Make the most of basil, summer’s favorite herb
The garden gods have been good to me so far this summer, even if the weather has been something of a nightmare for those of us without central air.
Despite a long string of 90-degree days and not enough rain, my basil is thriving. Thanks to soft and tasty leaves at the ready, pesto is making regular appearances on my table. Being stuck at home with an office overlooking my garden has undoubtedly helped because it is hard not to notice when my plants need a drink.
Basil loves the sun and a well-drained spot in the garden, but it also grows well in a pot on a bright, sunny window sill. It’s a quick harvest, with leaves ready for picking in as little as three or four weeks.
If you don’t grow the fragrant green herb, you can find it easily enough at farmers markets or the grocery store, both in plant form for easy snipping and in bunches. Basil has long been considered the “king of herbs” because it is so flavorful and versatile.
Native to parts of Asia and Africa, it’s grown all over the world and used in a variety of cuisines, although the sweet variety (Ocimum bacilicum) and its close cousin Genovese basil are most associated with Italian and Mediterranean cooking.
Basil plays a supporting role in any number of pasta dishes, and it pairs so wonderfully with tomatoes that it is a key player not just in caprese salad and classic marinara sauce but also on a pizza margherita as a salute to the green stripe in Italy’s flag.
It was considered a token of love in Italian folklore. If a man accepted a sprig of sweet basil from a woman, it was believed that he’d fall helplessly in love with her.
Thai basil, conversely, has a licorice flavor, making it a go-to choice for Asian dishes. Another popular variety, lemon basil, has a noticeable citrus flavor that lends itself to seafood. Purple basil, in addition to adding a beautiful pop of color to dishes, has a slightly spicy flavor and is good in salads or when steeped in vinegar.
Basil needs some TLC when it is brought home from the market or taken inside from the garden. It does a lot better stored like a bouquet of flowers in a glass of water on the counter at room temperature. But the leaves also can be wrapped in paper towels, placed in a plastic bag and slipped into the fridge. Just know they keep only for a day or so when chilled.
If you’ve got it in spades, consider freezing it. You’ll have to blanch the leaves first to preserve its beautiful bright green color and then pat them dry with a dish cloth or paper towel. Place them in a freezer-safe container, separated into layers with wax or parchment paper. Or puree fresh basil leaves with a little olive oil (1 tablespoon per 1 cup of basil) and freeze the mixture in an ice cube tray.
But that’s for a later day. To use the basil immediately, we’ve got some tasty ideas.
Making pesto is a no-brainer. But don’t be content to simply toss the garlicky sauce made with pine nuts and olive oil with pasta. Spread it on sandwiches, dollop it on top of pizza, toss it with steamed or grilled vegetables, or whisk it with mayo into chicken, egg or tuna salad. You also can marry pesto with butter as an herby topping for corn on the cob.
If you’re looking for a basil-heavy main dish without ties to Italy, consider a spicy stir-fry. Thai chicken basil comes together in less time than it takes to order takeout. Thai chilies can make your palate burn, but spicy food actually helps to cool you off when it is hot because it makes you sweat.
And for dessert, nothing shouts summer like a cool and creamy lime pie. Take it to the next level by adding some basil to the filling. Sweet basil has a hint of mint that pairs exceptionally well with citrus, and everyone loves a bite of something sweet to close out the day.
You might not be able to take that trip to Key West this year for obvious reasons, or anywhere else where there’s sand and water, but you can still eat like you did.
CORN ON THE COB WITH BASIL PESTO BUTTER
Pesto is super easy to make, and it can dress up so many more things than a plate of pasta. For a spectacular summer taste, we suggest mixing it with softened butter to use as a spread for corn on the cob.
Pesto butter also is wonderful on grilled meats or fish, potatoes or on toasted bread. The sky’s the limit.
2 cups packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup olive oil, or more to taste
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
6 ears freshly shucked corn
4 tablespoons softened butter
Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish, optional
Make pesto: In blender or food processor, combine all ingredients except salt and pulse until smooth but still a bit chunky, about 1 minute. Add a little more olive oil if it seems too thick. Taste and add salt as needed.
