The Leaves of Summer

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We have narrowed down our successful summer gardening choices to tomatoes and basil. Eggplants were bitter, zucchini took up too much room and peppers were hit and miss. And we had to fight the critters to harvest any of those. We have some success with other crops in the spring and fall, but tomatoes and basil are it for us for the summer.

In case you aren’t an herb gardener, basil likes to be used. After you cut off stems, it sends out new shoots around the cut edges, making the plant bushier and more prolific. I have made a few batches of pesto this summer, and used a few leaves here and there as I needed them.

I haven’t used much basil over the past few weeks, so the plants were getting out of control. I decided to do one big harvest and build up my freezer basil stash. I took my kitchen shears out to the garden and started cutting bunches of basil, throwing them behind me into a pile. When it was time to haul it all to the house it took two trips to get it all.

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After it took me almost half an hour to wash and de-stem the basil, I realized I needed to pick the quickest preserving method possible. I really wanted a way to preserve the fresh basil flavor for the winter. I didn’t need to make pesto for that, so I decided to chop all the basil in the food processor with a little olive oil.

I dolloped the bright green, concentrated basil puree onto parchment lined cookie sheets and froze it until solid. Then I peeled off the frozen basil patties and tossed them in a ziplock bag to keep for the winter.

Now I have ready-to-use basil pucks ready to throw into pasta sauces and soups. Or I can thaw one or two to spread on pizza dough or mix with mayonnaise to add a little zip to sandwiches.

A few more days and the basil will have enough new shoots for another harvest. I think I’ll go check on it again.

Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread

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I first made sun-dried tomato pesto a couple of months ago, to stuff inside chicken, along with goat cheese. I made a sun-dried tomato flatbread a week or so later, to use up a little leftover pizza dough. We really liked it, but I never made it again – so many recipes and ideas, so little time.

I decided the flatbread was too good to be a one-time thing. This time I used a whole recipe of my favorite whole wheat pizza dough, pressing it into one pan instead of two to make a fairly thick layer of bread in the finished product. You could also use half the dough, if you want a thinner flatbread. If you don’t want to make your own dough, you could pick up your favorite prepared pizza dough, or use a pre-made crust, like Boboli.

I topped my dough with a quick smear of sun-dried tomato pesto. I used a fairly thick layer of pesto, but didn’t spread it evenly – leaving it thicker in spots for a punch of flavor. After a heavy sprinkling of Parmesan cheese it was ready for the oven.

The flatbread turned out exactly how I imagined– soft bread topped with sweet yet savory, full-bodied tomato pesto, finished off with nutty, salty cheese.

I let the flatbread cool and then sliced it – I was saving it to serve the next day. If you are eating yours right away, feel free to tear off warm chunks, without waiting for it to cool.

The flatbread, like all bread, keeps really well in the freezer, and I am looking forward to grabbing a few pieces whenever I want a little something different to accompany dinner. And the next time we have people over, I’ll have a ready-made appetizer, waiting for me in the freezer. A little cheese and some wine and we are set. Heck, I might not wait until we have company.

Download or print the recipe here.

Sun-Dried Tomato Flatbread
From The Cook’s Life
Makes one large flatbread

Adjust the tomato pesto and cheese amounts to suit your tastes.

1 recipe pizza dough, or your favorite dough*
All-purpose flour, for sprinkling
½-1 cup sun-dried tomato pesto, purchased or homemade
1-1½ cups shredded Parmesan cheese, preferably not the powdered stuff

*If you don’t want to make dough, you could use a pre-made crust like Boboli. Follow the package instructions for baking.

Prepare pizza dough and let it rise once.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 12 by 17 inch half sheet pan,  two 9 by 13 inch pans or two round pizza pans.

Press the dough into the pan(s), sprinkling the top with flour if dough sticks to your hands. Try to get the dough all the way to the edges of the pan, and try to keep it an even thickness all the way across.

Spread the dough with a layer of sun-dried tomato pesto. Sprinkle the top with Parmesan cheese.

