This weekend I brought my mom a bunch of basil. She welcomed it first, but I knew what she was thinking, “What am I going to do with this?” I mentioned that I made pesto, (which I wrote about here) and she agreed, with hesitation, that she could do the same, but I knew more assistance would be appreciated. So, I wanted to share my ideas on how to use basil in other ways besides pesto.
In the United States, basil is an annual herb that grows prolifically in the summer. We often associate basil with Italian food, but basil is native to the tropical regions of India. It spread first into Africa and Southeast Asian long before landing in Italy, where it has become synonymous with pesto.
Basil makes an excellent potted plant if you don’t have space in the ground. Whether in the earth or a pot, cut the stems often before (or right when) you see flowers.
Then you can take your cuttings, or any bunch from the store or farmers market, and put the stems in a jar of water on the counter, just like a vase of flowers.
Storing your basil on the counter is both pleasing and practical. It lets the aroma permeate the kitchen, and you will see it often and remember to use it. I hate the vegetable bin in the fridge for this one reason. Hiding vegetables in the bottom of your fridge keeps them out of sight and out of mind. They should at least try to make crisper drawers at eye level.
When you use basil, you will want to cut it just before eating the leaves bruise easily and will turn dark as it sits. In gourmet recipe pictures, they will often cut basil into a neat chiffonade. In real life, don’t worry about making it perfect, but don’t smash it with a dull knife either, or try to chop it like parsley. A few large torn leaves will hold up and look better than tiny bits.
In addition to the cutting technique, add basil to a dish just before eating. The flavor will dissipate quickly after cooking.
Its strong aromatic flavor makes it an excellent pair to mild vegetables like squash and cucumbers and holds up to more robust flavors like garlic and tomatoes.
Here are my ideas to use basil throughout your cooking.
Coarsely chop basil, put it into your green salad, or top your plate with basil like the restaurants used to do with parsley.
Basil’s Asian heritage makes a good match anytime you are making Asian fusion dishes. Add it to stir fry or soups. Chop it and add just before serving.
Combine it with cilantro, mint, and coconut milk to make any dish feel like it is from Thailand.
Add it to your egg scrambles, with chopped peppers and tomatoes.
Add chopped leaves to a sandwich, taking simple deli meat and cheese to the next level.
Add it to a fruit salad. The anise flavors will complement the sweet fruit.
Make a refreshing cucumber-basil infused water.
Dry the excess basil leaves for use in the wintertime. Many food experts will proclaim that dried basil is not a flavorful ingredient. Still, I have found that when you dry it yourself, use it within a year and add it near the end of preparation, you will recognize the basil flavor as it came out of your garden.
There are so many ways to use basil. I hope that one of these ideas will break you out of your pesto mind.
Julie Moreno is a chef and writer, now trying to get more people to cook their own food and understand where it comes from. She lives in the middle of California, where she’s learning to landscape with fruits and vegetables. Find her blog at The Wooden Cutting Board on Twitter @juliehouse and Facebook @thewoodencuttingboard