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Sunday, July 21

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Green. After being in Arizona for a few days, I'm missing the lush green of Illinois. Thankfully I'm getting home just in time to harvest lots of green from my small garden plot. Lots of basil, arugula and green leaf lettuce will be making their way into my dinners over the next few weeks. I realize not everyone is lucky enough to be able to walk downstairs and harvest dinner, but there are quite a few farmers' markets around the city with plentiful piles of greenery perfect for hot weather meals. And even if you aren't lucky enough to live near a fresh market, there will be plenty of great deals at your neighborhood store.

I've been fortunate to have four Italian women lead me through the steps in some wonderful family recipes. They've taught me the difference between sauce and gravy (gravy is a thick sauce for pasta.) And they've taught me that oregano is only for pizzas, never for pasta and that basil is for, well, everything.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different varieties of basil. The more common varieties have a lemon, anise, or cinnamon taste. The dried basil you get in the little glass bottle of the grocery store can never live up to the pungency or flavor of fresh basil, so if you've never cooked with fresh basil, I recommend you splurge on a little plant or packet and give it a try. You might be highly impressed.

One of my favorite uses for basil is pesto. Like many things, homemade pesto is so much better than anything you can buy in a glass or plastic jar. Pesto originated in Liguria, Italy. These people take this condiment so seriously that they created the Ordine della Confraternitá del Pesto (Order of Pesto Brotherhood). These pesto purists snub their noses at the use of a blender or food processor to mix the ingredients. The traditionalists use a stone mortar and a wooden pestle to first mash the garlic and salt, then they crush the pine nuts, and then add handfuls of basil until it forms a paste before adding oil and cheese. This method does coax more of the flavor out of the leaves than simply chopping the leaves to bits with a metal blade, but I prefer using modern conveniences when I make pesto.

Some people really dislike the powerful flavor of basil. If you're one of these people, you don't have to give up pesto, simply substitute arugula, spinach, or even steamed asparagus for the basil in the recipe below. If you substitute cooked asparagus you'll want to add the oil slowly, since the waterlogged asparagus could make your pesto watery.

Classic Pesto
4 cups fresh basil leaves (about 3 large bunches)
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts (toasted or raw)*
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino Sardo (or more Parmesan, but stay away from Romano)
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

Remove the stems from the basil leaves, wash and shake dry. Combine the basil, garlic, olive oil and pine nuts in your blender or food processor. You'll have to stop often to use a spatula and smoosh the basil back down to the blade. Pulse in short bursts until a paste forms. Now add the cheeses and the salt and blend until smooth. If you prefer a thinner pesto, add more olive oil. Pour into a small covered bowl, pour a small layer of olive oil on top, and store in the refrigerator for up to a week. The layer of oil will keep the pesto from drying out; when you're ready to use it, just stir until the oil is incorporated.

This goes wonderful over plain pasta for a quick meal. Or you can spread some on a piece of Italian or French bread, top with a tomato slice and maybe a slice of prosciutto for a tasty open-faced sandwich. Or you can stir a tablespoon of it into a couple of eggs and make scrambled eggs. Or you can spread it on a grilled chicken breast or piece of fish, or even just stir a spoonful into a can of soup.

*To toast pinenuts, or any nut, heat a skillet over medium-high heat and spread nuts evenly across the bottom of the skillet. Toss every minute or two and remove from heat when they become toasty brown and your neighbors are jealously sniffing outside your door. This step isn't necessary, but it adds a wonderfully rich taste.

When it gets hot, I look for ideas of things to make that require little or no heat. The following are a few no-cook, low-cook options that I've been introduced to. They all use basil, but arugula could be substituted.

Caprese Salad
This normally involves evenly cut slices of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese. My knife skills have gotten better, but I prefer cutting the cheese and the tomatoes into bite-sized cubes instead of slices since I think the flavors blend easier.

Two large tomatoes, cored and cut into eight wedges, with each wedge cut into two or three pieces
Two large balls of mozzarella or four smaller balls cut into cubes about the size of the tomatoes
8 basil leaves, piled on top of each other, rolled tightly together like a cigar then sliced across (this is called chiffonade)
1 clove of garlic, chopped fine or minced with a garlic press
1/8 cup of olive oil
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (make sure it's from Modena, otherwise it's probably just dark and over-priced red wine vinegar)
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine ingredients in a bowl, toss with your hands or large spoon to make sure everything is coated. Chill for an hour or two before serving.

Shrimp with Basil and Cherry Tomatoes
1 pound of shrimp
1 container of grape tomatoes
2 large bunches of basil (or arugula)
drizzle of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

There are few things that those bags of frozen, peeled and cleaned shrimp are good for -- this is one of them. Thaw out the bag of shrimp by running it under warm water for a few minutes. Spread the shrimp onto paper towels and pat them dry. Now take one or two larger leaves of basil and wrap it around the bend of the shrimp. Place a grape tomato (that you've washed, of course) in that bend and pinch the ends of the shrimp to hold the tomato in place. Take a toothpick and pierce it through the tail, then the tomato, then the head end of the shrimp. Continue until you run out of shrimp or tomatoes. Place them in a shallow dish and drizzle a small amount of extra virgin olive oil across them. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. This makes either a wonderful finger food dinner for two, or wonderful appetizers for several.