If not using right away, store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks. You also freeze the pesto in ice cube trays; add a drop of olive oil to the top of each cube and cover tightly with plastic wrap.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add corn and cook 5 minutes.
While corn is cooking, mix softened butter with 2 tablespoons pesto.
Brush (or slather) pesto butter on top of cooked corned. If desired, sprinkle buttered ears with grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.
Serves 3 to 6.
— Gretchen McKay
BASIL-KISSED LIME PIE
This five-ingredient pie starts with a homemade graham cracker crust. But you could swap out the graham crackers for 1 1/2 cups of crushed chocolate wafers. Or use a store-bought crust.
I used a 10-inch pan so the filling didn’t quite come to the top edge (a 9-inch pan is ideal), but it allowed for more and slightly thinner slices. You can either pipe whipped cream around the perimeter of the pie or cover the pie completely with it so you get whipped cream with every bite.
10 full sheets of graham crackers
5 tablespoons melted unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
3 teaspoons grated lime zest
3 egg yolks
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice, from about 6 limes
1/4 cup thinly sliced basil (about 12 large leaves)
1 cup heavy or whipping cream chilled, for garnish
Lime slices, for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Make crust: Finely grind graham crackers in a food processor or in a large plastic zip-close bag using a rolling pin. You should get about 11/2 cups of crumbs.
Mix the graham cracker crumbs, melted butter, and sugar together with a rubber spatula in a medium bowl until well combined. It will be coarse and sandy. Press the crust mixture into the bottom of a pie pan dish and slightly up the sides.
Bake crust for 8 minutes; remove and allow to cool slightly.
Prepare filling: Whisk the lime zest and egg yolks together in a medium bowl until creamy and well blended. Whisk in the sweetened condensed milk, then the lime juice. Gently fold in basil.
Bake pie until the center is set but still jiggles a little, about 15 to 17 minutes. Cool to room temperature then chill in the fridge for at least 3 hours.
When ready to serve, whip heavy or whipping cream with a mixer or in the bowl of a stand mixer outfitted with a whisk until stiff peaks form. Spoon whipped cream into a plastic zip-close bag, and snip off a corner. Pipe the whipped cream on the edges of the pie, zigzag it evenly across the top or simply serve it alongside the pie in a pretty bowl.
If you like, you also can garnish the pie with thin lime slices.
Serves 6 to 8.
— Gretchen McKay
SPICY THAI CHICKEN BASIL
Stir-fries are good any time of year because they come together quickly after you chop all the ingredients. They make even more sense in summer because then you don’t have to turn on your oven and heat up the kitchen. This one pairs chicken and green beans in a rich and spicy sauce punctuated with lots of sliced basil.
Authentic Thai basil chicken, not surprisingly, calls for Thai basil, a variety that has a slightly spicy, anise-like flavor. I substituted Italian basil because that’s what’s growing in my garden. It was still delicious.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons sugar
1 red bell pepper, chopped
8 ounces green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 small yellow onion or 2 shallots, cut into thin slices
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 fresh red Thai chilies, deseeded and finely chopped, or or 1 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes
11/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, coarsely chopped
11/2 to 2 cups lightly packed basil leaves
Jasmine rice, to serve
Heat the oil in a wok or heavy, high-walled skillet over high heat. As the wok is heating up, whisk together the oyster sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce and sugar until well-combined. Set aside.
Add the bell pepper and green beans to the hot wok. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Stir in the onion, garlic and chilies. Cook until fragrant, about 1 more minute.
Add in the chicken and stir-fry, breaking apart as you go, until beginning to brown, about 2 minutes.
Pour in the prepared sauce. Continue to cook until the sauce begins to glaze onto the meat, about 1 to 2 more minutes.
Stir in the Thai basil leaves and cook until the chicken is completely cooked through, the basil is wilted, and the liquid has mostly evaporated. Serve warm with rice. Taste and add more chili flakes if it is not adequately spicy.
— Adapted from hostthetoast.com