By Barbara Beltrami
There is something so satisfying about traipsing among the plants in one’s own herb garden and pinching the leaves to enjoy their fragrant and sometimes acrid pungency. And no herb offers a redolent summer perfume like basil. Nothing beats plucking one’s own basil for extravagant use in summer dishes.
Basilico in Italian, basilic in French and derived from the Greek word for “kingly,” this marvelous herb was considered a sacred plant long ago. In fact, legend has it that St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, received a divine revelation that the true cross would be found where the air was sweetly perfumed. And guess where she found it? Under a basil patch!
Although sweet basil with small delicate foliage is preferable to the more familiar large, broad-leafed variety, even the latter plant produces an intensity of flavor that few methods of preparation can diminish and most can enhance.
Thinking inside the basil box, it’s thick red slices of just-picked garden tomatoes, still warm from the sun, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and slivers of fresh basil leaves; it’s linguine gently tossed with a basil pesto or breast of chicken stuffed with basil and goat cheese. Thinking outside the box, it’s basil as a flavoring for mayonnaise or a refreshing summer cooler or ice cream. Yes, I know. I’ve written about basil in past columns. But it’s that kind of herb; it’s so good that it bears repeating every now and then.
Basil Ice Cream
YIELD: Makes four ¾-cup servings
2 cups whole milk or half-and-half
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves
½ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
½ cup very cold heavy cream
In a medium heavy saucepan, bring milk, basil, ¼ cup sugar and salt to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and let steep 30 minutes. Transfer to blender and process until basil is finely ground, about one minute. In medium bowl, beat egg yolks with remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale, about one minute. Add milk mixture in a thin stream, beating constantly with an electric mixer, until well combined.
Pour entire mixture into saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture coats back of spoon and reads 175 F on thermometer. (Do not let boil!) Immediately remove from heat and pour through fine sieve into metal bowl; set bowl over larger bowl of ice water and stir until cold, about 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in cream and transfer to ice cream maker; freeze according to manufacturer’s directions. Transfer to airtight container and freeze at least two hours before serving with biscotti.
YIELD: Makes about ¾ cup
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon mustard powder
1/3 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 smashed garlic clove
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In the jar of an electric blender, combine egg yolks, lemon juice and mustard powder; pulse a few times; add herbs. With machine running, drizzle in oil until mixture emulsifies. Transfer to container, cover and chill. Serve with fish or chicken.
YIELD: Makes 4 servings
1 cup lightly packed basil leaves
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups orange juice
1 cup sparkling water
4 sprigs fresh basil for garnish
In a medium nonreactive bowl, combine the basil and sugar. With the back of a wooden spoon crush the basil leaves until thoroughly bruised; stir in orange juice. Strain through cheesecloth or wire mesh strainer into ice cube-filled glasses. Add sparkling water; stir and garnish with basil sprigs. Serve immediately with tea cake or cookies.