For those committed to eating seasonal and local food, August marks that point in the year when we stand the best chance of eating foods more suited to warmer climes. They may have required the assistance of an unheated greenhouse or polytunnel, but at last we might be able to eat home grown tomatoes, peppers, chillies, and perhaps, if where you live is warm enough, even aubergine. The herb that best suits these foods, and has similar growing requirements, is Basil.
In a year such as this has been it is unlikely that anywhere in the UK might have succeeded in growing Basil outdoors, although in better summers you can keep a pot in sheltered sun-traps, especially in the south-east of England. For the most part though, it is grown in greenhouses in the UK – never quite as hearty as that grown outdoors in the sun, such as in Italy, the country that made this herb famous and now pretty indispensible for any cook.
Because we are never going to achieve the same vigour from Basil here, it is the one herb that I do not entirely dismiss buying from a supermarket. You need to buy it in season, and as a growing plant, but then there are good sized pots to be had quite cheaply, so if you have not grown your own you can still join in the fun. Growing from seed is however easy and worth doing – it will be more robust and flavoursome as well as cheaper and ecologically more sound. You don’t need a greenhouse – a windowsill will do, just use a reasonably large container. I make several sowings throughout the summer because it is easy to use a whole pot full of basil in one go. Although you can keep one plant growing for a good while, pinching out the top leaves on a regular basis for tomato salads, it is lovely to have a real abundance available. And if you do have a sunny patio you can start the pots off indoors in the spring and then move them outside when the weather gets really warm. Summer sowings can be ready to pick in only a month.
What Basil particularly hates is being damp and it rots from the root if this occurs. Therefore water at mid-day or in the morning rather than evening so that the plant does not sit damp overnight when the temperature cools. Also thin plants if you find you have sown them too thickly, so that the sun and warm air can circulate around the stems.
With the aforementioned cautions out of the way, Basil is actually so easy and rewarding to grow that it is the one I use to first introduce young people to growing herbs. The smell is so wonderful just brushing past it that it absolutely begs to be eaten.
Basil in the kitchen
As well as being a “starter herb” for encouraging people to grow their own, teaching them how to use it is also a great starting lesson in cooking. I spent a day teaching young people about to leave the care system, and was able to supply each with their own mortar and pestle as well as a pot of growing basil – they loved the process of making pesto and felt like real chefs.
Bought jars of pesto are a complete abomination – not just a pale imitation of the real thing but downright disgusting in flavour. I read recently that Sacla, the main producer of this product, has now decided that the way to boost sales is to put this disgusting flavour in a tube:
Yet making your own is really simple and although a mortar and pestle is the best way, a food processor does speed up the process and is still infinitely better than anything bought in a jar (or tube). You can make the sauce in the time it takes to cook the pasta – how’s that for fast real food.
In addition to Pesto how else do I use basil in the kitchen?
It has such an affinity with tomatoes that they almost seem incomplete without it. Of course, getting flavoursome tomatoes is another issue, but if you grow your own you simply must grow basil alongside. Literally alongside is no bad thing as they require similar growing conditions and the basil can help keep all manner of flying insects off the tomatoes.
Tear the leaves rather than chop them with a knife – they will tear along their natural break points, releasing the aromatic flavours much better. A knife cut pinches the edges together and also causes oxidisation (blackening). This is really the reason why crushing basil with a pestle is preferable to chopping it in a food processor.
Roasting tomatoes concentrates their flavour and improves even those grown without much sun. Cut them in half, season the surface with salt and pepper, and place on an oiled tray, cut side down, so that excess juice drains out. Cook at 120˚C for about an hour. If the tomatoes are small there is no need to cut them, just cook on the vine. Serve with a little balsamic vinegar and plenty of freshly torn basil. Roasted tomatoes are the starting point for making Tomato and Basil soup, see recipe here.
Pesto is a very pungent flavour and is best added to dishes just before serving. Rather than cooking the basil it should just be warmed by the heat of the food, releasing the maximum aroma. Pasta is the classic food to dress with pasta, the traditional Ligurian dish also includes a couple of ingredients that hardly every feature here – green beans and potatoes. It sounds very odd to add another carbohydrate, i.e. potato, to pasta but having first tried it when I had a couple of leftover cold potatoes in the fridge I found it actually worked very well. Now I slice some in whenever I have them to hand. Runner beans work brilliantly as the green bean in this dish – they can be sliced finely so that they are easy to wind around the fork together with the pasta. See Basil Recipes for full instructions including how to make pesto.
As well as being the herb for tomatoes, basil is strongly linked with garlic. The classic Provençal vegetable stew of Ratatouille cries out for both.
Less familiar is the use of basil with cream, but I first came across this in a Rick Stein book as a sauce to serve with John Dory and it has remained my favourite accompaniment for this wonderful fish. The sauce uses a sweet white wine to deglaze the pan followed by a quick reduction of fish stock and double cream, with the basil being torn into the sauce at the last moment, just before serving.