And now, presenting — my favorite herb — BASIL! Just a whiff sends me back to my days in Pozzuoli, Italy. Many hot summer days, I would drive to the little farm stand a few miles north of my villa, seeking fresh, warm, just picked tomatoes, and a huge bunch of basil. If I timed it just right, the little old Nonna would come out from the farm house behind the stand, bearing a wheelbarrow filled with hot, just-baked bread. Having hauled my purchases to the car, which had no air-conditioning, I would head for home. In no time at all, the hot car would be filled with the intoxicating aromas of fresh tomatoes, basil, and hot bread. Occasionally the bread would make it all the way home…. And one last stop, at the mozzarella factory just down the hill, to get a ball of freshly made mozzarella di buffala. Summer, caprese salad (recipe follows), fresh bread, a glass of wine, my patio. Mmmmm, I’m time traveling.
Back to reality. Most folks are accustomed to the flavor of fresh basil in their favorite Italian dishes, but you will also find basil equally at home in a Thai coconut curry or a Provençal pistou. And, of course, FRESH is definitely best for basil. Dried basil tastes quite different from freshly picked; it works well in sauces that are braised, think bolognese, but for shorter cooking, you will want the fresh stuff. Other wonderful ways to explore and enjoy the flavor of this delicious herb — make a simple syrup for drinks or sweetening iced tea. And speaking of drinks, how about lemonade? At school, we fry it up and use crisp basil to garnish baked brie with roasted tomatoes (a personal favorite). Or, how about dessert??!! Cinnamon basil gelato!
The basil we all know and love is knowns as sweet basil. It is a tender herb, meaning it is not fond of cold temperatures. It will not survive below 50°F, so if you plan to plant it in your herb garden, you will need to monitor overnight temperatures to be sure they are not dipping below 50°. And this applies to the refrigerator as well — if you store your basil there, it will turn black! In the same family, you will find cinnamon basil. It is unique, in that it looks just like sweet basil, but smells and taste like basil & cinnamon! Mother nature is so creative — she is the inspiration for the cinnamon basil gelato recipe below! You may also find globe basil, aka dwarf basil, which has the same habits, but smaller leaves.
Thai basil is a bit hardier, and stores well in the fridge. It has pretty much the same flavor as sweet basil, but the stiffer, slightly smaller leaves present with lovely red stems.
In our area, most supermarkets carry fresh basil in both small and large packages. I like to buy the large size, clip the bottoms of the stems, like flowers, and stand them in a glass of water. The basil will keep about a week stored this way. But, if I can’t use it all within a week, I blend the extra basil with a bit of olive oil and store the cubes in the freezer. Or, make pesto, put it into a heavy zipper bag, press out all of the air, lay it flat to freeze. Then, I can break off a bit of pesto to flavor a dish, or defrost the entire thing to make a pasta sauce. Ahh, fresh basil all year round!
insalata caprese (salad from the island of Capri)
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella (in Italy, this salad is only made with buffalo mozzarella)°
- 2 pounds freshest ripe tomatoes you can find, preferably heirlooms (large, small, whatever looks best!)
- 1 dozen (or so) fresh basil leaves
- 3-4 tablespoons best quality extra virgin olive oil
- sea salt, to taste
Slice or tear mozzarella onto a serving platter or individual salad plates. Top with sliced tomatoes, or halved smaller tomatoes. Sprinkle basil leaves over; some of the larger ones may have to be cut or torn. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt. Allow the salad to stand about 15 minutes before serving.
I cannot tell you how many people this will serve, somewhere between 1 and 5.
°Fresh mozzarella should always be packed in whey, and whether it’s cow’s milk or buffalo milk cheese, it should be eaten as fresh as possible.
Use for salad dressings, drizzle over soups, beans, or on your caprese!
- 1 cup fresh basil leaves, tightly packed (or try oregano)
- 2 cups olive oil
Blanch herbs in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain immediately and plunge into ice water. Squeeze out liquid. Purée in blender with olive oil. Strain through cheesecloth, store in sterile glass jar. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Use within 1 week for optimum flavor.
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 6 cups water
- flavoring agent (choose one):
2 tablespoons fresh lavender buds 12 fresh basil leaves 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary 3 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
- zest of two lemons
- juice of 3 or 4 lemons, freshly squeezed (about 1/2 to 3/4 cup)
Combine 2 cups water, 1/2 cup sugar and the flavoring agent in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Cover and let steep 1/2 hour. Strain the syrup. Add the lemon zest, remaining 4 cups water and 1/2 cup of the lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice if desired. Chill before serving.
To serve: Pour over ice in a tall glass; garnish with a sprig of lavender, a basil leaf or a sprig of rosemary.
baked brie with roasted tomatoes
- 1/2 pound cherry or other small tomatoes, heirlooms if you can find them
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- one 6 to 8 ounce round of Brie
- finishing sea salt (I like Alder Smoked salt for this)
- toasted baguette slices or crackers
- fried basil, for garnish (recipe follows)
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Carefully wash the tomatoes and drain them; place tomatoes on parchment-lined pan. Sprinkle with olive oil. Bake for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, place brie in small ovenproof serving dish. At the 15-minute point of roasting the tomatoes, place the brie in the oven to warm and soften, about 8 to 10 minutes. Sprinkle the tomatoes lightly with a bit more olive oil. and return to the oven until the brie is softened and ready to serve.
When cheese is done, remove from oven. Top with warm tomatoes; garnish top with fried basil and drizzle the reserved olive oil over. Sprinkle with finishing salt or coarse sea salt. Serve immediately, surrounded with toasted baguette slices or crackers.
Serves 6 to 8.
- Olive oil
- 1 bunch fresh basil, washed and thoroughly dried
- fine sea salt
In small skillet, pour in olive oil to a depth of about 1/3 inch; add a dash of salt & heat over medium heat. Gently add basil leaves to hot oil, it should sizzle slightly. Cook 30 seconds to 1 minute, until leaves become just crisp but not brown. Reserving the oil, remove the basil leaves and drain on paper towels. Sprinkle immediately with sea salt.
cinnamon basil gelato
- 1 cup cream
- 1 cup sugar
- 8 4-inch sprigs cinnamon basil OR sweet basil
- ½ cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon corn syrup
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon Fireball liqueur or whipped cream vodka
- 1 cup whole milk
In a small saucepan, bring cream, sugar, basil, cinnamon stick, corn syrup and salt to a boil; remove from heat. Allow to cool; stir in vanilla extract and other alcohol, then add the milk. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until chilled.
Strain through a fine sieve, discarding the solids. Freeze in an ice-cream maker, following manufacturer’s instructions.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.