Basil Potato Salad
8 small red potatoes
8-12 leaves of basil, chiffonade
juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup of mayonnaise or salad dressing
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil as you scrub the potatoes clean and cut them in half and then half again. Add them to the boiling water and let them cook for about 10 minutes or until a fork slides through a piece easily without it falling apart. Drain and pour into a large bowl. In a small bowl combine the basil, lemon juice and salad dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste. Toss onto potatoes and stir to coat evenly. Cover and chill overnight, or for at least an hour before serving. You could always crumble some leftover chicken, fish, or shrimp into this to make it more of a meal.

Hot days often call for lighter meals. Hot days also cause a bountiful harvest of summer vegetables and now is the time to get wonderful, locally grown produce. The less time a fruit or vegetable takes to get to you, the longer it can stay on the plant and the more flavor that can naturally develop, and the tastier your dinner becomes. So shop local!

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paul / July 20, 2004 9:02 AM

One of those things that sounds yicky, but you just have to try is a basil julep. The only way to convince someone that it's delicious is to hand them one.

1 cup of unpacked fresh basil leaves (6-7 big ones)
2 cups of ice
2 teaspoons of sugar (or honey)

Blend it all up and drink while it's still frappey. It sounds like it might taste like one of those grass shakes, but it's really tasty. Unlike a mint julep which is better muddled (basically beaten with a stick like a mortar and pestle), the basil is best blended. I used your basic basil, but this might be interesting with cinnamon or lemon basil, which I've seen at farmer's markets. I probably wouldn't recommend thai basil for this. As for adding alcohol to this, it's much better leaving it virgin, since the sweet herby flavors are fairly subtle. Here's a pic.

Kara / July 20, 2004 9:13 AM

Cinnamon, do you know any way to store basil after you spent the whole summer growing it? it seems so sad to just try to eat all really fast. I've frozen chives, that works well, but what to do with the basil, besides make JARS and JARS of pesto?

libby / July 20, 2004 11:41 AM

my name isn't cinnamon, but you can freeze your basil as well. chop it and freeze in ice cube trays. additionally, you can dry your own basil on a cookie sheet in a very low temp. oven.

finally, and i stole this from my friend, try this: filtered water with sliced limes and whole basil leaves. super refreshing.

also, i made up this new cocktail last week. whole basil leaves crushed/smooshed up in the bottom of your cocktail glass a la mojito. tons of ice, vodka straight from the freezer and limeade (store bought or homemade). yum!

yay basil!

Sully6 / July 20, 2004 3:24 PM

Re: freezing basil.

You can freeze it but it will probably turn black. A tip I learned from a friend is to blanch the basil in a big pot of water, shock it, then lay out the individual leaves on a cookie sheet. Place the sheet in the freezer. Once leaves are frozen, store in a resealable freezer bag and use as needed.

Granted the process is a major PITA, but the leaves stay bright green, and if you do several bunches at once, you'll be set for most of the year. You can crumble frozen basil directly into your food, chop it or use it whole. I think the flavor is just about as good as fresh and about a million times better than the dried stuff you get at the grocery store.

You can also freeze parsley. I chop a whole mess of it at once and store in the freezer in a bag. No need to do the blanch-and-shock process for parsley.

Cinnamon / July 20, 2004 3:58 PM

Wow! Thanks guys! I'm grateful for the basil tips. Sully's method of freezing basil is excellent. I've always just dealt with the black frozen basil. It doesn't change the taste, just doesn't look as pretty sitting in your dinner.

Here is another way of saving basil.

If you're growing basil, you'll want to make sure to pinch off all flowers. Once the plant starts to flower the leaves take on a bitter taste. If you want your basil to be bushy instead of tall and skinny then make sure to pinch off the top few leaves on a regular basis.

Miss Mann / July 22, 2004 10:23 PM

Once upon a time I made Basil makes lovely cocktails and is nice with either Italian or Thai varities of basil.

Another really glorious thing to do with basil is:

Put on a soft cotton dress.
Get a real tomato.
Dice it, mince a glove or so of garlic, wet with olive oil, a put on a bit of salt and pepper.

let it sit on the counter for a while.

Boil some water. Put some pasta in.

While that does it thing, take your tomato mixture and throw in as much chopped fresh basil as you feel like. Dice some soft white cheese (brie is always nice)

Drain your pasta and put the goodness on top.

Pour a glass of white, swirl your cotton skirt and enjoy.

Miss Elsie / July 24, 2004 8:04 AM

I'm new to having real live basil and all the above has me ready to go out, pinch some leaves and experiment. Have heard that coating the leaves with olive oil before freezing helps prevent blackening. Will try this too.


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