All Hail, Sweet Basil
July’s vegetable (for all practical purposes) of the month
by Gay Lyons
It’s only the second month of my “Vegetable of the Month” series, and I’m already cheating. Basil is an herb, not a vegetable. But the basil at the Market Square Farmers’ Market was so beautiful, plenteous and fragrant that I just couldn’t resist. And I predict that you won’t be able to either.
The sugar snap peas are gone, and the leafy greens will soon disappear until fall. Next we’ll see green beans, summer squashes and tomatoes. I can already tell that selecting next month’s vegetable will be difficult—there are going to be so many to choose among—but right now is a good time to pick up some basil, which will thrive from now until the chill of the first frost zaps the vibrant green leaves and turns them into ugly, withered, evil-looking things overnight. Though there are a number of varieties of basil, including cinnamon basil and lemon basil, most of the basil you find will be the variety known as sweet basil, which has fragrant deep green leaves, or possibly Genoan basil, which is a similar variety.
In warm, tropical climates basil thrives as a perennial. We tend to associate basil with the Mediterranean, but it originated in India, Africa and Asia. It is widely used in Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. It ultimately made its way to the Mediterranean where the plant was a perfect fit for the climate and the diet. Basil is revered in many cultures. The Greek word for it means royal. The Hindi word for it means sacred basil.
In our climate, basil is a plant that must be cultivated every year. It’s is easy to grow as long as it is planted in well-drained soil and gets plenty of sunshine. Still, it’s a pity that basil is not as hardy as its close cousin, mint, which bounces back every year.
Fresh basil is best, but you can dry it or freeze it. I use frozen basil in cooking, but I personally do not like dried basil. It has a completely different taste. You can make basil flavored vinegar or oil for use in making salad dressings by putting a stalk or two of basil in a jar of good quality vinegar or olive oil and letting it sit for two weeks. Basil flavored oils or vinegars sealed up in pretty bottles make great gifts.
Towards the end of basil season, I make lots of pesto for freezing. I make large batches in the food processor, preparing it as I normally would with two exceptions: I use less oil and no parmesan cheese, creating what might best be described as “pesto base.” Later on when the pesto is thawed, I’ll add the parmesan cheese and the desired amount of olive oil.
I’ve tried storing the frozen pesto in various kinds of containers, but I’ve decided that what works best is to spoon the pesto into ice cube trays, seal them with plastic wrap, and put them in the freezer for a day or so. Afterwards, the frozen pesto cubes can be stored in the freezer in heavy-duty zip lock bags. I like this method because I can easily thaw just a little or a lot. One cube is approximate to one serving. You can also freeze chopped basil in water in the same way. You can’t use it like fresh basil, but it adds the taste of fresh basil to cooked dishes such as soups and gratins.
For now, during the months locally grown basil is available, you should enjoy it fresh. You’ll find lots of it at the Farmers’ Market. Add it along with other greens to salads. When the locally grown tomatoes come in, layer those with fresh basil leaves and fresh mozzarella to make insalata capresi. Add fresh basil to omelets and frittatas. Use it as an aromatic garnish. Arrange tomato slices and basil leaves on a platter and drizzle them with a white wine vinaigrette just before serving. This simple recipe from cooks.com features fresh basil along with fabulous summer tomatoes and my favorite crustacean: Shrimp with Basil and Tomatoes.
Combine five chopped tomatoes, one cup coarsely chopped basil, three tablespoons Balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Let sit two hours at room temperature. Cook and drain pasta and coat with olive oil before mixing with tomatoes and basil. Heat two tablespoons olive oil and sauté a clove of minced garlic. Add a pound of peeled, deveined shrimp and sauté a few minutes, just until translucent. Squeeze with the juice of half a lemon and arrange on top of the pasta. Finish the dish with some freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Once a month from now through November, on the Wednesday before the Vegetable of the Month feature in this column, I’ll be on WBIR’s Style show to talk about the vegetable—or in this case the herb—and the Market Square Farmers’ Market. If you missed the show, you can still go to www.wbir.com and click on Style to find additional recipes using fresh basil.