Bake the flatbread for 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the dough. The pesto will darken somewhat. If the pesto looks like it is burning, lay a large piece of aluminum foil over the top of the flatbread. Bake until the cheese is just starting to brown and the edges of the dough are golden brown.

Cool flatbread on a rack before cutting into strips or wedges. Or tear pieces off and eat them warm from the oven.

Leftovers keep for a day or two in an airtight container. Reheat briefly in the oven or a skillet before serving. Microwaving can make the bread chewy. Freeze for longer storage. Thaw at room temperature and reheat briefly before serving.

Spaghetti and Meatballs

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I had never made spaghetti and meatballs before this past Saturday. I had made fettuccini Alfredo and spaghetti with meat sauce. I had made up my own pasta dishes. I had made eggplant and chicken Parmesan. I had even made my own ravioli, but I had never made spaghetti and meatballs. They just never occur to me when I am planning a pasta meal.

My mom usually made meat sauce to go with spaghetti when I was growing up, which we all liked just fine. I’m not sure why she didn’t make meatballs when we had spaghetti. She made Swedish meatballs sometimes, and she had another meatball dish she made in the pressure cooker, but she never made spaghetti and meatballs.

Calvin is on a beef kick lately, after twelve years of declining to try it. I’m not sure what prompted him to try meatloaf a few weeks ago, but now he would have meatloaf or hamburgers every day if we would let him. He suggested beef for Saturday’s dinner, but we had just had meatloaf and it was too rainy and cold that day to make grilling hamburgers any fun. I suggested meatballs, thinking he would balk at a new dish, but he embraced the idea with enthusiasm. Spaghetti and meatballs it would be.

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I figured I would make my basic meatloaf mixture, but replace the ketchup with tomato paste and add Parmesan cheese (from the green can this time, we were low on the good stuff) and a tablespoon of garden pesto I unearthed from the freezer. I used white wine as some of the moisture in the meat mixture. Red wine would have been more traditional, and given the mix a deeper flavor, but it is a migraine trigger for Rich, so white it had to be. Use red wine if you prefer, though the white wine gave the meatballs a fresh brightness that I liked. I baked the meatballs to brown them all at once, and then finished them in tomato sauce on top of the stove while the pasta boiled.

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The oven browning was effortless, though I decided mine needed a minute more and got the bottoms a little too brown. They were just shy of burnt, though – I saved them just in time, thanks to the smoke alarm. Not that I like to regularly use the smoke alarm as a cooking timer, but hey, whatever works. Since the meat is so lean, be careful not to bake them too long or they will dry out.

Next time I will double the amount of pesto, which I wrote into the recipe. I liked the basil flavor it gave them and I was wishing for more of it. I also had a stash of roasted garlic, so I used that in both the meatballs and the sauce. You can use raw, minced garlic if you don’t have any roasted garlic on hand.

A further note – if you use a different sauce than the one in the recipe you will have part of a can of tomato paste left over. You can freeze it in one-tablespoon dollops on a plastic wrap lined plate. Once it is frozen, you can peel off the dollops and stash them in the freezer for when you need just a tablespoon or two of tomato paste. It’s much better than finding the paste in the fridge later and wondering how long it has been in there before you pitch it.

The meatballs were a resounding success. Calvin declared that he liked them as much as meatloaf, which is high praise from him. They were rich and meaty, fragrant with pesto and bathed in thick tomato sauce – the perfect meal for a rainy, chilly weekend.

Download or print the recipe here.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Meatballs:
1 pound ground sirloin
2 tablespoons pesto
1 garlic clove, minced, or roasted and mashed
salt (go easy on this, the cheese is salty)
black pepper
¼ cup dry breadcrumbs
½ cup Parmesan cheese (the stuff in the green can is fine)
¼ cup dry white or red wine, approximately
1 tablespoon olive oil, approximately
2 tablespoons tomato paste (from a 6-oz. can – you will use the rest in the sauce)
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet and set aside.

