A New Look at Basil

9 Sep

In the late 1970’s, when curly parsley was not only the essential herb but the ubiquitous garnish, I remember my joy in the herbaceous perfume of fresh basil wafting through my cooking class in Florence, Italy. No one knew much about it then. Pesto had barely hit our shores and it was almost impossible to find in even the best supermarkets. Clearly things have changed and so it was exciting to be invited to be a guest on Martha Stewart’s radio show “Everyday Food” the other day, to talk about basil and new things to do with it. Once upon a time, there was a serious issue of how to store it during the winter — between layers of coarse salt, or suspended in olive oil and frozen, or whirled into pesto to use during the cold winter — but thankfully, basil is now an essential herb, and ubiquitous garnish, and is available fresh all year long. During the course of the half-hour show, we talked about myriad new ways to use it, grow it, and discussed the different varieties available, from Thai basil, to holy basil, to chocolate, peppermint and pineapple basil. Sandy and I both agreed that it is the more generic “sweet basil” that has captured our hearts.

The host of the show, Sandy Gluck, shared an idea for pureeing fresh basil into ricotta and using it as a base for bruschetta. My cheese-making buddy, Laurie Sandow, told me about a wonderful soda she read about using fresh basil, strawberries, balsamic vinegar and agave syrup. And in Radically Simple, there are a dozen hip recipes showing contemporary new ways to use it. And here is sampling of delicious ideas to get you started.

Wrap large shrimp in large basil leaves. Wrap tightly with  small strips of prosciutto. Saute in garlic olive oil.

Make fragrant basil butter: Process 1 stick sweet butter with ½ cup fresh basil leaves and a pinch of curry.

Swirl freshly prepared pesto into thick yogurt. Spread on warm grilled bread.

Grate yellow squash and zucchini on large holes of box grater. Saute in butter with lots of freshly chopped basil.

Cut a ½-inch-x-4 inch channel in thick swordfish steaks. Stuff with a stack of tightly-rolled basil leaves. Poach in olive oil.

Try basil mayonnaise: Process 1 cup homemade or store-bought mayonnaise with 1 cup basil, a clove of garlic and a few, optional, anchovy fillets.

Steep basil leaves in lemon vodka. Freeze.

Gently warm orange blossom honey. Add whole basil leaves. Stir and pour into mason jars.

Basil toasts: Bake ½-inch thick slices of baguette until crisp. Rub with a split garlic clove and fresh basil leaves until fragrant and “green”.

Morning snack: Spread lightly buttered toast with bitter orange marmalade. Sprinkle with a chiffonade of fresh basil.

Cut ripe peaches into thin wedges. Place in wine goblets. Splash with peach schnapps and julienned basil.

Strawberry-basil tea: Puree 1-pint strawberries with 8 basil leaves and sugar. Cover amply with boiling water. Steep 15 minutes. Strain into teacups.

Look for my basil-scrubbed toast, “green” corn, and many other basil recipes in the days to follow. Buy lots at your farmer’s market this weekend and breathe deeply.

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