Summer's Green Goddess: Basil



Simon and Garfunkel missed the boat when they recorded “Scarborough Fair” in 1966.

If you really want someone to be a true lover of thine, you need to woo him or her not with parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme, but basil.

Fragrant and peppery, with a hint of sweetness, basil is the ultimate summer herb. Its green, glossy leaves are exceptionally pretty and it doesn’t take a particularly green thumb to grow it -- just a well-drained spot in the sunshine. Plus, you get a lot of bang for the buck. One of the most prolific and forgiving herbs, basil plants keep producing all summer long if you’re tenacious about pruning the stem leaves every couple weeks and pinching off flowers before they go to seed.

Another reason we love it: Basil grows just as well in containers on your porch and kitchen window sill as it does tucked in alongside its best friend Mr. Tomato in the garden. 

Though we tend to associate the ancient plant with Italy and other sunny Mediterranean countries -- basil is Greek for “kingly” or “royal” -- it’s actually native to India and Southeast Asia, where it’s been cultivated for some 5,000 years. And it’s not just a culinary darling; throughout history it’s also been used for medicinal purposes. Folklore holds the plant as a cure for scorpion bites, and it’s also thought to have a calming effect on upset stomachs. It’s also used to scent shampoo, soap and perfume. 

This seems to be a particularly good year for basil gone wild:  While PG Backyard Gardner Doug Oster reports his ’Genovese’ basil --  a bright-green, extremely tender variety with a reputation of making the best pesto -- has been going to seed in the hot weather, food editor Bob Batz Jr. says his plants’ leaves are as large as his hand. Sumptuous bunches have started to come in good at Thursday’s Market Square Farmers Market, some measuring a foot or more, for less than $5. 

The most common varieties you’ll find in markets and grocery stores are the big-leafed sweet basil and Thai basil, which offers a slightly stronger taste and smaller, narrower leaves and purple stems. Yet there are so many more varieties with unusual scents, different colors and exotic flavors just waiting to be discovered and devoured.

The wonderfully fragrant ’Lemon basil,’ a hybrid of sweet and African blue basils, tastes of citrus. ’Thai Siam Queen’ is reminiscent of anise.  Tiny-leafed ’Spicy Globe’ basil is exactly as billed  -- a variety that grows into a small, round bush instead of leggy stalks and is extra spicy on the tongue. ’Cinnamon basil’ smells and tastes like, you got it, cinnamon, lending itself to fruit and baked goods such as pumpkin pie. ’Round Midnight’ basil has glossy deep-purple leaves and a mild licorice flavor.

Can you see where we’re going here?

It’s the perfect partner for a variety of summery foods.

While basil often is showcased in Italian recipes (pesto sauce originated in Genoa in the Liguria region of northern Italy) and is a mainstay in Vietnamese and Thai cuisine, it’s actually much more versatile. Depending on the variety, it’s as suitable for sweet treats, soups and salads as it is for savory dishes, making it summer’s go-to herb 

Pesto is probably the most popular dish made with basil, so we’ve included instructions for a terrific Grilled Summer Pesto Pizza in the recipes compiled below. You’ll also find a pair of drinks -- one alcoholic and one that you can serve the kids -- a pasta dish, a recipe for basil oil (perfect for salads and drizzling on bread) and for dessert, a cool and creamy Basil Gelato. 

Lemon-Basil Blossom Cocktail

PG tested

If you can’t fine lemon basil, which is often used in Indonesian cooking, substitute conventional basil and a few drops of lemon oil.

For the lemon basil simple syrup

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup water

1/4 cup loosely packed lemon basil

For the cocktail

3 to 4 leaves lemon basil

Zest of 1 lemon

1½ ounces white rum

1 ounce fresh lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)

1/2 ounce lemon-basil simple syrup

Make syrup: Heat sugar and water in a small saucepan with basil until sugar is dissolved. Bring to boil, then set aside to cool. Strain out the basil and refrigerate. Yields 1 cup. Unused portions can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Make cocktail: In a Collins glass, muddle lemon zest and basil. Fill with crushed ice. In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, shake together rum, lemon juice and simple syrup. Strain into Collins glass and garnish with a sliver of lemon.

Makes 1 cocktail.

-- Saveur 

Cantaloupe-Basil Agua Fresca

PG tested

Agua fresca (Spanish for “fresh water”) is a light, non-alcoholic drink served by street vendors and in eateries throughout Latin America. They’re made by combining fresh fruits, herbs and even flowers with sugar and water -- a nice, fruity drink to cool off with on a hot day.

I’ll admit it: This isn’t the most appealing drink, looks wise (my daughter told me it looked like snot). Color aside, it’s actually pretty refreshing. “Kind of like unsweetened lemonade,” my son told me.

Choose the ripest cantaloupe you can find -- it should feel heavy for its size, and be fragrant. 

1 cantaloupe, peeled, seeded and cut into cubes

1 big handful fresh basil leaves, plus extra for garnish

1½ cups water

Juice of 3 limes

2 tablespoon granulated sugar

Fresh mint, for garnish

Add cantaloupe and half of the basil leaves to a blender and blend until completed pureed. Hold a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl and pour the puree through, using a spoon to press all the juice out of the pulp at the end. Combine the cantaloupe juice, remaining basil leaves, water, lime juice and sugar in a large pitcher. Stir well to combine. Taste and add a little more sugar if desired. Store in fridge for an hour or so before serving.

