Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fresh Basil's Bounty

Fresh Basil

Summer is the season for fresh basil. Whether it grows in your garden, in a pot on your deck, or you prefer to buy big, leafy bunches at a farmer's market or grocery store, basil is abundant this time of year.

"Sweet basil", with its bright green color and fragrant leaves, is the most common type of basil. It pairs well with a wide variety of foods, but is perhaps best known for being a key ingredient in many Italian delicacies, most notably, Pesto Genovese. Sweet basil is my all-time favorite herb, and lately, when my plant seems to double in size every few days, I use it with abandon. What I can't use, I freeze.

The task of preparing the basil for the freezer is most easily accomplished with the help of a food processor. If you do not have one, and you cook frequently, I would highly recommend putting one on this year's birthday or Christmas list! I am not much of a "gadget gal", but this is the one appliance I use over and over again. It makes quick work of chopping, pureeing, or shredding, and also is a dream for mixing up cookie, bread, and pizza dough. I digress---but with some patience and a sharp knife, you can certainly prepare basil for your freezer without a pricey processor.

To freeze my basil, I make a very basic version of the classic aforementioned pesto genovese (recipe follows), and freeze it in small batches or ice cube trays. Once frozen, you can defrost the larger amounts to use on pasta, or brush on chicken, fish or vegetables for a no-fuss meal. The pesto frozen in the ice cube trays can be used whenever you need a fresh burst of flavor in a soup, stew, or sauce. There's no need to thaw the cubes---just toss them into whatever you're cooking and the heat will melt the pesto right into your dish. If you do not have a food processor, just roughly chop the basil, place about one tablespoon of herbs into each section of an ice cube tray, and cover with water. Freeze, and use cubes as needed.

While basil is bursting at the seams this summer, use it as much as you can. I love to make Caprese Salad, a classic combination of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and of course, basil. Creating this dish takes only a matter of minutes. What you can't use from your summer bounty, freeze for later using one of my super-simple methods. Whether you keep it until the colder months, or defrost it sooner for a quick weeknight meal, you'll be happy you took the time to lock in the freshness of basil.
Pesto Genovese
Makes about 3/4 cup

1 large bunch fresh basil, thick stems removed
1-2 cloves garlic
1 T pine nuts, toasted (optional for freezing)
3 T grated Parmesan cheese (optional for freezing)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Wash and thoroughly dry the basil.
In the bowl of a food processor, fitted with the metal blade, pulse the garlic and pine nuts until finely chopped.
Add the basil and process until finely chopped (you may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula a few times during chopping).
With the blades still running, add the olive oil in a stream through the feed tube until the "pesto" begins to form and easily flows around the bowl.
Remove to a bowl, and mix in Parmesan cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Use immediately, or place in an airtight plastic container and store in refrigerator for up to 2 days or in freezer for up to 3 months.

Note: Press a piece of plastic wrap over pesto so the air does not turn it black.

Caprese Salad
Serves 2
2-3 medium ripe tomatoes, sliced
8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
Fresh basil leaves (about 10-12), washed and thoroughly dried
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
On a plate or platter, place the sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, and basil leaves in an alternating order, slightly overlapping each other (for instance, tomato, cheese, basil, tomato, cheese, basil, etc).
Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper, and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Serve immediately.
Check out my website at http://www.thesecretingredientonline.com/ for upcoming cooking class schedule, publications, and info.

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