Side Orders: Singing praises of fresh basil

Side Orders: Singing praises of fresh basil

June 25th, 2014 by Anne Braly in Life Entertainment

Anne Braly

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

There's something about the smell of fresh basil that screams "summer." The scent as basil is plucked from its stems is so enticing, I want to run inside and put it to work in my kitchen.

It makes a tomato pie go from wonderful to wow. And a squash casserole gets a tremendous boost when fresh basil is chopped and mixed in. If I have any left over from the day's harvest, it goes directly into a glass of water so it can shoot out new roots. I can then plant it in my garden and have more of my favorite herb to enjoy for the remainder of summer and well into fall.

Another plus is being able to enjoy the amazingly fresh smell of basil growing in my kitchen window whenever I'm at the sink.

With the high price of basil sold in stores, I'm amazed more folks don't add it to their gardens. It's simple to grow and very inexpensive to buy and plant. If you have a lot left over come cold weather, freeze it. The leaves will darken, but they'll still add flavor to your winter soups, stews and spaghetti.

Here are some common -- and perhaps a couple of uncommon -- uses I've found for basil:

• Arrange whole basil leaves on cheese pizza for color and flavor.

• Use whole leaves in a simple Caprese salad made with sliced tomatoes fresh from the garden. Add some mozzarella cheese -- fresh if you can get it -- then drizzle the whole thing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. There's simply no better salad for summer.

• Substitute basil for lettuce on sandwiches. It makes a tasty addition to ham or chicken salad.

• Add chopped basil to cooked pasta tossed with diced, fresh tomatoes, toasted walnuts, goat cheese and black olives.

These are all delicious ideas, but here's one from www.thekitchn.com that's even better.

Cindy Gregg, a volunteer, harvests basil at Crabtree Farms, a local nonprofit.

Photo by Maura Friedman/Times Free Press.

Basil Pesto Chicken Tart

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (see note)

3 fresh garlic cloves, chopped

3 heaping tablespoons basil pesto (see recipe below)

1 scant cup cooked, diced chicken breast

1 medium vine-ripe tomato, chopped

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Kosher salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 small head of peeled garlic cloves, roasted (optional)

2/3 cup walnuts or pine nuts, toasted lightly

6 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves (almost a blenderful)

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Remove one sheet of puff pastry from the freezer and allow to thaw at room temperature for 30 minutes. If using the small head of garlic, place cloves on a baking sheet and cook in the oven until soft and light golden brown, 10-15 minutes. Allow the cloves to cool and then chop finely.

Unfold the puff pastry onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, pressing and pinching to close any holes in the seams. Using a fork, prick the dough all over, including the edges, to prevent it from puffing during baking.

To make basil pesto, blanch the basil briefly to preserve its color and flavor. First prepare an ice-bath either in the sink or in a large mixing bowl. Bring about a quart of water to boil, add about a tablespoon of salt. Submerge the basil leaves and immediately remove and drain then plunge into the ice bath. Pat leaves dry.

In a food processor or blender, combine toasted nuts, basil leaves and fresh garlic until well-combined. While machine is running, pour in olive oil in a slow, steady stream, until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. If using right away, stir in Parmesan cheese. Store leftover pesto covered in refrigerator (it's excellent when mixed with pasta and fresh summer vegetables).

Brush the pesto in a thin layer over the dough. Scatter the roasted garlic across the pesto. Toss the chicken with a tablespoon of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Layer the chicken on the tart, then the chopped tomatoes, followed by the mozzarella and the Parmesan. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Bake until the cheese is melted and light golden brown, approximately 15-25 minutes (start checking early). Remove the tart from the baking sheet and let cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve immediately.

Note: You can easily sub pizza or flat bread dough in this recipe, or any other bread you enjoy.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.