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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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A friend sent me an email last week saying that she'd been to the farmer's market and had come across several varieties of basil. Not knowing what to do with all of them, she opted for the most typical variety — which is usually called "sweet" basil — and made pesto from it. "But there must be something else one can do with basil, right? And what about all those other varieties. What do you do with those?"

Well, you can make pesto from any type of basil. But if you don't like black licorice, then you'd probably not like Thai or anise basil, even if it was turned into pesto. And if you find cinnamon or lemon bitter, then you won't like those either.

But my friend is right, there must be something more to do with basil than turn it into pesto. And with somewhere between 50 and 150 varieties (huge disagreements about what denotes a species, and basil tends to interbreed easily) there must be a variety of dishes that would work best with one type of basil over another.

Despite there being dozens of varieties of basil, there are a handful that are very different from each other. Sweet basil is the kind that you're most likely to find in grocery stores. I'll use it as a reference base for the other types of basil you'll likely find. Lemon basil is similar to sweet basil and can be used interchangably, but it will add a lemony flavor and aroma that will be very noticeable. Thai basil has smaller leaves that tend to be a bit more purple than green, and this what you'll likely find in used in most Thai dishes. Cinnamon basil has a much milder taste than any of the others, and the cinnamon smell seems to disappear when it is mixed with vinegars or cooked. But it does retain a tiny hint of cinnamon spiciness.

Any of these varieties can be made into pesto. But I think the lemon or sweet basil will provide your most pleasing options. The Thai and cinnamon basil are just a little too strong to meld well with the other, gentler flavors in the pesto. However, Thai basil's punchy flavor makes a great Coconut and Basil Marinade for chicken or tofu. Cinnamon basil's spiciness matches fruit really well in Fruit and Cinnamon Basil Chutney. Lemon basil goes great in Baked Whitefish with Lemon Basil. And sweet basil goes great in Orange and Sweet Basil Black Bean Salad.

Coconut and Basil Chicken or Tofu
1 cup of coconut milk
1/2 cup of chopped thai basil
1 scallion, minced (keep the white and green parts separate)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2-inch piece of ginger, freshly ground
salt to taste
2 teaspoons of sugar or honey
1 teaspoon of Thai fish sauce
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
1/2 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast or thighs, cut into cubes or
1/2 pound of deep-fried tofu cut into cubes
1 jalapeno pepper, chopped fine (to reduce the heat, remove the seeds)
Salt and pepper
chopped cilantro for garnish
2 tablespoons of toasted coconut for garnish
lime slices for garnish
4 cups of cooked white basmati rice

Combine all of the ingredients except for the green part of the scallion, chicken (or tofu), cilantro and lime in the blender and puree until it is smooth. Place a skillet over medium-high heat. While it heats, sprinkle the chicken or tofu with a little salt and pepper. Add the vegetable oil to the skillet, let it heat and then add the protein. Cook for a few minutes and then sprinkle the jalapeno in the skillet. Toss occasionally until the chicken is almost cooked through or the tofu is warmed. Pour the coconut sauce over the chicken or tofu and cook for a few minutes until the sauce just starts to bubble. Once it is cooked through, pour the chicken and sauce over the rice. Sprinkle with the garnish as desired and serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.

Fruit and Cinnamon Basil Chutney
2 cups of fresh peach or mango cubes
1/2 cup of fresh or canned pineapple
1 mandarin orange, divided into slices (canned is OK)
juice from one large lemon
zest from 1 lemon
3/4 cup of sugar
1/2 cup of chopped cinnamon basil

Place a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the fruit, lemon juice, zest and sugar, and stir to combine. Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened considerably. Add the basil and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve with a bowl of rice and some sauteed chicken, turkey, pork or tofu. Or you could pour it over a brie before baking it. This will keep in a tightly sealed jar for several weeks.

Baked Whitefish and Zucchini with Lemon Basil
4 6-ounce fillets of tilapia or a similar white fish
2 tablespoons of olive oil (or more as needed)
salt and pepper to taste
2 small zucchini that have been sliced into 1/4" or 3/8" thick circles
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup of chopped Lemon Basil
zest from 1 lemon

Rinse the fish and pat dry with paper towels. While patting, feel for remaining bones in the fish and remove. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper. Place a skillet over medium heat and add the oil once it is hot. Slide two of the fillets into the skillet and let it cook on each side for 4-5 minutes, or until the center is opaque and the fish is flakey. Cook the remaining two pieces of fish and set aside until later. Add more olive oil to the pan if needed before adding the zucchini rounds. Sprinkle the lemon zest and basil along with a little salt and pepper over the zucchini. Cover and let it steam for just a minute before tossing. Place the fish on top, sprinkle the fish with the lemon juice, and cover for a few more minutes to let the fish warm back up and the zucchini to finish cooking. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.

Orange and Sweet Basil Black Bean Salad
1 15-ounce can of black beans
1 large garlic clove, minced or run through a press
zest from 1 large orange
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup of tightly packed basil leaves cut into a chiffonade
1/4 cup of grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese

Drain the can of black beans and rinse the beans. Leave them in a colander to drain while you prepare the remaining ingredients. Place the beans and all of the ingredients except for the basil and cheese in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir frequently for 7-10 minutes, or until the beans are warmed through. Sprinkle the basil over the top and stir to combine. Serve immediately and sprinkle the cheese on top.

Optional: Boil 4 ounces of macaroni or other similarly sized pasta. Once it is cooked, toss it with the beans before serving. This would also taste great with whole wheat pasta or brown rice.
Makes 4 side dishes.

Basil season signifies the peak of fresh later-summer/early-fall bounty. Not only are there fantastic things available at the farmer's markets, but there are a lot of them. This is the time of year when local produce is bountiful. You're likely to come across items at the farmer's market that are different than what you're used to seeing, just like my friend with the basil. I encourage you to not be afraid of them. If you see something that you're not sure what to do with it, turn to the internet, or ask the farmer you're buying it from what they would do. Or, of course, you could leave a comment here.

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bean / September 9, 2008 7:40 AM

In years past my wife has been known to make an incredibly delicious purple basil jell. Unfortunately, we lost our crop this year when the neighbors waterproofed their building : (


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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