Basil. Can one have too much? Possibly, but I doubt it. I used to grow Italian basil from seeds, but it has become so commonplace to find potted herbs in the markets that I now pick up a little pot of organically-grown basil plants a week or two before it’s time to plant and tuck it into the cold frame (top right corner) to acclimate. You can place basil plants quite deeply into the soil, and those etiolated stems that inevitably develop in the potted herbs will grow nice roots for you, setting up the garden for success later in the summer. This year the potted herb I selected looked particularly lush, and it turns out there were probably thirty little plants in there. The brown you see on the leaves is where they touched the roof of the cold frame during a chilly night. They are really that tender.
I put in a dozen plants next to the tomatoes, more in their own bed, and then placed a plant here, and another there until I could not justify taking up any more space. The remaining plants went to friends and neighbors. The flavor really starts to improve as the weather heats up and the oils concentrate in the leaves, but hot weather also brings lush growth, so we are already off to the races with loads of basil leaves.
I debated whether or not to include pesto in this post, as it has become somewhat mainstream, but it is worth mentioning making it at home over buying it bottled at the store simply because the flavor difference is immense, and you can use and preserve a whole lot of basil with pesto. Head into the interwebs, search for “basic pesto recipe,” and you will find thousands of them to choose from. I like to use pistachios, pecorino Romano, more freshly-ground black pepper, and less garlic than most recipes suggest, and I use a food processor. Tweak it to your own taste by adding more of this, or less of that, and pound it up in a mortar if that’s your thing. Toss in a radish leaf or two, or a pinch of citric acid, and the green color will hold really nicely, then top off the container of leftover pesto with a thin layer of olive oil to keep it from getting brown in the fridge. If you have enough to freeze, do it before you add the cheese, and when you defrost it, if basil is still in season, add a few fresh leaves to perk up the flavor again. Glorious.
What to do with all that pesto? Fusilli or casarecce are delicious, of course, but a room temperature pasta salad is lovely, too, as is a baked noodle dish. Layer it into a lasagne. Put it in your next potato salad. Stir a swirl into a bowl of soup. Smear it on your toast and top with mozzarella and tomato for a Caprese tartine. Thin it with more olive oil and pour it on top of hummus. Make a marinated bean or vegetable salad. Make deviled eggs. Use it as a pizza sauce instead of tomato. Use it instead of ketchup or mustard on your next sandwich. You could put pesto on a piece of cardboard and it would taste amazing. It’s really hard to go wrong here.
The next harvest can be used to make David Lebovitz’ basil vinaigrette. A group of friends had a food forum during the quarantine, and one member mentioned that she keeps a squeeze bottle of this dressing in the fridge while basil is in season. I’ve been making it since. David Lebovitz will tell you about the lovely summer flavor and the versatility – believe him. It’s excellent. If you make a double batch, that’s enough for dinner tonight and lunches all week, and four cups of basil get used up. This dressing keeps beautifully, although the olive oil will firm up when chilled by the refrigerator, so you will have to bring it to room temperature before using it. So far this summer I’ve poured it over cooked beans that were then made into bruschetta with a little feta on top, and I used it as the dressing for a potato salad.
Small amounts of basil can be used regularly in any number of recipes if you have less of a harvest to use, or if you need to clip that one plant that is determined to bolt. The creamy sweet corn pasta from Melissa Clark has become a summer regular in our house. It’s just lovely. A little heavier, but just as good, is grilling cheese with lentils and sweet peppers. I’ve had my eye on Ina Garten’s roasted tomato basil soup recipe for a while, it gets a lot of love online, but I feel like it isn’t the place to use my heirloom tomatoes. I think the subtleties would be lost with that much basil. If you have a nice crop of plum tomatoes, however, it uses an entire four cups of basil in a single recipe. Finally, because Fine Cooking has returned from the place to which it mysteriously vanished, you can check out their basil ideas, too. There are some nice recipes here. I think I’m going to try the basil butter.