What better time to be writing about basil than now, as the winter’s snow has finally melted and the green shoots of Spring are on their way? And what herb could be more evocative of Spring and Summer than basil, with its intense perfume of pepper, cloves and anise — it is the scent of Summer itself!
A native of India, basil has been cultivated since ancient times. Revered by both the Greeks and the Romans, this aromatic, leafy herb imbues the cuisines of the Mediterranean as well as those of Southeast Asia with its unique fragrance: indeed basil is an essential ingredient in a wealth of dishes from around the globe.
Ocimum Basilicum, or Sweet Basil, is the most common cultivar found in the West, along with Ocimum Basilicum Genovese, the emerald-green herb at the heart of the much-loved Italian Pesto alla Genovese. Traditionally pounded in a mortar with pine nuts and garlic then mixed with extra-virgin olive oil and cheese, the Genoans classically use their Pesto Sauce to dress a delicious combination of pasta, potatoes and slender green beans. But it’s equally delicious served with fish or meat, spread on homemade pizza, swirled into soups ……
Ocimum Basilicum Horapa is the variety of sweet basil that we know as Thai Basil. And together with Holy Basil and Lemon Basil it is one of the trinity of Asian basils whose distinctive characteristics help define the aromatic swagger of Thai cooking. Stirred into Thailand’s pungent red and green curries as well as its stir-fries and salads, its sweet, licorice tang is at the heart of this great cuisine.
Basil is notoriously finicky to grow, but with adequate drainage and plenty of sun it will flourish inside or out. It can thrive in a pot on a sunny windowsill, but likes to be watered from below. And planted in a sunny, sheltered spot it will grow easily out of doors once the danger of spring frost is past.
In its dried form basil loses its intense character, so I would urge you to use it fresh. It will keep in your fridge for up to a week, although its tender leaves have a tendency to turn black at lower temperatures … and if you’re like me, it won’t last that long!
Basil is grown year-round in greenhouses, so it’s readily available to the home cook, even to those who don’t grow their own! I buy my fresh basil throughout the year at Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, from West Country Herbs & Morinville Greenhouses. So when the cold, short days of winter are getting me down I often whip up a batch of homemade pesto to bring a hint of summer into my winter kitchen.
And in the heart of summer, what could be better than a plate of juicy red tomatoes, thickly sliced, drizzled with your best olive oil and finished with sea salt and black pepper, and handfuls of torn basil leaves? And for an added treat, some slices of fresh mozzarella will turn your tomato and basil salad into a perfect light meal: with some crusty Italian bread to mop up its fragrant juices this is summer on a plate.
Pesto alla Genovese
100g fresh basil leaves
8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
25g pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, crushed
50g Parmesan, grated (plus 2tbsp if not using Pecorino)
2tbsp Pecorino Romano, grated (optional)
• Put the basil, oil, pine nuts and garlic in a blender and blend on high until pureed.
• Place in a bowl and stir in the cheese, then season to taste with salt.
• Use right away, or store in the fridge covered with a film of olive oil to preserve the colour of the pesto.
Let me know if you made the recipe. Submit your pictures on my facebook page or leave a comment below.