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until combined. If mixture seems dry, add another tablespoon of olive oil or wine. Form mixture into 1½-inch balls and place on baking sheet. I got about 30 meatballs out of the mix.

Bake meatballs for 10-15 minutes, or until browned. Watch that the bottoms don’t burn. Let meatballs cool on the baking sheet while you make the sauce.

Sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil, if you are using raw, unroasted garlic
1 clove garlic, minced, or roasted and mashed
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, no salt added if you can find them
Tomato paste (the remainder of the can you opened for the meatballs)
salt, a few dashes
black pepper, a few grinds
paprika, a few dashes
ground cayenne, a dash or two
2-3 teaspoons packed brown sugar, optional
3-4 teaspoons dried basil
water
OR
2-3 cups of your favorite pasta sauce

For serving:
Spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using raw garlic, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste and spices to taste. If you are using roasted garlic, just mix all sauce ingredients, except water, together in the skillet. Bring sauce to a simmer over medium heat.

When sauce is simmering, add meatballs and reduce heat to medium low. Gently simmer meatballs in sauce until cooked through – 10-15 minutes. If sauce gets too thick, add a few tablespoons of water until it is the consistency you prefer. Cook spaghetti while meatballs are simmering.

Serve meatballs and sauce hot with spaghetti and Parmesan cheese. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave. You can also freeze leftovers for longer storage – thaw in the refrigerator overnight.

Homemade Cheese Ravioli

I usually try to post recipes that aren’t too complicated or too much of a project. However, that doesn’t always give you a realistic view of the way we approach cooking and food around here. Take Saturday for example. Rich is on the Sur la Table email list and they sent him notices about cooking classes available at some stores. The St. Louis store doesn’t do classes, but I guess Sur la Table only maintains one email list. We saw a class on homemade ravioli and were intrigued. Later in the day we were planning dinner and we remembered the ravioli. Dinner (and the afternoon’s entertainment) solved.

We have made pasta before over the years. We bought a hand-cranked pasta machine about 15 years ago and we have used it a handful of times. Every time we do, we wonder why we don’t make pasta more often. I actually know why – it is so easy to pull out the box of dried pasta and dump it in the pot.

You don’t absolutely have to have a pasta machine to make ravioli or any homemade pasta, but it does help to get the dough rolled out thin enough. You could certainly do it with a rolling pin, though I have not tried it. If you live in the St. Louis area and want to borrow my pasta machine, let me know…

We made three cheese ravioli and cheese and pesto ravioli. They were pretty good, though some of them weren’t very pretty. We were impressed with ourselves, and though we might not make these very often, now we can say we have made homemade ravioli. They were better than any ravioli I have had in a restaurant, if I do say so myself.

The pictures make this look complicated, but it isn’t. There is a bit of rest time for the dough, and the actual pasta rolling and filling is fun, especially with many hands and plenty of time. Try doing this on the weekend and see how much fun it can be to create in the kitchen. Or, if you have absolutely no interest in making your own ravioli, sit back and read the recipe and look at the pretty pictures, which I can take no credit for. Thanks, Rich, for playing photographer (and dishwasher, and the third set of hands) to our ravioli making!

Three Cheese Ravioli
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 30 medium ravioli
About 6 servings

Pasta:
¾ cup semolina flour (Bob’s Red Mill makes a good one)
¾ cup white whole wheat flour (or another ¾ cup semolina flour)
¼ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons water

Equipment:
Pasta machine

Filling:
¼ to ½ pound shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
¼ pound ricotta cheese
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg
Pesto, optional

Your choice for serving:
Tomato sauce
Pesto
Cream sauce
Parmesan cheese

Mix the flour(s) and salt together. Add the eggs and water and mix well. You will have a stiff, shaggy dough.

Knead by hand, or under the dough hook of a heavy-duty mixer for 10 minutes.

The dough will stick to your hands and bowl or kneading surface at first. Keep your hands lightly dusted with flour to help with the sticking.

As you knead, the dough will gradually become smooth and satiny.

