Basil season is in full swing, its aromas wafting from stalls at our farmers markets and from our own gardens. No other herb signals summer in the way that the scent of fresh basil does.
The most common variety of basil is Genovese, often referred to as Italian basil. It is one of nearly two dozen varieties and is the best one to use in Italian dishes, including those two popular classics, pesto and Caprese salad. It is easy to recognize by its medium-sized leaves, thick stems and brilliant green color.
It is often called sweet basil and has, historically, been known as St. Joseph’s Wort. It originated in India and Persia more than 5,000 years ago and today is used throughout the Mediterranean. You see it in Southeast Asian and Chinese foods, too, though traditionally it is not the Genovese variety that is used in these cuisines.
When you bring basil home from the market or in from the garden, it is best to use it right away. If you can’t, put it into a wide glass jar or vase, as you would flowers, and then cover the leaves loosely with a plastic bag. This will help it retain its freshness for a couple of days.
In almost all instances, basil should be added to a dish after that dish has been cooked, as prolonged heat turns basil black.
Pesto pizza has become quite popular in recent years, and the best versions apply the condiment to the pizza after it comes out of the oven, though, sadly, this is not the most common practice.
Heat also alters the taste, eclipsing its engaging freshness and turning it rather cloying. If you make pizza at home, bring your pesto to room temperature and use a pastry brush to “paint” the pizza with it.
Pistou is the French cousin of pesto; it is popular in the south of France and best known for the soup that carries its name, Soupe au Pistou, a recipe for which you can find at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. For other uses, refer to the list at the bottom of the recipes.
Makes about 2 cups
5 large garlic cloves
— Kosher salt
— Black pepper in a mill
5 cups fresh Italian basil leaves, torn into pieces
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and minced
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 ounces dry jack, grated
In a large heavy mortar or in the bowl of a suribachi, use a wooden pestle to crush each clove of garlic. Add several generous pinches of salt and several turns of pepper and pound the garlic until it is smooth.
Add the basil, a small handful at a time, and continue to pound until the basil is crushed and incorporated into the pistou.
Fold in the tomato and stir in the olive oil and cheese. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Cover and set aside or refrigerate until ready to use.
Stir 2 tablespoons into summer vegetable soups and gazpachos.
As a condiment with omelets and scrambled eggs.