Basil at its best

by The Listener / 14 February, 2013
This aromatic leafy herb is the perfect addition to many summer meals.
Basil and pea pasta with feta and pine nuts and lamb T-bones
Basil and pea pasta with feta and pine nuts and lamb T-bones, photo by Elizabeth Clarkson/styling by Kate Arbuthnot.


With its brilliant green leaves and heady aroma, basil captures the essence of summer. Although supermarkets offer this soft, leafy herb year-round, most of the plants are grown hydroponically, so never attain the degree of punchy aniseedy flavour of the outdoor plants we grow in our gardens over summer.

I have a large earthenware pot on my deck planted with three varieties: the common sweet basil; opal basil, with dark-purple leaves; and lemon basil, which has citrusy notes that make it a lovely addition to drinks and desserts.

We’ve enjoyed the basil that’s found its way into our summer meals, including salads, chicken and fish. We’ve also occasionally served it with fruit.

A classic caprese salad of tomatoes, mozzarella and fresh basil, dressed with salt, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil is one of my standbys for a starter or to accompany dinner. Two of my favourite farmers at the local market are selling heirloom tomatoes every Saturday. Combined with Italian cheesemaker Massimo Lubisco’s fresh hand-made mozzarella, peppery local olive oil from Greg Scopas at Salumeria Fontana and basil from my own pot, this magnificent produce puts me in farmers-market heaven.

Originally grown in India, basil is a favourite herb in Europe, especially in Italy, and also in Southeast Asia where it’s used to flavour soups, curries and salads. There are over 40 varieties of this bushy herb, many distinguished by their smell. A hardy variety to grow in a pot in a sunny place is bush basil, as its tiny leaves pack all the punch of the common floppy-leafed variety. If your basil starts to flower, just pinch out the flowers and their stems and more leaves will grow.

I have been cooking lots of tasty original recipes from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Random House, $65), one of my picks for best cookbooks of 2012. This recipe is inspired by a dish from that book.

BASIL AND PEA PASTA WITH FETA AND PINE NUTS, AND LAMB T-BONES



  • 1 large cup peas, fresh or frozen

  • 1 1/2 cups greek yoghurt

  • 100ml extra virgin olive oil

  • 2 handfuls fresh basil leaves

  • 500g pasta shells

  • 6 T-bone lamb chops

  • seasoning: 1 tsp each of salt, pepper and ground cumin

  • 2 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted

  • 150g creamy feta cheese, cut into chunks


Cook the peas for 3 minutes in boiling salted water. Reserve half the peas and place the rest in a food processor with the yoghurt, oil and half the basil leaves. Combine well to make the sauce. Season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil, then add the pasta. Cook until tender, drain well, then place in a serving bowl. Pour the sauce over the pasta while it’s still hot, tossing until the pasta is well-coated. Reheat the peas and add to the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, place the chops, seasoned with salt, pepper and cumin, on a grill plate or barbecue to cook for 12-15 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove and allow the meat to rest while finishing the dish.

To serve, toss the pine nuts and feta over the pasta. Tear the remaining basil leaves up and strew over the dish. Serve with the chops.
Serves 6.
Wine match: pinot noir.

RED CAPSICUM AND BASIL PESTO LINGUINE WITH CHICKEN



  • 2 red capsicums

  • 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • 400g spaghetti or linguine

  • 1/2 cup pesto (see Melissa Clark's Pesto recipe below)

  • 2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped

  • 6 large boned chicken thighs

  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 tsp smoked paprika

  • handful of fresh basil leaves


To prepare the pasta, cut the capsicums into strips, discarding the core and seeds, and place in a frying pan with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Fry over a gentle heat until the strips are soft and tender. Set aside. Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook until tender (about 12 minutes), then drain well. Place in a serving bowl and toss through 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the pesto. Add the capsicum and tomato.

Meanwhile, heat a grill plate. Toss the chicken with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper and paprika to coat well. Place on the grill and cook on each side for 7-8 minutes until golden and tender. To serve, divide the pasta between 6 plates, then place a chicken thigh and torn basil leaves on top.
Serves 6.
Wine match: pinot gris.

MISSING WALNUTS


The walnuts were inadvertently omitted from the recipe for “Caramelised rhubarb, apple and walnut tart” (February 16). Simply sprinkle 1/2 a cup of quality walnuts on top of the rhubarb before placing the tart in the oven to bake.

Hey presto, pesto!


A friend, Fiona Nugent, recently brought me a pot of homemade pesto. Through her Eat Your
Books website, she had found the recipe in a blog by Melissa Clark, a writer known for her cookbooks and weekly New York Times column. Clark says when there’s an abundance of basil, this pesto can be made in huge batches and frozen in ice-cube trays for easy use in winter. She suggests dotting it on top of soups, smearing it on sandwiches or spooning it over steak and lamb chops. Here’s her recipe, reprinted with kind permission. The quantities can be scaled up or down. Marlborough’s Pinoli pine nuts are ideal for this recipe.

MELISSA CLARK’S PESTO



  • 10 cups basil leaves, packed

  • 1 1/2 cups quality extra virgin olive oil

  • 1 cup toasted pine nuts

  • 1 cup freshly grated parmigiano reggiano

  • 5-6 cloves garlic

  • salt to taste

  • freshly ground black pepper to taste


Place the first five ingredients in a food processor and pulse until a coarse purée forms. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Freeze in ice-cube trays or refrigerate in screwtop jars until needed.
Makes 4-5 cups.
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