Basil: probably the best known herb to have ever graced this planet. The thought of basil may go hand in hand with thoughts of making fresh tomato sauce with your grandmother, picking fresh basil from your garden or eating a delicious pesto. Basil has a sweet-spicy-intoxicating aroma. I’m going to tell you a little about its characteristics, as well as a delicious, easy dish you can create from this versatile ingredient.
I had always wondered why it was common practice to remove the flowers that grow on the top of the basil plant. Until I took a gardening class with Dr. Weaver this past summer term, I did not realize that the flower stimulates the re-germination of the basil plant. Once the flower grows, the plant will run to seed. Considering that North America is not the native location of the basil plant, it cannot successfully complete re-growing before the summer is over.
Now, onto the good stuff – the best practices for using basil in the kitchen. Basil in its raw form is by far the most flavorful. You may notice that when basil hits extreme heat or cold, it becomes brown-black in color. I am a firm believer in eating your food with your eyes first, so I typically only use basil in its raw form.
I’d like to show you the best way to impress your friends with this wonderful herb. Everyone has had a Caprese salad. This is a simple salad that typically consists of tomato, basil and mozzarella. Let me show you how to take that simple salad and make it into something extraordinary.
Caprese Napoleon with Fresh Basil and Toasted Walnut Pesto
(This may sound intimidating, but trust me, it’s a piece of cake, and it’s all about presentation)
You’ll need to buy a beautiful bunch of basil (about two cups), a log of fresh mozzarella, a few large tomatoes (one per person), a small chunk (2 ounces) of either Pecorino Romano (a salty sheep’s milk cheese) or classic Parmesan cheese, a small amount of walnuts (1/2 cup), a head of garlic and 3/4 cup olive oil.
Using a small sauté pan over low heat, toast the 1/2 cup of walnuts for five minutes, tossing every minute or so. Meanwhile, finely dice one garlic clove. Roughly chop 3/4 of the basil that you purchased (about one and half cups). Grate the parmesan cheese until you have about 1/2 cup. Combine the basil, garlic, walnuts and cheese in a food processor. Turn the food processor on and slowly add the 3/4 cup of olive oil through the tube as it’s processing. The pesto should be smooth, but should still have some texture from the ingredients.
For the salad:
Begin by slicing the ripe tomatoes around their “equator” into half-inch slices. Next, slice a log of fresh mozzarella width-wise into half-inch slices. Take 10 leaves of fresh basil and stack them on top of each other facing the same direction. Roll the basil leaves, like a cigar, until they’ve formed a tight roll. Slice the roll of basil carefully down the roll, make about eight cuts. The fancy term for that practice is “chiffonade.”
For the Presentation:
Begin by stacking the tomatoes and mozzarella in the middle of the plate, one on top of the other until you have four slices of mozzarella and three slices of tomato. Place your “chiffonaded” basil on top of the stack. Finally, drizzle your pesto around the outside edges of the plate.
Voila! You have the perfect dish to serve your friends/boyfriend/girlfriend/parents – and you’ll have plenty of leftover pesto to serve over pasta or drizzle over a fresh baguette.