Kitchen Guy: The Basics of Basil

By Beacon Staff

As I write this, the growing season is fast coming to an end and so I have to harvest and use the bounty of my garden – tomatoes, peppers and herbs. My favorite herb is basil. I like it so much that I bought one of those indoor herb garden thingamajigs so that I could grow it all year long.

There is nothing like fresh basil. Make no mistake: that dried stuff you buy in the spice aisle at the supermarket bears absolutely no resemblance to fresh. It’s a whole different flavor.

Basil – the green kind – is an essential ingredient in Italian cooking and, to some degree, in southern French (Provencal) cuisine. Purple or opal basil is a basic in Thai food. The flavor is a cross between licorice and cloves, yet the herbal quality always comes through. Not surprisingly, it is a relative of mint.

Pesto, of course, is the most widely known use for fresh basil. It’s delicious as a dip or a spread, or as an accompaniment. I stuff double-cut pork chops with basil and it has become one of my most requested entrées. The French version is called pistou and it’s a first cousin to pesto. The primary difference is there are no nuts used in the French version. (Pistou is also a type of bean soup, but I’m not writing about soup this time.)

And what could be more refreshing and delicious than Caprese (pronounce it cah-pray-zay), an appetizer/salad of Roma tomatoes, slices of fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and fruity olive oil?

One of the more frequent questions I get about basil is how to prevent it from darkening once it’s on your cutting board or in a dish. Most often the cause is contact between the blade of your knife and the basil leaf. The easiest way to prevent darkening, of course, is to blanch and shock – a quick swim in boiling water and an immediate dunk into ice water. That will preserve the vibrant green color.

Another method for maintaining a bright green color in pesto is to supplement the basil leaves with flat leaf parsley in a ratio of four to one.

As for the nuts, the classic version calls for pine nuts, but many chefs have been experimenting with other nutmeats, most especially walnuts. No matter what type you use, you should toast them to release their oil and aroma.

You can enhance the flavor of many meals – from meats, to poultry, to pasta – with basil oil. It’s so simple to make. You’ll need a cup and a half of basil leaves and three-quarters of a cup of good extra virgin olive oil. Blanch the basil in boiling water 10 seconds. Drain and shock in ice water. Pat basil dry with paper towels, then transfer to a blender. Add the oil slowly through the top and puree until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper and pour into a squeeze bottle with a funnel. Then decoratively squirt the oil onto a dinner plate and see how it makes your dish pop. The flavor isn’t so bad either!

Here’s my recipe for pesto:
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. pine nuts
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp. coarse salt
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese.

Toast the pine nuts in a hot dry pan, taking care not to burn them. Combine basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and salt in a blender and run until a smooth paste forms. Pour into a bowl and add the cheese, mixing well.

You can freeze pesto for use many months later. Don’t add the cheese until the pesto has thawed. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze. Then unmold the cubes and store in a heavy duty freezer bag.

To see a video of me making this recipe, go to this web address: http://depository.shadowtv.net/media/341/2008/254/09/21352_341_20080910_092709_113.wmv