Monday, June 6, 2011

A culinary equation

Sweet basil is a flavorful herb that loves hot weather

Simply Living

Basil=pesto, and pesto=yum!

I'm no mathematical genius, but the above equation holds a simple truth.  It's also true that there's finally enough basil in the garden to make pesto.

Basil loves hot weather, and the recent blast of tropical heat encouraged our basil seedlings to sport an abundance of new leaves.

Sweet basil is a fragrant culinary herb in the same family as peppermint. Although this familiar, easy-to-grow plant is supposedly an annual, in Florida it often acts like a perennial, reseeding itself in the garden bed.

Last April, my husband sowed basil seeds in several 15-gallon containers filled with a rich mixture of composted manure, peat and woodchips for aeration. Although the seeds sprouted in a timely fashion, that's about all they did.

"What's the matter with the basil?" I kept asking. "It's not growing much. Do you think I should buy some young plants instead?"

I was impatient. I wanted the basil to get big so that I could start snipping off leaves to make pesto. Pesto is a flavorful paste composed of basil leaves, chopped nuts, garlic and olive oil that Ralph and I use liberally in many of our meals. It seemed like the young plants, which had sprouted a couple sets of small leaves, were going to remain that size forever.

"Be patient," my husband insisted. "I planted plenty of basil. You'll have more than you know what to do with pretty soon."

I was doubtful then, but I believe him now.

Toward the end of May, when daytime temperatures climbed into the 90s, our container garden suddenly overflowed with basil-gone-wild. Overnight, scrawny seedlings filled out, turning into plump bundles of pungent goodness. Within weeks, I went from fretting over the lack of aromatic herbs to wondering if I could keep up with the supply.

Basil is native to India, where it remains woven into the fiber of everyday life. Worldwide, there are more than 160 named cultivars of this heat-loving plant. Some have variegated or curly leaves that, when crushed, emit the aroma of cloves, cinnamon, lemon or camphor. The leaves also vary widely in color, from purple to red, blue and various shades of green.

Basil has anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. Herbalists have long tapped the plant's value as a tea, tincture, infusion or essential oil. However, its most common use is culinary, with pesto topping popularity charts.

My pesto recipe calls for about two dozen broad basil leaves, rinsed, shaken dry and chopped to a fine paste. After placing the well-chopped leaves in a bowl or jar, I mince about half a cup of walnuts and add them to the mix. Over the top, I pour enough extra-virgin olive oil to cover the combination. Before stirring it all together, I add a couple of freshly pressed garlic cloves and a few shakes of a no-salt kelp seasoning powder.

Traditional pesto recipes call for pine or pignoli nuts. I like pignolis and occasionally use them for pesto making, but pine nuts are pricey. Walnuts work just as well, are less expensive, chop easily and provide a pleasing flavor and texture.

Another traditional ingredient is hard cheese. I prefer pesto with Romano or Parmesan, but my salt-conscious husband does not. We compromise by adding grated cheese at the table, as individually desired.

As much as I enjoy picking and inhaling the fragrant scent of basil, my favorite part of the pesto-making process is chopping the leaves and walnuts. In the past, I used a blender or food processor. Both appliances produce a consistently fine and smooth paste but are noisy and annoying to clean. Since I frequently make small portions of pesto, I need the experience to be fun.

That's why I chop the nuts and basil by hand.

I find the rhythmic sound of a smooth-bladed knife on a wood chopping block soothing in an I'm-forced-to-slow-down-and-enjoy-the-moment sort of way. It always amazes me how quickly the consistency of large basil leaves and whole walnuts changes after a few minutes of persistent blade action.

My basil concoction adds the flavor of summer to a meal of whole grain noodles, a stir-fry, mixed vegetable dish, homemade pizza or even a sandwich spread. For two people, one making usually lasts about a week, but soon I'll be preparing for winter.

The slightest hint of cold causes basil leaves to wilt, so until Ralph and I master the art of indoor herb growing, we'll need to keep the freezer stocked with frozen pesto. You needn't be a math whiz to see the logic in that.

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