5 weird but really tasty things to make using basil
If you only think pesto when you think of basil, Jenny has some recipes to tickle your tastebuds.
Words: Jenny Somervell
“What do you think of the idea of making basil ice cream?” I asked the husband-chef. “Not much,” muttered Ken, who hates ice cream and anything cold. I had found one for Thai basil ice cream, with mouth-watering descriptions of a fresh, peppy flavour with hints of anise and mint. A basil and lime ice cream sounded equally appealing but I needed someone to make it. I left it for a couple of days and then tried another tack.
“Wouldn’t it be fun to do something really different with basil?” “I would have to defrost the freezer,” replied Ken, in his ‘we all know how much fun that is’ sort of voice.
If he’d wanted to create an obstacle then this worked. The freezer was also the last resting place of at least half a dozen beer bottles I accidentally exploded while trying to get them to perfect, pre-slushy coldness. Dollops of beery frost mixed with bits of glass would have to be cleaned out, a treacherous job, and not even the prospect of homemade ice cream enticed me.
“How about chocolate basil truffles?” Googling had revealed a swathe of calorific basil and chocolate recipes: basil cake, chocolate basil brownies, a basil martini, a chocolate basil torte, and chocolate basil truffles. Apparently a chocolate-basil pairing is rather like chocolate and mint, but with more bite and body. This had more appeal for Ken, and a few hours later some decadent balls of richness appear on the bench. They were surprisingly good (see page 73), but I’ll warn you, one creamy-rich bite and you’ll feel the cholesterol settling in your arteries. These had to be distributed quickly, or I was going to turn into a hippopotamus. Weighed down by the thought of the exercise required to balance these calories, I ask my chef-niece Janet André for some healthier ideas.
Janet came up with some intriguing suggestions including a fruit salad with basil, mint, pomegranate, watermelon, peaches and strawberries. This would be all my favourite summer fruits combined with my favourite summer herbs. After substituting peaches for the pomegranate he couldn’t obtain, Ken paired it with fresh whipped cream and I settled for vanilla bean yoghurt. This was summer at its best. Divine.
Janet’s suggestion of a basil and lemon pasta salad turned out to be the perfect summer after-work fare, tasting even better the next day for lunch. The basil experiment resulted in five great recipes and I got a happy ending.
Two weeks after my initial suggestions, I was delighted to come home from work to a few, less essential foodstuffs from the freezer tipped into a chilly bin for the night, the new electric mixer getting its first workout, and a bowl of green creamy deliciousness, the long-awaited basil ice cream, waiting. Fortunately, I am glad to say the sacrifice was worth it or I would have never heard the end of it. Basil ice cream is a unique taste experience and just as delicious as I thought it would be.
WHAT BASIL WANTS
Basil is a tropical plant and requires consistent warm temperatures (over 15°C) or it will sulk. When day and night temperatures drop below 15°C, basil grows poorly; below 10°C it stops growing altogether. In these conditions, and in cooler climates, a greenhouse, windowsill or conservatory is the better option. A well-drained soil is necessary, but also plenty of moisture to keep active lush growth.
3 TIPS TO GETTING THE BEST OUT OF YOUR BASIL
Hopefully you have some healthy basil plants to harvest for experimenting.
• If the young shoots are picked from a young age, a bushy habit is encouraged, leaf production continues at a high level, and flowering is delayed.
• Leaves need to be handled carefully as they bruise easily. Large leaves can be either shredded into small pieces or cut with a very sharp knife. Small leaves on bush basils can be picked and used whole.
• If possible, pick basil just before use, or alternatively keep leaves fresh in a closed container so they don’t wilt.
WHICH BASIL IS BEST?
• There are over 100 varieties of basil (Ocimum sp), but you’ll only find a few in garden centres.
• Most recipes usually call for sweet basil.
• Genovese basils are a variety of sweet basil from Genoa in northern Italy, with a stronger flavour for making pesto.
• Other basils are interesting, but can have strong aftertastes. Our successes include Mrs Burns lemon, which has a refreshing citrus zing, although it is a less vigorous plant.
• Thai basil is useful in Asian cooking.
• Varieties of the small bush basils (Ocimum minimum) produce tiny leaves, and are useful for salads and garnishes, as they don’t need chopping which discolours the leaves. There are 16 options in the Kings Seeds catalogue.
