A row of basil is a delight to all the senses. (And the bees agree.)
(This is a long article, but that’s because it contains three recipes.)
I have about twice this amount of large-leafed basil in the garden, plus an extra long row of the basil variously known as Greek basil, Dwarf basil, Spicy Globe basil, Basil Fino Verde, Small-leaf basil, Bush basil, and Ocimum basilicum minimum. (My plants had no label on them when I got them.)
I also grew a basil called ‘Marseilles’ from seed. It has a slightly brighter flavor — maybe notes of citrus? — and is a lovely golden-green color, although not nearly so prolific as the variety shown here, Italian large-leaf.
This one has the classic basil taste and is one plant I am never without in summer, even if I’m limited to an apartment balcony, although you really need to learn to cut the enormous leaves in chiffonade to make the best use of them.
The blooms of all three are bee magnets, and the Greek basil could be a useful ornamental plant, as well. I could see it softening the edges of a perennial flower bed, for instance, beautifying the landscape while simultaneously providing the house with delicious herbal goodness.
Can you believe I have yet to make pesto this summer? It’s definitely time, and I’ll probably be freezing the resulting paste in my ice-cube trays so I can use it over the winter. A cube of this fragrant goodness is enough to add a haunting note of summer to any soup. And, of course, you can always use it on pasta.
I’ve lately been researching pesto recipes. I’m probably going to stick with the one I’ve been using for years. But the research has stirred up a desire to try an old-fashioned recipe for pesto, the original really, where you pound it in a mortar. Crushing the ingredients that way apparently creates a superior flavor because of the way the oils are released, and results in a more pleasant and natural texture than the paste with which I’m so familiar.
I already love pesto, so I’m wondering, how much better could it get? All you cooks out there know this is precisely the question that haunts us (to good effect). However, it’s doubtful whether I have the arm strength to do it. And I don’t have a mortar and pestle, period, much less one large enough for the task of making a batch of pesto. So I’ll be sticking with the blender.
Isn’t it a strange world where everyone has the technological innovation in their kitchen (the blender), but not the original basic tool (mortar & pestle)?
You might be wondering by now, if we haven’t been using our basil bounty for pesto, what we’ve been doing with it. There are several uses. Probably the most common uses are for a quick appetizer of caprese salad or bruschetta.
Caprese salad: sliced tomato, mozarella cheese, and basil in chiffonade, doused with olive oil and, if you’ve got it, a splash of balsamic vinegar. We recently ran out of the latter and found it still quite pleasant. This kind of basic recipe is where you’ll really feel the quality of the ingredients — and where having your own kitchen garden will really pay off when you can just step right outside to cut a handful of fresh basil and pull a couple of juicy tomatoes off the vine minutes before you’ll serve them. I personally think it needs a little sea salt and a twist of fresh pepper to show off to perfection, but F. prefers the dish as is.
Bruschetta: plain toast hot from the oven is rubbed with a cut garlic clove, then topped with spoonfuls of a mixture of chopped up tomato, basil and olive oil, to which you might also add mushrooms, olives or onions for variety. We’ve also added feta crumbled on top, although this wasn’t our favorite preparation. An excellent way to use up slightly stale French bread.
But the one below is, hands-down, our favorite way to use basil this summer, a recipe I got about a decade ago with a purchase from Shepherd’s Garden Seeds*:
Butterflied Basil Shrimp
- 1 lb. large, raw shrimp, shelled & deveined, leaving tails on. Butterfly by cutting along inner curve.
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil)
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped (we actually use two or three, but we like garlic)
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, in chiffonade
- 3 Tbsp. dry vermouth (and yes, it is worth a purchase of a small bottle to have on hand just for this recipe)
- 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
- salt and pepper
Heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic, minced basil, vermouth and lemon juice. Add shrimp and sauté, stirring for 2 to 4 minutes until they all turn pink. Salt and pepper to taste. Trasnfer to a bowl and chill to let flavors blend for an hour or two.** Return to room temperature.
Serve as an appetizer to skewer with toothpicks or as salads by lining individual serving dishes with soft lettuce leaves, arranging shrimps and sauce on top and garnishing with whole basil leaves and lemon slices.
So worth a try as you’re finding uses for that end-of-the-season basil bounty. Enjoy!
*Shepherd’s Garden Seeds is unfortunately no longer in business. However, Renee Shepherd carries on the tradition with Renee’s Garden, an informative site with a wonderful line of seeds. If you’re at all like me, you’ll love the handwritten descriptions and original watercolor designs on the seed packets, and you’ll especially love that the company has signed the Safe Seed Pledge, developed by The Council for Responsible Genetics, and refuses to sell treated or GMO seed from any source. Worth a visit to the website for the recipe page alone — her cookbooks are written with the kitchen gardener in mind — and definitely worth supporting.
(And no, I’m not getting paid to say that. I don’t have any backers of any kind. Well, except Mother Nature and my family and friends who encourage me.)
** Chez us, we eat them still hot from the pan and have been known to moan in despair as the last shrimps disappeared from the plates. I have served them after chilling for guests, and the flavors are definitely more intense. However, you don’t have all that lovely liquid on your plate to soak up with slices of fresh bread — and that’s a big disadvantage. Plus, I have no patience. So my version of the end of this simple recipe is, “Eat them as soon as they come out of the pan, with a loaf of piping hot, crusty bread at hand.”