Place dough in a lightly greased bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at room temperature for 60 minutes, to let the gluten relax and make it easier to roll out.

During the rest time, prepare the filling – mix the mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese and Parmesan cheese with the egg until thoroughly combined. Refrigerate until ready to assemble ravioli.

Clear a large workspace and set up a pasta machine. Flour the counter and a large tray or platter.

Divide the dough in quarters. Work with one quarter at a time, keeping the remaining dough tightly covered to keep it from drying out.

It is easier to put the pasta dough through the machine if you a helper – one person to crank and one to feed the dough through and catch it as it comes out.

Flatten one quarter of the dough enough to run it through the pasta roller on the widest setting.

 

 

Keep running the dough through the machine, changing the setting after each pass, until it is very thin, but not tearing. Setting #5 worked best on mine. Lay the long piece of dough on the floured counter. Do not forget to flour the counter, or you will be scraping filled ravioli off the counter – trust me on this.

Dot filling along the dough, leaving about an inch between the mounds of filling. If using the pesto, put ¼ to ½ teaspoon on top of each mound of cheese filling.

 

Put the second quarter of dough through the pasta machine until as thin as the first. Cover the filling with the second piece of dough, using your fingers (or someone else’s help) to press the top dough down between the mounds of filling as you lay it down. Try not to trap air in the pockets as you seal them.

Press the dough together firmly all around each mound of filling. Our dough stuck together just fine. If yours doesn’t, wet the edges of the dough before pressing them together.

Cut the ravioli apart between each filling mound. Remove the ravioli to the floured tray or platter. Reseal any edges that come apart.

Repeat steps with third and fourth quarters of the dough, and the remaining filling. The second batch will probably go together faster and look even better than the first.

Bring a pot of water to a full rolling boil. Boil the ravioli for 9-10 minutes, or until they are done to your liking. Taste the edge of one, where there are two thicknesses of dough, to make sure they are done. Drain the ravioli well before serving.

Serve hot, with your choice of sauces. Take a minute to admire your handiwork and marvel at your very own homemade ravioli.

Download the recipe without pictures here.

And a New Recipe is Born – Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Last Saturday we wanted an easy dinner that we all would like. Calvin is willing to try more foods every day and we are trying to foster his adventurous side. We planned to make pesto pasta with the leftover pesto from making Pesto Three Cheese Pizza. We had several zucchini in the fridge, so I decided a side of Parmesan Crusted Zucchini Chips would be good too. All three of us were in the kitchen, which sometimes makes for interesting dishes.

Calvin and I were slicing the zucchini in the food processor and we ended up with almost a whole sliced zucchini that wouldn’t fit on our baking sheets. I didn’t want to waste it, but we certainly had enough zucchini chips without it. I suggested we sauté it in some olive oil and add it to our pasta, but Calvin wanted to make pesto out of it. We compromised, mincing the zucchini in the food processor and then sautéing it with some garlic.

When the zucchini “pesto” was softened and starting to brown on the bottom, we added it to the hot pasta, along with a spoonful of pesto and a splash of olive oil. A quick toss and we were ready to customize our individual servings. Our pesto pasta is usually hot pasta stirred together with fresh pesto, diced mozzarella, tomatoes (sun-dried or fresh, depending on the season), cooked chicken and Parmesan cheese.

This time Rich and I had found fresh mozzarella pearls at the store. I wondered if Calvin would eat them, since he has only eaten regular, part-skim mozzarella. He surprised us by eating the pearls with no hesitation, popping them into his mouth like popcorn. Calvin had his zucchini pesto pasta with mozzarella pearls and Parmesan cheese. Rich and I added chopped garden tomatoes and cooked chicken.

Calvin couldn’t stop talking about our new dish, and how he had the idea for the zucchini pesto. He ate two big helpings and finished off the leftovers the next day. Not bad for a picky eater who looks at most vegetables with suspicion. New recipes and kitchen innovations don’t have to be totally groundbreaking to be keepers. Let loose in the kitchen and see what you come up with.

