In the Garden:
Enjoy basil in all it's fragrant and flavorful glory this summer.
Basil -- King of Summer
Although other herbs flourish in summer's heat, basil is the one that seems synonymous with summer, most likely because the combination of basil and tomatoes is so fortuitous. And what person doesn't long for summer's sun-ripened tomatoes? We may also think of basil and summer together because this herb doesn't preserve well and is best enjoyed during this time (with a few caveats).
Hopefully, you have one or more plants of basil growing in your garden or in containers. If not, by all means visit a farmers' market to purchase some. You're most likely to find the "basic" large-leaved form of sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum on offer. There are, however, dozens of varieties, varying in the size, color, or texture of the leaves, as well as in their scent and flavor, including anise, lemon, lime, and cinnamon. If you find some of these more unusual varieties, nibble on a leaf to see if you like their flavor. Then enjoy using all kinds of basil in both traditional and creative ways in the kitchen.
A Ligurian staple for centuries in Italy, pesto made from basil has become an American favorite in the last half century. This sauce made from fresh basil, garlic, cheese, olive oil, and pine nuts is easy to make at home and, if frozen, is one of the best ways to enjoy the flavor of basil year-round. Although there are endless variations, here is a simple and easy version of pesto.
In a food processor, combine 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, a large pinch of salt, and one or two garlic cloves and process into a paste. Next, incorporate one-half cup of freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese. With the processor running, in a thin stream slowly add one-half cup extra virgin olive oil. Finally, process in one-quarter cup lightly toasted pine nuts.
In addition to using pesto with pasta, use it in the Ligurian fashion with boiled potatoes and cooked green beans; as a sauce for poached or grilled chicken or fish; or drizzled over fresh tomato slices.
To freeze pesto, omit the cheese and put into a freezer-safe container (choose a size dependent on your needs), cover with a half-inch of olive oil, and use within six months.
Now, let's be a little more adventurous. Jekka's Herb Cookbook by Jekka McVicar (Ebury Press, 2010) suggests a refreshing summer dessert that features basil.
Combine two-thirds cup water, two-thirds cup granulated sugar, and the zest of two lemons in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer for four minutes, then allow to cool for 30 minutes. In a blender, combine the sugar syrup, one cup packed basil leaves, and two-thirds cup freshly squeezed lemon juice. Strain, if desired. Pour into a freezer-proof dish and place in the freezer. Every 30 minutes, remove the container from the freezer and beat with a fork. Repeat three times, then serve.
Basil and Tomatoes At Their Best
Some would argue that there's nothing better than to simply slice some just-picked heirloom tomatoes, add some freshly torn basil leaves, and drizzle on your best extra-virgin olive oil. Want to gild the lily? Okay, a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper, balsamic vinegar, and fresh mozzarella. Stop now. Anything more is superfluous.
More About Basil
There are a number of books on basil and pesto, but a good place to start is with the 45-page guide offered by The Herb Society of America at www.herbsociety.org/factsheets/Basil Guide.pdf.
Care to share your gardening thoughts, insights, triumphs, or disappointments with your fellow gardening enthusiasts? Join the lively discussions on our FaceBook page and receive free daily tips!