Just as asparagus means spring, basil means summer to me.
I first met basil when pesto sprang onto the food scene as the absolute latest in pasta sauces — an indulgence even I could afford on my working girl’s salary in NYC. And pesto was not only budget-friendly, but easy to make in quantity and freeze to suit my busy lifestyle.
I remember the smell as being intoxicating! Clean and crisp and a little dusky when fully matured by the hot summer sun. A distinctive and complex fragrance that lingered on my hands when I cooked with it. An enchanting new herb to play with!
Little did I know that basil is a nutrition champion.
Like so many herbs, it’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Its volatile oils have been shown to slow the growth of disease-causing bacteria such as staphylococcus, including drug-resistant strains. Eugenol, present in basil and several other herbs and spices, inhibits COX, an enzyme related to inflammation. It also protects liver cells, and is excellent for cognitive functioning, healthy sleep, memory and mental energy. Altogether, a star-studded herb to promote longevity AND brain health.
I always thought basil was about pesto and pasta. But it’s SO much more.
Because basil is part of the mint family, it can can swap roles with mint, with intriguing results. Toss basil with green beans or baby roasted fingerling potatoes. It’s in Thai cuisine, it loves broccoli, and, believe it or not, cinnamon! You’ll be delighted if you try it with fish, shellfish, summer fruits and berries, and sorbet. Any kind of eggs LOVE basil!
When I traveled in Italy, I experienced how simply and elegantly basil was used, with just a perfect ripe tomato, a drizzle of olive oil, a leaf of basil. Wow! You don’t even have to make pesto! Just tear up a leaf and put it in a salad, add on top of crostini, or sprinkle along with parsley over your fish — a pungent culinary flourish, a breath of summer in anything you’re preparing.
For even more inspiration, try the indispensable reference The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, a book I couldn’t possibly live without. Look up suggestions they have for basil, and let your imagination run wild!
Chef’s note: Add basil JUST before you serve a dish, for brightness and a freshness — unless you’re making the legendary Alice Waters’ Ratatouille, in which case you add the basil while cooking — plus a handful of fresh at the end.
Basil Lemon Drizzle
This is the little black dress of condiments—appropriate in almost any situation. What it really comes down to is mixing lemon zest, basil, and lemon juice, and—zingo!—you have a condiment that brightens and brings out the flavor in anything you put it on top of—veggies, chicken, fish, whatever. AMAZING on poached eggs! An added bonus is the blast of cancer-fighting properties, especially basil’s anti-inflammatory agents and lemon’s antioxidant phytochemicals.
Basil Pistachio Pesto
Pesto — with a twist! Pistachios are a little wellness center unto themselves, rich in potassium and B6. Their buttery taste is also extremely addictive, and I have pictures of my green hands to prove it. That’s one reason why I’ve chosen to use them in this pesto, rather than the traditional pine nuts. When I prepare this for guests, it seldom makes it to the dining room table, but instead ends up on crackers, carrots, pinkies… whatever people can find for dipping when they wander into the kitchen.
Roasted Strawberries with Basil
This one certainly wins a prize for the unexpected! Roasted strawberries? With basil?
Oh, yes, indeed! Roasting strawberries reminds me of Carly Simon’s song “Anticipation.” When you can take your time in the kitchen — or at least wait awhile for something to cook — magic happens. When you roast strawberries sloooooowly — I’m talking for 90 minutes — the alchemy that occurs is wondrous. Their flavors become so condensed and intense as they shrink. In this recipe, the strawberries are bathed in pomegranate molasses and maple syrup before roasting, for even more flavor. The last step, post-roast, is a mouth-blast of basil — the perfect touch!
Basil is the star of the summer herb set, the handbag or the pin you wear all summer long, then tuck away in a drawer for next year. BUT: make some of that pesto and freeze it in little containers, so on a day in February when you just can’t take any more winter or one more root vegetable, you can pull it out and savor the taste of summer!