Zucchini Pesto Pasta
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

This is the perfect weeknight dinner – you can prepare your ingredients in the time it takes to cook the pasta. It is also a great way to use leftover chicken from another meal. Or you can leave the chicken out to make it a vegetarian dish. Mix the pasta with the toppings right in the serving bowl to save on dishes.

¾ pound dried pasta (choose a short, stubby shape that will hold the sauce, like bowties, elbows, rotini or a similar shape)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (you may not need all of the olive oil)
1-3 cloves garlic, minced (we used three)
1 small zucchini, minced finely by hand or in a food processor
2 tablespoons basil pesto, homemade or commercial
1-2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
1 cup fresh mozzarella pearls, or diced mozzarella cheese
1-2 medium tomatoes, diced
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add pasta when it comes to a full rolling boil and cook according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, reduce the heat to low and add the minced garlic. Cook garlic, stirring often, until it is soft, but not browned. Add a bit more olive oil (up to a tablespoon) if the garlic starts sticking to the pan or looking dry. Once the garlic is soft, add the zucchini to the garlic mixture. Increase the heat to medium and cook the zucchini, stirring frequently, until soft and just starting to brown. It should start to resemble light green pesto as the zucchini softens.

The basil pesto is on the left and the zucchini pesto is on the right.

While the pasta and zucchini cook, assemble the rest of the ingredients. When pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Use a larger bowl than you think you need so you have room to toss the pasta. Add the cooked zucchini mixture and the pesto and toss pasta gently to distribute. If pasta looks dry, add up to a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. Add chicken, mozzarella and tomatoes and toss gently. Serve immediately, with Parmesan cheese for topping. This reheats well in the microwave if you have leftovers.

Download the recipe here.

Pesto Three Cheese Pizza

 

The basil in the garden is still flourishing, happy as can be, even though it is now pretty much smothered by the out-of-control tomato vines. It is a little bit of a treasure hunt to harvest, but one that I am willing to undertake. The basil bounty leads to pesto, of course. I made a batch last week and used it to make a different twist on pizza.

Even if you have never made your own pizza dough, you should try it. It is so much better than any pizza crust you can buy, and it isn’t hard. I came up with a no-knead pizza dough recipe over a year ago. If you have a big bowl and a wooden spoon, you can make it. One trip the store will get you any ingredients you need. The recipe looks long – but I tried to include lots of directions for first-timers.

Pesto, olive oil, ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, and Parmesan cheese come together in a pizza that celebrates basil and cheese. Feel free to add chopped, cooked chicken, a few thin slices of fresh tomato or whatever else you think goes with the green herbiness of the basil.

Pesto Three Cheese Pizza
From the Cook’s Life
Makes 2 14-inch round pizzas

The dough recipe makes enough pizza for two pizzas. If you would rather not make two pesto pizzas, use only half of the topping ingredients for your pizza and use the other half of the dough to make another kind of pizza. Or store the other half of the dough in the fridge in an airtight container for up to a week and make pizza another night.

Dough:
3 cups white whole wheat flour (or all-purpose flour)
½ cup all-purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
1 package yeast (2 ¼ teaspoons)
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1-1 ½ cups water, approximately

Put all ingredients except water in your largest bowl. Add 1 cup water and stir to combine.

 

If there is still dry flour, add water, a couple of tablespoons at a time, until a very wet dough forms. You aren’t looking for batter here, but a dough. It will be too soft to knead and look quite wet.

Once everything is well combined, beat and mix the dough with your spoon or spatula for a minute or so. Cover dough with plastic wrap and let it rise for 2-24 hours. If you are making the dough much more than 4 hours in advance, store it in the fridge while it rises. If it is rising on the counter, you might need to stir the dough down every couple of hours if it is filling the bowl. Stir it a few times and re-cover. If it is in the fridge, just leave it to do its thing.

If your dough is in the refrigerator, remove it from the fridge and let it sit on the counter 30-60 minutes before you want to use it to make it easier to handle.

