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!
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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)
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?
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)