What's In Season: Basil
Basil, an herb that many of us have long taken for granted, has only been popular in the U.S. since the 1970's. It's always been used in Greek, Italian and French cuisines, but in America? Seems that it's still a relative newbie.
But I suspect that if today you asked any number of home cooks which herb was their favorite, basil may be their top choice. It's right up there with rosemary, thyme and tarragon.
According to Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking, there are about 165 species of basil. It's part of the mint family, although most of us would think of basil's flavor as having notes more akin to clove or tarragon than mint. The basil most commonly found in farmers' markets and produce stores is referred to as "sweet basil," with large, deep green, oval leaves.
Basil's nose and taste is warm, spicy and fragrant, and its flavors can vary depending upon where, when and how it's grown, and if the leaves are young or old, large or small. We're not talking profound differences here, but since basil is often tasted directly -- think of those leaves scattered over the tomato and mozzarella slices -- instead of cooked in a dish, what otherwise might be a subtle difference can in fact be discerned.
How To Buy and Store Basil
When buying fresh basil you should look carefully at the stalks and the leaves. If you're wondering about its flavor, pull off a tiny leaf and taste it. At farmers' markets you'll find big bouquet-like bunches of basil, the roots still attached. Avoid bunches that have lots of discolored or damaged leaves, instead choosing bunches that are not wilted, with bright green leaves, firm and erect stalks, and a strong fragrance. Equally important, buy your basil shortly before using it because even if kept in your refrigerator, the leaves can quickly wilt.
What I do after buying a market bunch of basil is after I get it home, I remove all the leaves, discard the stalks and roots, and then wash the leaves in my salad spinner, giving the leaves a couple of swishes in cool water and then spinning them completely dry. I throw away any leaves that seem wilted or marred, although I'll just rip off any discoloration and keep the rest of the leaf. And then I'll carefully wrap the leaves in paper towels, place them in a plastic bag, and refrigerate until I use them later. But in this case later means within 24-hours; try as I might, I find that storing fresh basil leaves for more than a day invariably results in some deterioration in either appearance or flavor.
If I have leftover basil leaves, I'll leave them spread on a paper towel until they naturally dry; depending on humidity this can take several weeks. Then I'll store the dried leaves in an empty spice tin or baggie and use them in a cooked dish or tomato sauce; it's not as tasty as fresh basil but it will have significantly more flavor than any dried basil bought in a spice store. I like this better than the idea of freezing it. That's because I think the home-dried basil actually tastes better than the frozen which never resuscitates properly; plus my freezer is small and I am loathe to spare the space when a little baggie of dried basil will last me all winter.
Another use for leftover fresh basil is to make basil oil. It's simple to make and is a great flavor to add to simply cooked fish, mashed potatoes, or added to salad dressings. Remember to store it refrigerated -- adding the basil makes the oil vulnerable to botulism if it's not chilled. We've added a link below to the method for making basil oil from Epicurious.
Cooking With Basil
I think of basil as a decidedly summer flavor. For example, Insalata Caprese is a composed salad made with thick slices of local tomatoes alternated with pieces of pillow-y fresh mozzarella that is drizzled with golden olive oil and finished with a scattering of fresh basil leaves. It makes a satisfying lunch or a supper on a hot July day. But certainly not in December.
And then there's basil pesto, also known as pesto Genovese, named for the port city of the Italian Riviera. While some say pesto tastes better made by hand with a mortar and pestle, I can't tell the difference from that made in a food processor or blender. Plus the modern appliances produce a smoother, more even result than the hand-ground method, at least in my hands.
To make pesto, which in Italian means something that's been pounded or crushed as into a paste, fresh basil leaves are puréed with fresh garlic, pine nuts and olive oil and combined with grated Parmesan cheese. It's an intense and fragrant topping for pasta but equally wonderful on fresh mozzarella or creamy burrata, steamed fish or vegetables, added to scrambled eggs, as a topping on toasted bread to create a crostini, or spooned over plain boiled potatoes, especially if the potatoes are local and recently dug from the ground so that they have flavor. See our recipe.
Aside from making pesto and Insalata Caprese, basil flatters many other foods. It can be used as a last-step addition to a dish with the raw basil being very forward in a dish's taste. Or it can be added to something that is being cooked so that the basil mellows into other flavors.
Soupe au Pistou, a classic Provencal soup, is a cousin to pesto Genovese -- not surprising since the soup originated in Nice which while in France, is only a few kilometers down the Mediterranean coast from Italy's Genoa. This bean and pasta soup gets finished with a spoonful of basil pesto.
There are other ways to add basil to your cooking, including some that are sweet:
- Cold pasta salad with cubes of feta, diced fresh local tomatoes, shreds of basil leaves, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Bruschetta made with tiny, diced fresh tomatoes tossed with minced basil and garlic and olive oil, spooned on toasted bread.
- Risotto or pasta with roasted tomato and fresh basil.
- Add fresh basil leaves to any sandwich in place of lettuce or in any sandwich that includes tomato, as a grilled cheese with tomato and basil sandwich.
- Fresh basil scattered on top of homemade pizza, either with a red sauce or pizza bianca; add the basil when the pizza is just out of the oven so that they wilt but not cook.
- Used in sweet drinks or desserts, as in a blueberry-basil granita, or to accent a piece of sweet melon, or to flavor a sweet sugar syrup to drizzle over strawberries or added to a daiquiri or iced tea.
- Omelet with basil and goat cheese.
- Shredded or julienned basil leaves used as a garnish for gazpacho.
- Minced basil added to home-made or store-bought mayonnaise and used to make lobster, shrimp or chicken salad.
- In favorite Asian dishes such as spring rolls, green curry, or Vietnamese pho soup.
A final comment about basil: You know how some cans of imported tomatoes come with a sprig of basil tucked among the tomatoes? Please throw it away. It won't hurt you to add it to whatever you're cooking, but it also certainly won't add any flavor. By the time you open the can, it's just a slippery green thing with no taste. If you want basil to flavor your tomato sauce, throw out that old sprig and then add some that's fresh.