Getting Past Pesto To Re-Imagine Basil
Basil is a mega-celebrity of the herb world and has some of the same problems that come with fame. Known mostly for its starring role in pesto, it's recognized by many people primarily as an ingredient in other Italian dishes such as pastas and caprese salads. But if it were up to basil, it might prefer to be recognized for its work in lesser-known cuisines and recipes (the indie films and off-Broadway plays, if you will), where it shines in a different way and brings a new dimension to food.
Don't get me wrong — every summer, there's nothing I look forward to more than the first batch of pesto with straight-from-the-garden basil. It typifies the season for me and I could eat it every day. But to just stick with pesto is to typecast the herb and limit its potential.
When I started to think about how I could get beyond pesto, I looked to dishes I already loved and narrowed down a few that might benefit from the addition of basil. There was never a bad experiment. It lends a lovely herbal undertone to everything from sorbets to sodas; it shines as brightly in Thai cuisine as it does when muddled in a drink or baked into chips. Just abide by one rule: Treat it gently. If left in something hot for too long, the color and flavor can take an unappetizing turn.
Basil is one of the more combinable herbs because of its unusual flavor profile. Culinary herbologist Susan Belsinger says if you dig into the makeup of the plant, you'll find that it's "a little chemical factory." Three distinct chemical compounds are responsible for many basils' nearly indescribable flavor: Methyl chavicol creates the anise and licorice tones, linalool is the floral element and eugenol adds spice and clove notes. When all of those harmonize, basil becomes a perfectly nuanced herb that, as Belsinger told me, "improves, accentuates and uplifts food."
In addition to being complex, basil is also an incredibly diverse plant — there are dozens of species, with more popping up all the time because it crosses easily. The most popular varieties in the U.S. are cultivars of sweet basil and include Genovese, lemon and cinnamon. You might have to head to your garden or farmers market to find other varieties like Thai, holy and dark opal, but they're available.
Once you've got some in hand, you should act quickly before it wilts. But if you won't use everything right away, Belsinger recommends keeping the stalks in a vase with water on the counter, instead of in the refrigerator. If you want to preserve that fresh flavor for months, she suggests making an herbal paste by roughly chopping the leaves in a food processor and adding enough olive oil to cover. Freeze it in plastic containers and scoop it out as needed.
You also can save fresh basil by storing the leaves in salt, a traditional method of preserving foods across the world. Just layer the clean, dry leaves with kosher salt in a sealable jar and keep it in the fridge. When using the basil, which will last for a few months, omit the salt in the recipe. I've used leaves preserved this way on top of pizzas and baked into other goods.
No matter what you do, it's hard to go wrong with basil. The leaves and flavors can vary wildly between species, but part of the fun of cooking with it is trying new varieties and combinations. So before the summer ends, consider casting your everyday basil in a new role. It just might surprise you.
The gazpacho recipe is adapted from one that appeared in Gourmet magazine in 2008. Feel free to mix beet varieties.
Makes 6 servings
1 medium leek (white and pale-green parts only), halved lengthwise and coarsely chopped
2 pounds beets, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 large onion, diced
1 large apple, peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups water
3 tablespoons cider vinegar, or to taste
1 tablespoon thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
Wash leek in a large bowl of water, agitating it, then lift out and drain well.
Cook leek, beets, onion, and apple in oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the onions are softened. Add water, vinegar, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and cook at a bare simmer, uncovered, until vegetables and apple are tender. Discard bay leaf.
Add mustard before pureeing soup in batches until smooth (use caution when blending hot liquids). Chill.
Serve cold with basil sour cream and basil chips.
Basil Sour Cream
2/3 cup sour cream or creme fraiche
1/2 cup packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
Pepper, to taste
Puree sour cream with basil in food processor until leaves are finely chopped. Mix in pepper. Can be made ahead of time.
12 fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cover sheet pan with tin foil. Mix olive oil and salt in a small bowl. Dredge each leaf in the mixture, allowing excess to drip off. Space 1-inch apart on the pan and roast for 8 minutes. They will be slightly darkened and very delicate.
This simple recipe makes an easy and delicious appetizer. Consider drizzling balsamic vinegar over the peaches before serving.
Makes 12 servings
1 large ripe peach, cut into 12 slices
4 ounces goat cheese
3 strips prosciutto, cut into quarters
12 medium-size fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
Spoon two teaspoons of goat cheese onto a peach slice, add basil leaf and wrap with a prosciutto slice. Secure with a toothpick. Peaches can be made a few hours ahead of time
This sorbet is based on a recipe by Cuisinart. Try experimenting with different types of basil — many of the varieties pair well with lemon.
Makes 10 1/2-cup servings
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon zest
2 cup packed fresh lemon basil, washed and dried
2 cups fresh lemon juice
Prepare a lemon simple syrup with the water, sugar and the lemon zest by combining all three in a medium saucepan set over medium-low heat. Cook mixture until the sugar is fully dissolved. Remove from heat. Once the simple syrup is ready, add the basil and a pinch of salt. Let the mixture steep for 30 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate 2 to 3 hours, or overnight. Strain the chilled mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions.
Feel free to use the chili of your choice for this drink — Thai chilis and serranos are both good options. You can also substitute galangal for the ginger in the syrup if you can find it; just use less of it because it's quite strong.
Makes 1 drink
Mint Ginger Simple Syrup
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, packed
1 1/2-inch nub of ginger peeled and chopped into 1/4-inch rounds
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Combine ingredients in small saucepan. Simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, strain and cool.
1/4 cup Thai basil leaves, washed and dried
1 1/2 ounce white rum
1 1/2 ounce mint ginger simple syrup
1 Thai chili, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
Muddle basil leaves in the bottom of a glass. Add rum, simple syrup, 1-2 pieces of chili and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Add ice and top off with seltzer.
If you don't want to ferment this in a bottle, you can just add seltzer water to the syrup once it's cooled. If fermenting, do not use glass bottles because they could explode. Champagne yeast and sanitizer can be found online and in home-brew/winemaking stores.
Makes 12 12-ounce drinks
4 cups sweet cherries, pitted
1 2/3 cup sugar
1 cup fresh packed basil, washed and dried
12 12-ounce plastic soda bottles and caps
Nonchlorine sanitizer, like iodine
1/4 teaspoon Champagne yeast
1 cup warm water
Combine cherries with sugar in a saucepan. Simmer until cherries begin to release their juices and soften. Remove from heat and blend mixture until smooth. Steep basil leaves in the syrup until it reaches 90 degrees. Strain using mesh strainer, pushing on solids to release liquid. Add a squeeze of lemon to the strained syrup.
Sanitize bottles and caps with a cleanser like those used in home-brewing. Combine Champagne yeast with warm water, allowing it to sit for 5 minutes. Spoon 1 teaspoon of the yeast mixture into each bottle. Add 3 1/2 tablespoons cherry syrup to each. Top off with filtered water, leaving 2 inches of head space at the top.
Store bottles in a warm, dark place. Check on them often by pressing on the bottles — they are fully carbonated when you can no longer make an indent (it usually takes a few days). Transfer the bottles to the refrigerator.