I had a number of different ways to start this column: “beyond pesto,” or “basil, how do we love thee, let us count the ways.” But I thought perhaps the best was what a friend said to me the other day: “Isn’t basil just one of the best parts of summer?” Absolutely. Especially when you think about how versatile it is.
Use it as a garnish, or add some stalks to a bouquet of bright summer flowers. Liven up a pizza (even a frozen one) with a few torn leaves scattered over the top just before serving, or use it as a base to a cocktail or refreshing summer drink. It’s both gorgeous and delicious in salads (peaches and basil were made for each other). Dessert, too—it seems that there’s pretty much nothing that basil doesn’t go with: fresh fruit, lemon pound cake, even just a scoop of ice cream.
Most of us are familiar with just a few varieties: the sweet Italian Genovese, tangy Thai basil, and Purple Opal basil, which adds color as well as flavor. My research shows that there are more than 60 varieties of basil, but no one wants to say “only 60” as new hybrids are showing up almost daily. I am partial to lemon basil, whereas others insist the best basil is the chocolate variety (I must admit, that is very good with vanilla gelato).
The best way to learn about basil is to sample: tasting at the farmers market, growing your own different plants, adding some to your favorite dishes. Remember, however, that to get the strongest basil flavor, you should add it at the end of your cooking (though this may vary with the recipe). Don’t be shy about this—I have found that you can be pleasantly surprised when you add it to a dish that might not call for it.
The plant is native to tropical regions; it is a tender plant, used in cuisines worldwide. Most basils are cultivars of sweet basil. These include: anise or licorice basil, cinnamon basil, lettuce leaf basil, dark opal basil, purple basil, globe basil, and Thai basil. African blue basil, spice basil, and lemon basil are hybrids. Asian basils are stronger than Mediterranean basils, and often have a clove-like flavor.
Basil plants are common in nurseries, sometimes taking up a quarter of the space devoted to herbs. They are relatively easy to grow in pots, requiring regular watering and some pinching of the stems, so flowers don’t develop. Once a stem produces flowers, foliage production stops on that stem, and it becomes woody as the essential oil production declines. Basil growers often pinch off any flower stems before they fully mature—use them in your kitchen: they are edible and have a more subtle flavor than the leaves.
Picking the leaves off the plant helps promote growth, because the plant responds by converting pairs of leaflets (next to the topmost leaves) into new stems. Some basil gardeners insist that growing basil next to tomato plants will deter pests and improve tomato flavor. In double-blind taste tests, this has not yet been proven to be true. I prefer to grow nasturtiums around the base of my tomato plants, mostly to deter my dachshund from jumping up to harvest the tomatoes before I can get to them.
As I mentioned earlier, today’s recipes are not about pesto. A few may include your processor or blender, but if you want pesto, there are some very good ones available in the supermarket. Stay away from the glass jars, and look in the refrigerated section for the freshest ones. Got basil? Got tomatoes? Here are a variety of ways to use this mid-summer bounty.
Summer Peach And Tomato Salad
(adapted from myrecipes.com)
¼ cup slivered red onion
½ lb ripe peaches, pitted and cut into wedges
¼ lb each: heirloom beefsteak tomatoes, cut in wedges, and cherry or pear tomatoes, halved
1 TBSP sherry vinegar
1½ tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp honey
¼ cup crumbled feta or goat cheese
2 TBSP small basil leaves or torn basil
Combine the onion, peaches and tomatoes in a large salad bowl. Whisk the vinegar, oil and honey together and season to taste with salt and pepper; drizzle over the salad and toss to coat. Sprinkle with cheese and basil and serve immediately.
Basil Cream Sauce
4 TBSP unsalted butter
6 TBSP fresh basil minced
¼ cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock (if using for poultry) or fish stock (1-1⁄3 cups bottled clam juice and 2⁄3 cup water (if using for fish)
1 cup whipping cream
¼ tsp each: ground white pepper, freshly ground black pepper, and kosher salt
Melt butter in a heavy medium skillet over medium heat; add basil and stir until wilted, about 1 minute.
