Basil leaves vary in size from 1/2 inch to 5 inches and in color from bright green to deep purple. The popular herb appeals to diverse cultural cuisines and comes in several flavor varieties - lemon (Indonesia), clove (China), pepper (Thai) and, my favorite, the anise/licorice flavor of Genovese (Italian sweet) basil. One of the more popular uses of basil is in making pesto, a blend of basil with oil and cheese (see recipes). Serve pesto over baked potatoes, or spread over toasted baguette slices or with pasta as an alternative to red and white sauces.
Oh, and basil is counted among the world's healthiest foods: Its active constituents called flavonoids provide cellular protection; its volatile oils have "anti-bacterial" properties; and it is a consistent source of vital nutrients like vitamins K and A, iron, calcium, dietary fiber, manganese, magnesium and vitamin C.
Basil and tomatoes are perfect culinary mates, complimenting one another in taste, texture and color. Summer isn't summer unless you enjoy at least one serving of fresh basil, tomatoes and mozzarella. If you've never made your own, you must create it. Or, be adventurous this summer and try one new basil-featured dish. Your family will appreciate it and reward you with this one-word cheer: "Sweet!"
Pesto: A Simple Blend (1 cup)
In a blender or food processor, blend 2 cups fresh basil leaves, 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese, 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/3 cup pine nuts, 3 medium garlic cloves, minced to form a loose paste. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Orange, Lemon & Basil Salad (4-5 servings):
3-4 oranges, preferably blood, navel or Cara Cara ( about 1 to 1-1/4 lb. total)
1 lemon (about 10 oz. total)
1/4 cup thinly slices red onion
4 fresh basil leaves (about 3 inches each) rinsed and finely shredded
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1. As you work, hold fruit over a bowl to catch any juices. With a sharp knife, cut and discard peels and white membranes from the oranges and lemon. Cut oranges into 1/4-inch slices, crosswise and lemons into 1/8-inch slices, crosswise. Discard seeds along the way.
2. Overlap orange slices on a platter, then overlap lemon slices on top. Pour captured juices over slices, then sprinkle basil and onions over fruit. Drizzle olive oil over all; season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve cold.
Southwestern Shrimp Pasta (3-4 servings)
1 lb. Roma tomatoes
6 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained
1 oz. fresh jalapeno chilies, seeded and sliced
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
3 tsp olive oil
3 Tbsp minced shallots
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry sherry (or water)
1/2 lb. dried bow-tie pasta
1 lb. (22-24 per pound) shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 Tbsp parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Rinse, core and coarsely chop the Roma tomatoes. Put 2/3 of the tomatoes into a food processor or blender. Add dried tomatoes, chilies and basil, then puree.
2. In a 10 to 12-inch fry pan over medium heat, stir oil, shallots and garlic for about 2 minutes or until shallots are limp. Add remaining chopped tomatoes, pureed mixture and sherry. Simmer sauce over low heat for 15-20 min., stirring occasionally. (Add a little water if mixture sticks.)
3. Cook pasta in about 3 quarts boiling water for 8-10 min. or until barely tender to the bite. Drain and place in a wide serving bowl. As pasta cooks, rinse and drain shrimp, then add to the sauce. Stir often until shrimp is opaque but still moist, about 3-5 min.
4. Mix sauce with pasta, sprinkle with parsley; add salt and pepper to taste.
Basil, Tomato and Mozzarella Frittata (serves 2)
1/2 medium onion, minced
3 medium cloves garlic, pressed
2 Tbsp chicken broth
1 cup thinly sliced Crimini mushrooms
1/2 medium tomato, seeds removed, and diced
3 large eggs
3 Tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup mozzarella cheese, grated 1. Heat 1 Tbsp broth in a 10-inch stainless steel skillet. Sauté onion over medium-low heat 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
2. Add garlic, mushrooms and sauté for another 2 minutes. Add 1 Tbsp broth, tomato, salt, pepper and cook for another minute. Stir well, and gently scrape pan with a wooden spoon to remove any slight burning.
3. Beat eggs well, and season with salt and pepper. Mix in chopped basil. Pour eggs over vegetables evenly, sprinkle in the mozzarella cheese, and turn heat to low. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until firm. Cut into wedges and serve.
Jacqui lives in San Ramon with her pug, Nina Simone, and volumes of cookbooks and recipes. Her column runs every other week. E-mail her at email@example.com.