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Bumper Crop: Basil

Last in our series on ways in which we like to celebrate the summer’s bounty. Previously: Peaches, Tomatoes, Zucchini, Corn.

(Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)

As William Shakespeare so wisely said, “Some are born with basil, some achieve basil, and some have basil thrust upon them.”

An Italian friend of mine was born with basil. Her father grew it in their Brooklyn back yard, where somehow it thrived despite what he described as “total neglect.” I envy her good fortune, because I never tasted the fresh herb until I was in my 20s, when I had it thrust upon me. For a group dinner, I was assigned to make pesto, though I’d never heard of the stuff. It was an eye-opening exercise.

Now I achieve basil, in a small sunny spot next to my house. I plant it, water it, pinch the stems so each plant grows full and bushy. And then at some point I realize I’m going to have to stop admiring it and start using it.

Fortunately, this summer staple is at home in a variety of dishes, for any course and any meal, including breakfast. When your own plants need harvesting, or when you can’t resist carrying home a big bunch from the farmers market, there’s no shortage of things you can do with it. Here are some ideas.

Condiments and flavorings: These are great culinary devices, versatile and often storable, and even small amounts can carry a lot of great basil flavor. Infuse your own basil oil: Blanch 1 cup of leaves in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain, rinse in cold water to stop the cooking and pat dry; transfer to a food processor with 1/2 cup of oil and process until pureed. You can mix the finished product into vinaigrettes, drizzle it over vegetables or blend it into mashed potatoes. This delicious basil mayonnaise recipe, from Cindy Brown at Fairfax County’s Green Spring Gardens, is great on sandwiches as a jazzed-up replacement for regular mayonnaise. I’ve also mixed it into egg salad and the stuffing for deviled eggs. A small log of compound basil butter kept in the freezer is instantly available for melting on chicken breasts or fish fillets as they bake or broil, or slathering onto fresh corn. Make it by combining 2 tablespoons finely chopped basil with 1 stick of softened butter, then season with salt and pepper, chill slightly, gently roll into a log between sheets of plastic wrap, and freeze. On the sweet side, basil syrup is great for drizzling over fresh melon or stone fruits. Add another dimension by substituting lime juice (up to 1/4 cup) for some of the water in the syrup mixture and adding a little freshly grated lime zest to the mix.

Rustic Tomato and Basil Pie. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

Appetizers: I loved the idea of Domenica Marchetti’s Goat Cheese and Pesto Bombe, which scored a big success when she took it to a dinner party. It requires a little artistry, but the result is eye-catching. An even heartier starter is Rustic Tomato and Basil Pie, one of the finalists in this year's Top Tomato contest. Ruggedly pretty, and impressive in its simplicity, it can also be a main course.

Salads: Caprese, of course, is the summer classic: thickly sliced ripe tomato, olive oil, silky fresh mozzarella, basil leaves. No recipe needed. No improvement needed, either.

Sauces: Pesto is king, and everyone has their favorite rendition. I make a lot of it every year, place it in resealable plastic food storage bags, push out all the air and press the bags flat and thin before freezing. Then I can easily snap off however much I need. Oh, one thing: I don’t add the Parmesan to any pesto that’s going into the freezer; I just grate some into whatever I’ve got thawing. Pesto has limitless uses with pasta. Use it as a sort of base coat under the sauce when you make pizza.

Grilled Basil-Brined Chicken. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

Main courses: We all know that basil loves tomatoes, and tomatoes return the love. That means the herb goes great in all sorts of red pasta sauces and other tomato-based concoctions. But you don't need tomato to bring out basil's best. Try it in a stir-fry, such as Shrimp With Mango and Basil. Or slather it on meat, as in this roasted lamb recipe. David Hagedorn's Grilled Basil-Brined Chicken uses a marinade to give chicken breasts a powerful basil punch.

Desserts: All the swooning over savory-herbs-for-dessert might be getting a little tiresome, but at the heart of this recurring trendlet is the reality that there are terrific herb-fruit pairings to be made. I was blown away by the Blueberry Basil Ice Cream that recipe editor Bonnie Benwick brought in to the newsroom. She tasted it at a restaurant and buttonholed the chef for the recipe. And Grilled Peaches With Basil Mascarpone is more proof, if you needed it, that basil and fruit can be BFFs.

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  September 4, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Bumper Crop , Recipes  | Tags: Bumper Crop, Jane Touzalin, basil, recipes  
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Next: Groundwork: Fig Season

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