Pizza:
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup pesto, homemade or purchased (more or less, to taste)
½ cup ricotta cheese
½ pound part skim mozzarella, grated
½ cup Parmesan cheese, approximately

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Grease pizza pans. Sprinkle the surface of your dough heavily with flour, work a rubber spatula around the edges of the dough and try to work some flour down the sides of the bowl.

Divide the dough in half with a spatula and scrape half on to each pan. Sprinkle each dough portion with flour and begin to press it out with your fingertips to cover the pan. Add more flour if it sticks to your hands. If one piece bounces back, move to the other pan and come back the first after the dough has a minute to relax. Try to get the dough to the outside edges of the pan, but you don’t have to be perfect.

Drizzle each pizza with a little olive oil and spread to cover the dough.

Add small dollops of pesto to each crust, spreading them out slightly with the back of a spoon. Don’t try to cover the entire crust with pesto, unless you really like basil. You might not use all the pesto.

Dollop ricotta cheese between the spots of pesto. Use the back of a spoon to spread the ricotta cheese out a bit. Again, you aren’t trying to cover the entire surface with ricotta, but just spread it a little thinner so you don’t have huge globs of cheese on the dough.

Sprinkle each pizza with mozzarella cheese, then Parmesan cheese.

Bake pizzas for 12-15 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for 5-10 minutes more, or until the cheese is golden brown and the bottom crust is lightly browned. Cut each pizza into slices and serve immediately. Pizza reheats well, either in microwave or in a skillet on low heat.

Download the recipe here.

Backyard Gardening Excitement

Summer tomatoes are almost here! The plants in the garden have green tomatoes and lots of blooms. We are hoping to get our first tomato in a couple of weeks, as long as the hot weather continues. It has been really dry, so I have had to water them once or twice a week. Last year we had really wet weather in the spring, followed by bone dry, lung-searing hot weather for the summer. Between the weather and the squirrels, we got…wait for it…one tomato last year. I am determined we will get more this year.

The basil is growing like gangbusters and we have used it a few times on pizza. The plants are big enough now that I am ready to pick enough leaves to make our first batch of pesto. I am often tempted to make a big batch of pesto, but part of the reason for having our own plants is to make small batches so we can have garden fresh pesto whenever we want. While homemade pesto from the freezer is good, there is nothing better than having really fresh pesto, made from leaves that were growing in the sun just hours or minutes before dinner.

Whether you have a garden, a basil plant in a pot, or get your basil from the store or a farmers’ market, make your own pesto at least once. It is easy and you can’t beat the bright green color. We like it on pasta, in pizza and spaghetti sauce and as a spread for garlic bread. It is also good on fish or chicken. Post in the comments and share how you like to eat pesto.

Basil Pesto
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup, easy to double

These amounts are approximate, and customizable – reduce the garlic, use different nuts or leave them out, use more cheese, or less, adjust the olive oil amounts to your tastes.

3 cups fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
3 garlic cloves, peeled
¼ cup sliced almonds or pecan halves (pine nuts are traditional, but expensive)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Black pepper
Olive oil for storing

Pulse basil in a food processor until finely chopped.

Add garlic, nuts and cheese and pulse until finely chopped. Add about 1 tablespoon olive oil and pulse again.

Continue to add olive oil to make a paste, but not so much that you have puddles of oil in the bottom of the food processor.

Use on pizza, in pasta or as a dip. Store in the fridge in a closed container. Smooth the top surface and drizzle with a little olive oil. Press a piece of plastic wrap gently over the surface before closing the container to help seal out air and maintain the bright green color. Keeps about 1 week in the fridge.

For longer storage you can easily freeze pesto. Line a plate or pan with waxed or parchment paper. Put dollops of pesto on the paper and flatten into disks with the back of a spoon or your finger. Freeze uncovered for a couple of hours or until fully frozen. Peel off the paper and place in a plastic zip-top bag or container and return to freezer.

Download the recipe here.