Add wine, increase heat and boil until reduced by half, about 3 minutes; add stock and boil 3 minutes.
Add cream, white and black pepper and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer until sauce is reduced to three quarters, about 8-10 minutes. Serve with grilled chicken or fish.
Goat Cheese, Roasted Beet And Basil Pasta Salad
2 cups fresh basil
½ cup olive oil
2 TBSP lemon juice
1 TBSP red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes or more to taste
2-3 small red or yellow beets, roasted and halved
1 lb cut pasta (use gluten-free if needed)
4-6 oz soft goat cheese crumbled
2 small yellow summer squash or zucchini thinly sliced
2 ears fresh corn kernels removed from the cob
1 large bunch watercress or spinach
1 avocado, sliced
Make the vinaigrette: in a blender or food processor, blend the basil, olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and a pinch red pepper flakes until smooth. Taste and adjust salt as needed.
Make the salad: bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until a dente. Drain and add the pasta to a large serving bowl. To the hot pasta, add the goat cheese and couple large spoonfuls of the basil vinaigrette, toss well until the goat cheese coats the pasta completely. Add the yellow squash, fresh corn and watercress and toss to combine. Top the pasta with the roasted beets and avocado. Serve the remaining vinaigrette on the side.
Pan-Seared Gnocchi With Burst Tomatoes And Mozzarella
(adapted from Ali Slagle.com)
2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
2 (12- to 18-oz) packages shelf-stable or refrigerated potato gnocchi
4 TBSP unsalted butter
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ tsp red-pepper flakes, plus more for serving
2 pints small tomatoes, such as cherry, grape or sungold
¼ cup thinly sliced or torn basil leaves, plus more for serving
8 oz fresh mozzarella, cut or torn into half-inch pieces
In a large (12-inch) skillet over medium-high, heat enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan (about 1 TBSP). Add half the gnocchi to the pan, breaking up any that are stuck together. Cover with a lid or baking sheet and cook, undisturbed, until golden brown on one side, 2 to 4 minutes; transfer to a medium bowl. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi and olive oil. Add the butter to the skillet and cook over medium-high, stirring often, until golden-brown and toasty, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic, red-pepper flakes, 1½ tsp salt and a few grinds of pepper, reducing the heat slightly if necessary to avoid scorching. Add the tomatoes and 3 TBSP water and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the tomatoes have softened and the liquid has slightly thickened, 4 to 6 minutes. Smash the tomatoes as they burst to help them along. Add the seared gnocchi and ¼ cup basil, stir to coat, then shake into an even layer. Top with the mozzarella and drizzle lightly with olive oil; broil until the cheese is melted and browned in spots, 2 to 4 minutes. Top with more basil, red-pepper flakes and black pepper as desired; serve immediately.
Basil Olive Oil Cake
2 cups AP flour
1¾ cups sugar
1½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp each: baking soda and baking powder
1 1⁄3 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1¼ cups whole milk
3 large eggs
zest of 1 lemon
11 large basil leaves, coarsely chopped (measuring about 3 inches long--if you have smaller basil leaves, increase to 22 small basil leaves)
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F; grease 9-inch round cake pan with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder.
In a blender or small food processor, place the oil, basil and milk and puree until the basil is fully incorporated into the liquid and the olive oil milk mixture turns a light lime green. Pour the basil mixture from the blender into a bowl; place the eggs and lemon zest in the blender or processor and pulse to combine. Add this to the olive oil mixture, whisk to combine, then add the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and give it a light tapping (just lift the pan about an inch above the counter surface and drop it lightly) to get out any air bubbles. Bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. If you see any jiggle in the middle of your cake when pulling it out of the oven, add a few more minutes of cooking at a time until it is firm and set. Transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for 30 minutes; invert the cake on to a plate and remove parchment paper on the bottom, then invert it back to a serving plate. Serve with fresh berries and lightly sweetened whipped cream.