RECIPE: BASIL & SUMMER FRUIT SALAD
-Zest & juice of a lemon
-3-4 yellow peaches
-Half a watermelon
-4-6 basil sprigs (about ½ cup loosely packed leaves)
-1-2 mint leaves
-½ cup pomegranate juice (or other juice as available)
Put the lemon zest and juice in a bowl. Peel and stone the peaches and cut into bite-sixed chunks, and roll the chunks in the lemon juice. Scoop the watermelon out of the skin with a melon ball scoop (if you have one) or ice cream scoop if, like me, you don’t. Set aside half the scoopings for other eating, and mix the other half with the peaches. Top the strawberries and cut into quarters (or smaller, depending on size) and mix with the other fruit. Destalk the basil and mint leaves and process with the juice in a blender until finely chopped. Pour the juice and chopped leaves over the fruit and mix well. Cut a slice of skin off the base of the watermelon skin to create a level base for the watermelon ‘bowl’ to sit on. Spoon the fruit salad into the watermelon bowl, heaping as much fruit as possible on top. Pour the juice and herb mixture over the fruit until the juice fills the watermelon bowl. Set aside on a plate to catch any juice leakage until ready to serve.
RECIPE: BASILICIOUS ICE CREAM
Things go faster if you can put the cream and mascarpone in the freezer for a couple of hours before you start so that they are really cold but not quite frozen.
-1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
-zest & juice of 1 lemon
-1 cup castor sugar
Put the castor sugar through the blender to remove lumps and reduce it to a finer powder if possible, then add the basil leaves and blend until finely chopped. Add the lemon zest and juice and blend again – the sugar should resemble green wet sand. Set aside in the fridge or freezer while you whip the cream until stiff. Separately beat the mascarpone until smooth and then add in the whipped cream. Add the sugar and basil and beat until fluffy. Put the mixing bowl full of mixture in the freezer. Every 30 minutes or so, separate the mixture from the sides of the bowl and whip briefly before returning the bowl to the freezer to ensure the mixture freezes evenly. After three hours or so freezing (or at bed-time) whip the mixture one last time then transfer it into a storage container, smooth the top, push into the corners, cover and freeze overnight or for at least 3 hours.
RECIPE: BASIL AND LEMON PASTA SALAD
-4 cups pasta (spirals, shells, elbows etc), cooked and cooled
-1-2 tbsp oil
-2 cloves garlic
-1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
-A few sprigs of fresh parsley and thyme, about 1 tbsp of each
-zest & juice of a lemon
-¾ cup olive oil
-¼ tsp salt
-fresh ground black pepper
Top and tail the courgettes, cut into quarters lengthwise, then into 2-3cm sticks. Heat a heavy skillet, then add 1-2 tbsp of oil and bring to heat. Crush the garlic into the hot oil and toss briefly before adding in the courgette. Cook on high heat, stirring frequently until the courgettes are browned, around 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Destalk the basil, parsley and thyme, then process together in a blender with the olive oil, lemon zest and juice, salt and a generous grind of pepper until well chopped and mixed. Mix together with the cooled courgette and cooled pasta in a bowl and set aside, covered until ready to serve.
RECIPE: BASIL YOGHURT CAKE WITH STRAWBERRY GLAZE
The trick is keep the hungry people away from the cake until the icing is set.
-1 cup basil leaves, loosely packed
-¾ cup unflavoured or lightly flavoured
-1½ cups plain flour
-1 cup sugar
-3 tsp baking powder
-zest & juice of 1 lemon
-½ tsp salt
Pre-heat the oven to 175°C. Put the sugar and basil in the blender and whiz until the basil is finely chopped and the sugar resembles green sand. Cream the butter and basil sugar together, add the lemon zest and juice, then the eggs and yogurt – I used vanilla bean as it was what was in the fridge – and mix well. Sieve the dry ingredients together, then add to the batter, mixing well. Pour into a prepared baking tin and bake until cooked, about 45 minutes. Ice with your preferred icing. Ken used 5 strawberries blended with a cup of sugar (50:50 granulated and icing sugar as we ran out of granulated) and iced while the cake was still warm.
RECIPE: DARK CHOCOLATE & BASIL TRUFFLES
-4 tbsp loosely packed fresh basil leaves
-1 tbsp sour cream
-½ cup cream
-200g dark chocolate
-2 tsp sugar
-½ tsp vanilla extract
-1-2 tbsp cocoa
Put the basil, sour cream, and a quarter of a cup of cream in a blender and whiz until the basil is pureed/finely chop the basil. Heat the remaining cream and the sugar in a double boiler (or in a pot sitting over a pot of boiling water) and stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the chocolate piece by piece, stirring until it is all melted. Remove from the heat and add the vanilla extract and the blended basil cream and sour cream, and mix well. Refrigerate for 20-30 minutes until the mixtures thickens. Drop teaspoons of the mixture onto a tray lined with baking paper, then refrigerate again for an hour or so, until firm enough to mould into balls. Once shaped, dust with cocoa and store in the fridge until served. These will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 3-5 days.