Of all the stars in the firmament of herbs, basil arguably shines the brightest. With its heady perfume, complex and pronounced flavour and vibrant green colour, the tender leaves can transform the simplest ingredients into a dish that’s truly spectacular.
There are many variants of basil, but most deliver a sweet, bright flavour with differing aniseed/liquorice notes. According to Niki Segnit in The Flavour Thesaurus basil also possesses strong hints of spice – clove, cinnamon and tarragon, along with a ‘minty grassiness’ that’s most prominent when pounded into pesto. Many connoisseurs posit that basil loses its fresh and fragrant allure when dried, but Segnit argues the intensity of good quality dried leaves works beautifully in fish stews and baked lamb dishes.
Basil is often associated with Mediterranean cooking, and there are three main Mediterranean varieties: large-leaved and sweet, small-leaved and peppery and purple-leaved and mild, with numerous others in between. But basil is also widely used in south-east Asian cooking, ranging from citrussy through to intensely spicey. Thai basil, for example, resonates with liquorice and cinnamon notes.
Many experts recommend storing basil out of the fridge (cold temperatures cause the leaves to blacken and wilt), so trim the bottom of the stalks and stand them in a tall jar with a little water at the bottom. Change the water every couple of days, as you would cut flowers, to keep basil fresh for longer.
It’s widely recommended to tear rather than slice basil leaves. Tearing keeps the cell walls intact, but slicing releases enzymes in the cells that cause basil to blacken more quickly than tearing. That said, many chefs love the aesthetic of finely sliced basil and if you follow their lead, be sure to do the slicing at the very last minute.
Fresh basil leaves have a loving relationship with other summer ingredients: strewn over ripe tomatoes (still warm from the sun if you can manage it), good extra virgin olive oil and salt, there’s no finer hot-weather dish. Basil also deserves have a place in salad: toss with young leaves, tomatoes, fresh goat’s cheese and toasted walnuts and a spritely lemon dressing.
Basil also adores cooked tomatoes, but don’t destroy the flavour by exposing the leaves to excessive heat. Adorn tomato sauce-topped pizzas and pasta with freshly picked basil leaves just before serving.
One of the most popular uses for basil is pesto, and the freshly made stuff is infinitely more delicious than jarred. It’s easy, too. Just tip a large handful of basil leaves into a mortar or food processor, add garlic, pine nuts, grated Parmesan and olive oil. Pound or pulse to the consistency you prefer. There are many riffs you can play with this basic idea: leave out the cheese, for example, or swap pine nuts for others like hazelnuts
A truly wonderful version of pesto is green sauce, an aromatic condiment that is heavenly served with barbecued fish, meat or chicken. Add plenty of basil to a food processor or mortar along with other fresh summer herbs: mint, tarragon and parsley are ideal. Add a few anchovy fillets, a good squeeze of lemon juice, garlic and plenty of extra virgin olive oil and pound or process to a chunky sauce. Taste and adjust the lemon and oil as you see fit. Add finely chopped red chilli for extra punch.
For a sublime basil-spiked starter or canape, place a basil leaf and a small piece of halloumi cheese on the cut side of half a fresh fig, and wrap in a slice of prosciutto. Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a hot oven until the prosciutto is crisping up and the cheese bubbling. Or fold basil and other tender herbs through dressed grains or pasta, adding whatever extra ingredients you have to hand: sauteed courgettes or aubergines, or fresh cheeses like feta, mozzarella or labneh. Sprinkle over a finishing shower of finely grated lemon zest.
Basil in desserts is also highly recommended, and the intense flavour is delectable in ice cream. Try partnering basil with raspberry or grapefruit/lemon/lime in ice cream, sorbet or granita. Or make a fruit compote with cherries, raspberries or chopped stone fruit and once you pull the pot off the stove, add a few leaves of basil to infuse in the warm juices. The gentle perfume the basil adds to the fruit is irresistible.
Basil leaves partner beautifully with tomatoes, courgettes, other fresh herbs like mint, tarragon and parsley, fresh cheese (particularly goat’s cheese).
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