The basil plants on my terrace have a heady aroma in late summer. Their sweet scent on the terrace inspires me to make pasta – either with pesto or alla puttanesca. Their lovely perfume is due to the presence of oil of cloves and there are many different types – sweet, purple, Greek, lemon and Thai.
I grow the sweet variety (sometimes called italian) basil, which is the most common. It pairs beautifully with so many other flavours – tomatoes, lemons, mint, cloves, chicken, some cheeses and walnuts just to name a few. In fact one of the best icecreams I have ever eaten was a peach and basil gelato that I had several years back in the beach side town of Grado, which is on the Adriatic coast close to Trieste, Italy. After my first taste of it in the afternoon, I went back for seconds that evening!
Basil is a key ingredient of many Italian foods. Basil pesto that we all know and love originates from Genova, Liguria, where basil grows lush and plentiful on the hills right by the sea. Liguria is also where you find the Cinque Terre, an amazingly beautiful part of the world, where there are 5 tiny picturesque villages perched on the Mediterranean Sea. Pesto reminds me of the many holidays I have had there in beautiful Monterosso so I have pesto whenever I can to bring back those wonderful memories.
Essentially pesto is a pounded paste (pesto is related to the word pestle, hence pounding of ingredients). The main ingredients are basil and pine nuts You can vary this with other herbs such as parsley, coriander or rocket and other nuts such as walnuts or cashews. In Sicily they even make red pesto (with tomatoes). It is fun to experiment! Traditional pesto genovese (from Genova) has basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, parmigiano and salt. My version is not traditional and I add a bit of parsley as well as the basil and throw in an anchovy for extra saltiness – this is what I mean about experimenting! It is traditionally ground by hand but it is so easy to whizz it up for half a minute or less with a stick blender and then put a dollop of it on pasta or on a slice of bread for a panino. It keeps for a few months in the fridge as long as you don’t add the parmigiano immediately, put it in a sterilised jar and cover it with extra virgin olive oil. You can add the parmigiano just before serving. My recipe for basil pesto is here.
Another favorite dish to make with basil is pasta puttanesca. It literally means “whore’s pasta”, probably because it is hot, spicy and has a bit of everything in it! The key ingredient apart from basil is fresh ripe tomatoes, which must be a vibrant red so that they contrast with the black olives, green basil and yellow pasta. It should be a feast for the eyes. I like to use thick spaghetti or tagliatelle when I make puttanesca and I generally make my own pasta unless I am in a real rush. You can peel and de-seed the tomatoes if you like but I tend not to as it is not a dish that requires much finesse; it is about the rich sweet and salty taste and the gorgeous contrasting colours on the plate. The basil leaves get thrown in at the end, just before serving. If you put them in before that, they go black and don’t look as appealing (though tastes the same). There are lots of versions but I make the one that mamma taught me to make – click here for the recipe. Enjoy pasta puttanesca on a summer evening, with some crusty bread to mop up the sauce and a glass of chilled pinot grigio. Paradiso!
There are many more recipes where basil is the king. One day I will try to make the peach and basil gelato I had in Grado, and when I do, I promise to share it on this blog!
Makes 1 cup
1 bunch of basil (80g), leaves only, washed and dried
20g parsley leaves, washed and dried
3 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1 anchovy, roughly chopped
125ml olive oil
salt to taste
50g parmigiano, freshly grated (hand mix in at the end or leave it out to add just before using)
Put the basil, parsley, garlic, pine nuts, anchovy, salt and olive oil in a small food processor and process until it is smooth to your liking (it is ok for it to be chunky or smooth, it depends how you like it). If not using immediately, place in clean glass jars that you have sterilised by placing the jar and the separated lid in the oven at 110 degrees for about 15 minutes. Cover the pesto in the jar with a layer of olive oil to protect the pesto and place in the fridge until ready to use. Stir in parmigiano
to taste when you are ready to use. If you are stirring it in pasta, save a bit of the hot salty cooking water and dilute the pesto with this so that it is evenly spread through the pasta. Top with more parmiggiano and a splash of olive oil if you like.
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
12 kalamata (or other black) olives, pitted and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (less or more to taste, use fresh chilli if you have it)
500g ripe tasty tomatoes, roughly chopped into cubes
30 basil leaves (approximately) – they can be torn but I like to leave them whole, it depends on how big they are
175g pasta (tagliatelle, dried or fresh)
grated italian parmigiano to serve
Boil the water for the pasta and salt well (so it tastes like the sea). Prepare all your chopped ingredients and put to one side. The puttanesca sauce takes about six or seven minutes to complete so time it to coincide with your pasta being cooked al dente. Start cooking the pasta and when there are eight minutes left, heat the oil in a large fry pan on medium heat. Add the garlic, anchovies and chilli and cook until fragrant. This should take one to two minutes. Add the tomatoes and simmer for a few minutes. Add the olives and heat through. The tomatoes pieces should just be starting to fall apart but still have some shape. Add the drained and cooked pasta to the frypan with the sauce. Remove from the heat. Toss. Add washed basil leaves. Toss. Serve with plenty of grated italian parmigiano.