Basil Fest!

 

 

 

 

Put basil in just about anything and I will try it.  Kinda like bacon.  I think it’s got a place in both sweet and savory dishes from apps to desserts and this time of year I can’t get enough of it.

If you’re lucky, and you’ve been an attentive gardener this summer, right about now your basil is blowing up.  Fortunately for me, my blooming basil timed out with my favorite sous chef (my sister) spending some time in town.  We love spending time in the kitchen together.  And we love preparing big family feasts together.  She had a brilliant idea this go ’round: Basil Fest.  We picked as much as we could from my garden, my parents, and a neighbor and went to town!

basil harvest

I had a bucket full of bright, big, flawless green leaves to work with, so coming up with the menu wasn’t tough.  There were still plenty of fresh, juicy strawberries to be had and tomatoes are just starting to ripen around here.  So those, plus all of our basil harvested, and another neighbor’s fig tree were the inspiration for the menu.

basil fest menu

I started with the lemonade.  I love making home made lemonade!  It’s a few extra steps compared to dumping the powder and mixing it with water of course, but I think the fresh tasting results are worth it.  I used Paula Dean’s recipe for strawberry basil lemonade.   I halved it, since I didn’t have the time or energy to juice a whole bushel full of lemons, and it was easy and fabulous.  Bonus: makes a good mixer for cocktails, too!

strawberry basil lemonad

Next, I moved on to my panzanella.  I like to let mine sit for a while to soak up all the juices and really marinate.  This is where my Cheftovers magic comes into play.  Panzanella is a salad that combines bread (leftover or stale, preferred actually) and fresh veggies.  So I cut a handful of rolls we had left over from the previous weekend’s barbecue into cubes, and toasted them up in a pan.  Voila!  What would have been trash is now an essential component to my colorful salad.

IMG_8176

There are plenty of routes you can take with panzanella depending on your taste and what yo’ve got on hand.  I used fresh tomatoes, yellow and orange peppers, cucumbers, red onion and a ton of BASIL, naturally.  I tossed everything together and dressed it with a simple red wine vinegar and olive oil dressing (seasoned with only salt and pepper).  If they made a panzanella print I would wear it as a dress!  Isn’t it beautiful looking?

panzanella

I took more of those same leftover rolls and used those for the base of my bruschetta.   No surprise, more tomatoes and basil at play here.  But instead of finely chopping the garlic to add to that killer combo, or painstakingly shaving garlic and scraping the freshly cut cloves on to the toasted bread, I decided to finally break in my “brand new” mortar and pestle I scored from cookbook author, Michael Ruhlman’s estate sale.  By using that tool, I created a smooth garlic paste to mix in with the fresh basil (minced) and tomatoes (diced).  Drizzle that with olive oil and pile it on to toasted bread and you’ve got a bright, crunchy bite with a more gentle and evenly distributed garlic flavor that other methods will deliver.

 

Now it was time to move on to the real work-the pasta.  This is where my sister shines.  I have tried, and tried and listened and watched.  But my homemades never seem to turn out the way hers do.  So I let her go to town, making fresh noodles with the help of my 3 year old, a real chef in the making.  The only secret I can share that maybe you won’t find in other recipes: she pours white wine into the shell of the empty egg she uses for the dough and adds it to the mix.  It’s magic.

While those beautiful noodles rested, I made the pesto.  More BASIL! Lots more basil.  Recipe follows.  One trick that will help you keep your pesto that beautiful bright green of the leaves, and not brown from bruising them-add a little ice to the food processor!  And if you don’t keep pine nuts in your pantry (I usually don’t because they’re so expensive but for this dinner we were sticking to tradition) substitute almonds for a cheaper, super food solution.

pasta with pesto

When it was time to cook and toss the pasta in with the pesto, I warmed it up in a large pan, and loosened it up with some olive oil.  I added grilled chicken for some protein, but shrimp is nice with pesto too.  And be sure to sprinkle your pesto generously with some Parmesan or Romano.  While the pasta was cooking we sliced up the fresh buffalo mozzarella, and more juicy tomatoes then hand picked the prettiest and largest basil leaves left to top off our caprese salad. (BONUS: We learned a new hack from the cheese vendor where we bought the log of buffalo mozzarella-slice it with dental floss for a smooth even cut)

better caprese salad

This is an easy finish after you’ve sliced and stacked the components.  Just drizzle it with the best olive oil you’ve got and then top it with balsamic vinegar, or even better, balsamic glaze for a sweeter touch.  Season with salt and pepper to taste and let the flag of Italy inspired salad sing!

