Simply Fresh by Julie Wern

Featured Item—Basil

Few herbs seem as ubiquitous or as well-loved as sweet basil.  It is the quintessential herb of high summer, making plain or ordinary foods fairly sing with flavor.  It is a member of the Ocimum genus, along with thyme, rosemary, oregano and mint.  Although it appears to have originated in India, it is central to Italian, Southeast Asian, and Northeast Asian cuisine.  It was largely popularized in this country with the introduction of Italian pesto–a mixture of basil, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts.  Today pesto is widely used to dress pasta, salads, grilled vegetables, and sandwiches.  It is hard to imagine a life today without our beloved pesto!
Basil is an herb that grows best in the hot humid heat of mid-summer.  However, it is a remarkably delicate herb in other ways.  It’s flavor quickly dissipates in cooking, so it best used raw or at the very end of the cooking process.  Keeping clipped basil fresh is a challenge.  It is best to have some stem available so that you can place it in a glass of cool water and simply leave it on the counter at room temperature.  Refrigerating basil tends to make it turn an unsavory black quite quickly, although you can slow this process down by wrapping basil leaves in damp paper towels before placing them in the refrigerator.  Do not wash the leaves until just before using or else they become wilted and can turn black even more quickly.
I was interested to learn that basil has been considered for centuries to have medicinal qualities, particularly digestive and antibiotic.  In general, basil is quite a healthful herb, offering good amounts of many vitamins and minerals and being a good source for fiber and protein.
I decided not to give a formal recipe for pesto, because frankly, pesto is one of the most forgiving items you can make in the kitchen.  What you put into it can completely depend on what you like or what you don’t, or even what you happen to have on hand.
Traditionally, basil pesto contains handfuls of fresh basil leaves, a clove or two of garlic, about a ¼ cup of toasted pine nuts, and about ¼- ½ cup of Parmesan cheese, pureed with about ¼ cup or more of olive oil until a nice paste forms. However, you can use more or less garlic, completely leave out the cheese, or even use substitutes for the pine nuts, if you are so inclined.  Many different nuts are great substitutes for pine nuts in pesto, such as walnuts, pecans, or almonds.  You can even cut the basil with other herbs such as parsley, if pure basil is too much for you.
What I would like to focus on in this post, rather than a recipe for pesto per se, is pesto’s many potential uses in the kitchen.  Here are some ideas for glorious pesto paste!
  •             a condiment for sandwiches, especially paninis
  •             mixed with a bit of pasta cooking liquid and tossed with fresh cooked pasta
  •             tossed with grilled vegetables and/or chicken
  •             stirred into soups
  • made into a vinaigrette by mixing with vinegar and a bit of olive oil.  Toss vinaigrette with lettuce, cooled cooked pastas, grilled vegetables, and/or grains for wonderful salads.
  •             a topping for cooked fish or meats
  •             mixed with ricotta and used as a stuffing for ravioli or eggplant roll-ups
  •             on pizzas
  •             in deviled eggs or other egg dishes
  •             baked on garlic bread
  •             mixed with sour cream and a bit of mayo to make a great dip
  •             tossed with cooked potatoes
  •             spread on lamb roast about halfway through cooking
    on burgers
It is tempting to make pesto when basil is abundant, but don’t forget about other wonderful ways to use this herb.  It is excellent…
  • in salad dressings
  • layered in tomato/mozzarella salad or tossed with other tomato salads
  • used in Asian stir-fries or various kinds of curries
  • placed in sandwiches
  • tossed with pastas
  • used to infuse olive oil
  • blended into white sauces like Béchamel
  • cooked in marinara sauce
  • dried and used in other everyday sauces
I have come up with a few recipes below that offer other alternatives to using basil in pesto.
This recipe makes use of the wonderful cherry tomatoes that we now have coming out of the farm.  Don’t forget that you can buy your corn fresh at the Holcomb Farm Store during the CSA distribution hours.

Fresh Corn, Cherry Tomato & Basil Salad            Serves 4

– 3 ears cooked corn, kernels removed with a sharp knife
– 1/2 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
– 3 large scallions, (or 1/3 cup minced sweet onion)
– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
– 1 clove garlic, crushed
– 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
– 1/2 teaspoon stone ground mustard
– salt and pepper to taste
– 3 tablespoons minced fresh basil


1. In a small bowl, mix white wine vinegar, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and mustard.  Mix well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.
2. Mix corn kernels, tomatoes, and scallions in a medium bowl.  Add dressing and basil.  Stir to coat.
This pizza is pure summer heaven.  Don’t overcook it once the toppings are on it.  You want the crust cooked through and the cheese melted, but the tomato still fresh and fairly firm.  It helps to eat this pizza with a knife and fork.

Fresh Tomato and Basil Pizza           Serves 4-6

– prepared pizza dough for a large pizza, room temperature
– 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, divided
– kosher salt
– 2 cloves garlic, minced
– 2 medium ripe tomatoes, (or one very large) thinly sliced
– 6-8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, grated
– 3 tablespoons fresh basil, divided
Place rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 500℉.   Brush a large pizza pan with olive oil (I prefer the ones with holes–they lead to a crispier crust).  Roll out and stretch pizza dough to fit pan.  Brush with olive oil and prick all over with a fork.  Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt.  Bake for about 6 minutes, or until crust is beginning to turn golden on the edges.
Remove from oven and quickly sprinkle pizza with minced garlic.  Arrange tomato slices evenly around pizza.  Sprinkle with half of basil and then with the cheese (you don’t want too much cheese or the pizza will simply steam and not bake up crisp).  Bake for an additional 4-6 minutes or so, until pizza dough is browned and cheese has melted.  Don’t bake too long or tomato slices will release too much of their juices.  Sprinkle with remaining basil.  Slice and serve.
Thai food is another cuisine in which basil really shines.  This recipe is very easy and super tasty.  You can buy Thai Red Curry Paste and fish sauce in the Asian section of most grocery stores.  If you are not a mussel fan, substitute with shrimp or fish.

Thai Red Curry Mussels with Basil           Serves 4

– 2 pounds mussels, scrubbed and debearded
– 2 teaspoons peanut oil
– 1 shallot, minced
– 1 teaspoon grated ginger
– 2 cloves garlic, crushed
– 1 13.5 ounce can coconut milk, light is fine
– 1 tablespoon Thai Red Curry Paste, like “Thai Kitchen” brand
– 1 1/2 – 2 tablespoon fish sauce
– 1/4 cup minced fresh basil


1. While cleaning the mussels, discard any that remain open after they have been lightly tapped.
In a large pot, heat peanut oil over medium-low heat.  Add shallots and cook 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.  Add ginger and garlic, and cook, stirring continuously, for one minute.  Add coconut milk, red curry paste,  and 1 1/2 Tablespoons fish sauce.  Taste and add additional fish sauce if necessary.  Bring to a gentle boil.
2.  Gently place the mussels in the curry broth and stir gently to combine. Cover the pot and cook for 5-8 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until mussels have mostly all opened.  Remove from heat.  Sprinkle with basil.  Discard muscles that have not opened.  Serve in shallow bowls with both a fork and a spoon.
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