Pour over ice and garnish with extra basil leaves or fresh mint.

Serves 4.

-- “Seriously Delish” by Jessica Merchant (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept. 2014, $29.99)

Basil Oil

PG tested

This is perfect for those instances when you want just a hint of basil flavor. Drizzle over grilled bread, roasted veggies or sandwiches, serve as a dipping sauce or use a base for salad dressings and marinades.

Leaves from 2 bunches fresh basil

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Juice 1 lemon

Bring small pot of water to boil. Set up bowl with an ice bath. Add basil leaves to boiling water and cook for 45 seconds to 1 minute, until lightly softened. Transfer immediately to the ice bath to prevent further cooking. Drain and let dry.

In a blender, combine basil and olive oil and blend until smooth. Strain through a strainer lined with cheesecloth into a medium bowl.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice right before serving.

Makes about 1 cup.

-- “Extra Virgin” by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar (Clarkson Potter, May 2014, $32.50)

Grilled Summer Pesto Pizza

PG tested

Thin slices of zucchini stand in for the cheese in this healthful vegan pizza. You’ll end up with more pesto than you need. Use the extra to dress pasta or spread on sandwiches.

The original recipe called for one big pie, baked in the oven, but I made individual pizzettes on the grill. I also added a few tablespoons of grated parmesan cheese to the pesto.

For pesto

4 cups (packed) fresh basil leaves

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped fresh garlic

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 to 3 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese, or to taste

For pizza

1 ball whole-wheat pizza dough, homemade or store-bought

Flour for dusting

Extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup good-quality marinara sauce

1 large zucchini, thinly sliced and grilled

1 medium yellow onion, cut in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 8 slices

1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, coarsely chopped

For toppings

2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

1/4 cup thinly sliced packed basil

Garlic powder, optional

Red pepper flakes, optional

Prepare pesto. Put basil, oil, pine nuts, garlic, salt and parmesan cheese in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped, then puree until the mixture is smooth, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. if not using immediately, cover and store for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Return pesto to room temperature before using.

Divide dough into 4 portions. On floured surface, pat or roll each portion into a 6- to 8-inch-diameter circle. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush olive oil into a circle that’‍s a little larger than your pizza, and then place pizza on the oiled circle. Brush tops with olive oil.

Lift the pizzas by holding the ends of parchment paper. At a height of about 6 inches above the grill, flip circle of dough onto the hot side of the grill grates. Quickly peel off parchment and close lid. Grill pizza for 2 to 3 minutes, or until it has good grill marks. Turn the pizza with tongs and move it to the indirect side.

Cover dough with a layer of marinara sauce. Arrange grilled zucchini slices in concentric circles on the dough, leaving a 3/4-inch border bare. Arrange onion atop the zucchini, then scatter olives on top.

Slide pizza back onto the hot side of the grill and cook until crust is golden brown and toppings are hot, 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove pizza from grill with tongs onto a cutting board. Using half the pesto, immediately drop teaspoons of pesta all over the top. Spread it over the topping with the back of a spoon or with a cake spatula. Sprinkle with pine nuts and sliced basil. Use a sharp knife or pizza cutter to cut the pizza into 8 slices, and serve hot with garlic powder and red pepper flakes, if using.

Serves 3 to 4.

-- Adapted from “Straight From the Earth” by Myra Goodman and Marea Goodman (Chronicle, April 2014, $27.50)

Pasta with Uncooked Tomato and Fresh Basil Sauce

PG tested

The only thing you have to cook in this recipe is the pasta. The sauce is perfect for summer -- full flavored, but still light. Choose a good-quality olive oil and make sure the ingredients are at room temperature when you toss them with the pasta.  

6 ripe plum tomatoes (about 1 pound)

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minded

1 cup shredded fresh basil leaves, loosely packed

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

1 pound pasta, such as linguine, spaghetti or vermicelli

2/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Wash tomatoes and pat dry. Cut out cored and discard. Cut each tomato in half horizontally and gently squeeze out the seeds.

Dice tomatoes into 1-inch pieces and place in medium bowl. Add garlic, basil, parsley, olive oil, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste. Toss well. Let marinate at room temperature for at least 2 hours. If you marinate it longer, put it in the refrigerator, but bring to room temperature before serving.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta until al dente. Drain well in colander and return to pot or a large serving dish.

Immediately toss parmesan cheese on pasta. Pour on the sauce. Toss well and serve immediately -- you want it warm rather than hot.

Serves 4.

-- “Simply Satisfying” by Jeanne Lemlin (The Experiment, $21.95)

Basil Gelato

PG tested

Frozen desserts don’t immediately come to mind then you think of basil, but that’s a mistake. There’s something about the combination of the herb with lemon that’s just so pleasing on the palate. This gelato recipe is super-easy, and the perfect way to cool off on a humid summer evening. Be sure to properly cool the mixture in the fridge before churning -- I was too impatient to, so my first batch churned and churned but never froze. Argh. 

2 cups basil leaves

2 cups milk

1 cup heavy cream

3/4 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 egg yolks

Combine basil, milk, cream, sugar, zest, salt, and yolks in a blender and puree until smooth. Pour into a 2-quart saucepan and heat gently until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and pour through a fine strainer; chill in the refrigerator. Pour into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Serve garnished with fresh basil leaves.

Makes 1 quart.

-- Sauveur


Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

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