When we plated everything up it made for a stunning tablescape of BASIL centric dishes.  I set a nice table and we feasted on our hard work.

AND-we couldn’t forget dessert! Using a recipe from Fabio Viviani’s new cookbook (Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian) as inspiration, I combined ricotta, honey, mascarpone cheese and put a dollop of that on a freshly picked fig (halved), courtesy my parent’s neighbor.  Drizzle that with more of the balsamic glaze and top it with another perfectly petite basil leaf and you have a sweet and savory finish to Basil Fest.

Now you know there is more where that came from!  Still plenty more of my favorite herb growing in my garden.  So, inspire me!  What are you making with your basil? What should I try? 

Basil Pesto

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

 

 

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Drying Garden Herbs

The time has come, I hate to admit, to ready my garden for the winter.  I took one of the last glorious fall days, warm and sunny, to dig out what was left of my herbs.  But, in true Cheftovers form, I had to do something with the stragglers.  And since I don’t have a greenhouse to preserve the plants, I decided to try drying them in the microwave.  It was remarkably easy and not as tedious as I thought.  And when jars of dried herbs can run $5-10 each…why not give it a go?

garden herbs

After I transplanted all that I could into smaller pots close to the house, I trimmed up a bunch of basil, rosemary, and parsley.  I took a long hard looks at the volume of parsley I had (looked like a bushel), and the thousands of little needles on the rosemary bush, and decided basil would be the only one I’d be experimenting with for now.

garden herbs leaves

I plucked the individual basil leaves from the stems and placed them in a single layer on a paper towel.  I also placed another layer of paper towel on top.  Then it was time to fire up the microwave.  Since mine doesn’t have temp control (low/medium/high), I only heated it for a short amount of time initially.  And I didn’t want to burn them or start a fire with “dry” leaves on a paper towel.  But I was banking on the fact that these freshly snipped leaves still had enough moisture in them.

drying garden herbs

After thirty seconds, I examined the leaves and was pleased that it was working!  Not enough time yet…

So I put it back in for another 20 seconds, then another 15.  Each batch varied in terms of size and number of leaves, but in the end each round I dried needed about 1:00-1:15 in the microwave.

dried garden herbs

I transferred the dried leave to a Ziploc bag and crushed them by hand.  In the end I generated about 1 cup of dried basil leaves.  As you probably know, that will get me pretty far (two full batches of Picciano family pasta sauce, in fact!)  And all for free.  Not bad!

jarred herbs

As for the rosemary and the parsley I have…I opted for the tried and true “hang and dry” method.  Besides, I think they look kinda cool in my kitchen.

hanging rosemary

I will probably need to give those a week or more to dry out completely.  Then I’ll do the same with those (remove them from the stems and crush the dried leaves).

What are you doing to ready your garden for winter?  I’m always looking for tips from those with a green thumb!

Five great gadgets for your summer herbs

Fresh summer herbs are a coveted commodity.  And they make everything and anything taste better.  Since last week’s post about my favorite new gadgets for summer was so well-received, I’ve decided to do this “gadget thing” regularly.  This week, I went hunting for 5 great gadgets to help you best use the herbs you’re growing or bringing home from the market.

