugar, and simmering the fruit mix to make a thick, ruby-colored and intensely flavorful jam.

The fruit/sugar/brandy mix when it has simmered and thickened to the consistency of jam.

Simple Strawberry Jam

4 cups ripe, organic strawberries
1/2 cup sugar
4 T fruit brandy or port
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Wash and hull the strawberries, cutting out any soft parts. Chop coarsely (the smaller the pieces, the more spreadable the jam). Put the strawberries, sugar, and 3 T of the brandy or juice into a two-quart or larger microwaveable dish with a lid. Cook on high power for five minutes or long enough to bring it to a boil. Then take the lid off and simmer until it is reduced to a cup and a half of thick, chunky jam. (I use half-power on my microwave for about 45 minutes. Check periodically to make sure it’s not boiling over or burning. ) Scoop the jam into clean half-pint canning jars. Don’t fill the jars up to the brim–leave space for the jam to expand a bit as it freezes. Screw lid on tightly, label, and freeze. (The jam will also keep for a couple of weeks in the refrigerator.)

Summer sweetness, preserved for winter

This jam smells heavenly as it cooks, so it may be hard to not eat it as soon as it cools, but the flavor only improves with time, so don’t eat it all!

Then there’s my basil, inter-planted between the heritage tomato plants for shade from the high-altitude sun, and producing like crazy right now. (Thanks to Renee’s Garden for the pesto basil seeds.) When I have too much basil (or any other green herb), it’s time to make pesto.

So I got out my food-processor, and began snipping basil leaves into my four-cup glass measuring cup.

Here’s my basic pesto recipe, which works with a whole variety of herbs, including basil, French tarragon, cilantro, arugula (a green which I cut 50/50 with spinach for a spicy pesto), and chervil to name a few:

Basil leaves fresh from the garden, snipped from the stems

Basic pesto

3-6 cloves garlic, depending on how much you like
1/2 cup hard, aged cheese, cubed (such as Parmesan, Asiago, Manchego)
1/2 cup toasted nuts (pine nuts are traditional, but I also use pecans, walnuts and almonds)
4 cups of herb leaves and flowers if tender (or greens like arugula)
1 cup olive oil

Drop the garlic cloves into a food processor while it is running to mince the garlic. Turn off the machine, add cheese cubes and nuts, and process until the texture of very coarse corn meal. Add herb leaves and pulse until minced. Turn on machine and pour in olive oil in a thin stream until mixture is coarsely pureed and liquidy. Spoon into jars and freeze, or eat some immediately on bread or warm pasta. (Makes 2-1/2 cups)

Basil pesto, ready for the freezer

For this basil pesto, I used toasted pecans because I had organic ones, and asiago cheese for its nutty flavor. It’s delicious as a sandwich spread, as well as mixed with vegetables, rice, or pasta.

This winter, I’ll pull jars of strawberry jam and basil pesto out of the freezer and feast on the flavors and colors–and the memories of my summer garden. Yum!