As soon as the first snowflake falls in Garrett County, basil plants in Baltimore fold for the season. That is an exaggeration, but only a slight one.
Basil is a weather wimp, the first plant to swoon when the temperatures dip near freezing, if only for a few hours.
One day it is green, leafy and verdant and the next it is black, woody and kaput. Cue the leaf pickers. As soon as there is a slight chill in the air, they start plucking basil leaves from the plants, turning them into a variety of dishes but mainly pesto.
One is Sara Engram, who recently harvested leaves from the four dozen plants of sweet basil that her husband, Jack Reilly, cultivated in their Ruxton backyard.
"I don't recommend planting four dozen basil plants," said Engram, attributing the surplus number of plants to "the enthusiasms of April."
But the excess did motivate her to find many uses for the leafy herb and some of them made it into her new cookbook, "The Spice Kitchen: Everyday Cooking With Organic Spices." Engram wrote the book with Katie Luber, who is also her partner in Seasoned Palate Inc., an organic spice company based in Towson.
One dish is a cheesy spinach soup, flavored with basil, oregano and anise. There is pesto, which as Engram points out, you can freeze. If you freeze it, you just don't add the cheese to the pesto until it thaws, she said.
And there are other creative uses of basil that Engram, a former food editor at The Sun, came up with.
"My latest thing is basil simple syrup. Combine 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water and bring to a simmer, stirring until the sugar dissolves," she wrote in an e-mail. "Add a handful of basil from the yard and, if you like, 1 teaspoon of dried organic basil, to deepen the flavor. Let it steep for an hour or until cool."
When I got her on the phone, Engram said that while she had experimented with putting the basil simple syrup in tea, it worked best in lemonade. Basil also makes a good ice cream, she said.
Yet the bulk of basil that is snatched from the grip of frost ends up as pesto.
Ellen MacKenzie and her husband, James Tielsch, bought a crate of basil a few weeks ago at the Waverly Farmer's Market, and went to work making pesto in their Mount Washington home.
MacKenzie and Tielsch, who are professors at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, formed an assembly line, with Tielsch washing the basil leaves and MacKenzie grinding the pine nuts, garlic and then the leaves in a food processor.
They use Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan's pesto recipe but tweak it, using only high-quality imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and skipping the Romano that Hazan suggests.
The couple freezes some of the pesto, minus the cheese and butter, which they add to the thawed pesto when they're ready to use it. They also put some finished pesto in small jars and deliver it as a hostess gift.
My wife and I were recipients of one of those jars of pesto.
It was so good that it inspired us to get cracking. On a recent weekend, before the recent cold rains fell, I slogged up to my garden plot in Druid Hill Park and began picking basil leaves. I filled two large plastic bags.
I brought them home and my wife washed them. Using the MacKenzie-Hazan recipe, we turned them into dozens of packets of frozen pesto sauce.
Now when the weatherman warns of cold nights, I think of our stash of pesto, I envision spreading it on pizza, or tossing it on some steaming pasta.
I no longer fear the frost.
Ellen MacKenzie's version of Marcella Hazan pesto
Makes: 1 cup (serving size 2 tablespoons)
cups tightly packed fresh sweet basil leaves
tablespoons pine nuts
cup good extra virgin olive oil
tablespoons softened butter (unsalted)
cup good Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Use a food processor to grind the pine nuts and garlic. Then add the basil, then the olive oil. Salt to taste. Mix the butter and cheese in by hand. If freezing, add the butter and cheese after pesto thaws.
Per serving: 184 calories, 19 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 3 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, <1 gram fiber, 12 milligrams cholesterol, 78 milligrams sodium
Cheesy Spinach Lasagna Soup
Makes: 8 cups
pound Italian sausage squeezed from casing or chopped into small pieces
large onion, chopped
cloves garlic, minced
teaspoons dried organic basil (or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil)
teaspoons organic oregano
teaspoon organic anise seed
cups chicken broth
(14 1/2 -ounce) can petite diced tomatoes
(8-ounce) can tomato sauce
cup mini farfalle pasta
cups fresh spinach, chopped
ounces fresh mozzarella, diced
cup fresh Parmesan, shredded
Brown the sausage in a large saucepan over medium-high heat until crumbly. Remove the sausage from the pan and drain all but 1 tablespoon of the fat. Add the onion to the pan and saute over medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes. Return the sausage to the pan, stir in the garlic, basil, oregano and anise seed, and cook 2 minutes. Add chicken broth, diced tomatoes and tomato sauce, and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in the pasta and cook, according to the manufacturer's recommended cook time, until the pasta is al dente. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the spinach and the mozzarella. Serve the soup immediately topped with Parmesan cheese.
From "The Spice Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices," by Sara Engram and Katie Luber, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC.
Per serving: 303 calories, 17 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 18 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 43 milligrams cholesterol, 1,109 milligrams sodium