 herb keeper

1. Cuisipro Herb Keeper  http://www.cuisipro.com/en/Cooking/Compact-Herb-Keeper-plu74-7158.html  This gadget not only stores and preserves your snipped herbs, it also promises to keep asparagus longer. (I hate when pricey stuff like that goes bad quickly)
Product description also says it’ll fit in most refrigerator doors.  It retails on Amazon for $22.95, and comes in a compact version.
HERB INFUSER
2. Artland Press and Measure Glass Herb with Oil Infuser  http://www.artlandinc.com/collection.asp?collectionid=4104  Those who own and reviewed it say it’s a quality product, easy to use and effective.  Think of the tasty salad dressings and marinades you could make using this!  I. WANT. IT.  It sells on Amazon for $15.80.
herbcicle (2)
3. Herbcicle Frozen Herb Keeper  http://www.chefn.com/Product.aspx?id=322  (this link even has a how-to video for herbal novices!)  Now, THIS looks cool.  According to the manufacturer, www.chefn.com, you just fill the unit up with leafy green herbs, then twist the top on tight, pop it in the freezer and hours later you’ve got frozen herbs at your disposal.  You can use a knife to cut off the desired amount, or grate directly into food.  It sells for $7.99 on Amazon.   
herb stripper
4. Chef’n Herb stripper http://www.chefn.com/Product.aspx?id=325  Nothing annoys me more than stripping rosemary stems, or thyme leaves.  So tedious.  This guy will do it for you, for $7.99 (on Amazon).  The vessel will even measure them for you as it collects.  And it has four different sized holes to accommodate any variety of woody, stemmed herb. Clever.
herb chopper
5. Chef’n Herb’n Shears Herb Chopper and Bamboo Bowl Set. http://www.chefn.com/Product.aspx?id=235  I love a quick chop on something rough like rosemary (after you use the stripper!) I also discovered that someone at the company is also a fellow blogger, using videos to demo their products.  http://chefnblog.com/  This one is on sale at  http://www.jcpenney.com/ for $14.99.

Herbal Harvest

It’s about that time when those of us in cooler climates have to come to terms with the fact that winter is coming.  Most of the leaves are off the trees and the first snow of the year will fall any day.  Ugh.  Before frost destroys it, it’s time to harvest what’s left of my humble garden.

I have a pair of four by four garden boxes in our back yard.  Not because I love to garden, or cultivate plants, but because I love to cook with fresh ingredients.  Each year I mix it up based on what did well the year before.  This year I dabbled in tomatoes for the first time, which were a disappointment due to our cool summer.  Same goes for the basil, an herb I could cook with every night.  My parsley, oregano and rosemary, however, blossomed this year.  Even into late fall, they’re still thriving.  But not for long.

After cutting all the herbs I could carry and spreading them out on my counter, I rolled up my sleeves and brainstormed about the best ways to maximize this aromatic harvest.

herbal harvest2

My go-to with excess herbs is some variety of pesto.  So I began by making a version of the Italian staple sauce.  As mentioned in a previous post, I usually make pesto with almonds rather than pine nuts.  They’re far cheaper, and I like the idea of putting a “super food” into a dish.  Pull out the food processor and combine roughly ¾ c. almonds with a couple handfuls of fresh parsley, a clove of garlic, ½ c. grated Parmesan, and some fresh squeezed lemon juice.  Season it with salt and pepper and fire it up.  The end game is a bright and fresh sauce that’s great on seafood like shrimp, salmon or any white fish.  Also try adding a little (like a quarter cup) cream cheese or goat cheese and toss it with linguine and a touch of pasta water.   Supplement with a protein like chicken or shrimp.   To. Die. For.

The food processor got me thinking about another idea that could set me up for an easy work day dinner: Herbed butter.  I softened some unsalted butter and blended it with a couple small cloves of garlic and parsley.  My husband loves spaghetti al olio.  So this will make it incredibly quick.  Simply cook some long pasta, and toss it with this garlic butter w/parsley, season, and add olive oil.  Top generously with grated cheese.

Then I took another stick of sliced, unsalted butter and added parsley, rosemary and oregano and garlic to make another version of herbed butter. I seasoned this with a touch of salt and pepper, then rolled it up in plastic wrap and foil and threw it in the freezer.  I plan to slice it off to use as needed on things like chicken and steak.  This will be versatile and very clutch when I’ve come home late from work and want to put together something great.

Fresh are too expensive to waste.  How have you made good use of excess?