Herb of the Month – Basil


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.

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