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Making the best of basil: 3 dishes get flavor boost

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The other day I went batty with the basil. It happens now and then. You get your hands on a good-looking ingredient and you end up putting it in not one, not two, but three or more dishes.

Like most instances of ingredient overload, this one was caused by having too much of a good thing. In this case, it was Ocimum basilicum, better known as sweet basil.

As anyone who planted anything in the soil this summer knows, this has been the year of the leaf. All the rain we have received has meant that leafy crops, like good old sweet basil, have enjoyed a banner year.

The basil bush in my garden has gone gangbusters. Recently when I was out in the garden, in between showers, I picked a peck of basil. Well, maybe not a peck, which the dictionary tells me is 8 quarts. Perhaps it was more like a bagful. But when I took it home, this basil joined ranks with other bags full of the green leaves and stems, which had been harvested on prior trips to the soggy garden soil.

Surrounded by fragrant green leaves, I began my bodacious herbaceous session. First, I infused basil in olive oil for a dressing poured over cherry tomatoes. Next I tied basil up, in bundles, and let it float around in soup like a raft floating down a wild river. Then right before the raft was about to go over the waterfall, or in this case into the food processor, I fished it out. I also chopped away, using my best machete moves, at basil leaves, turning them into an ingredient in a savory pasta sauce.

Of the three dishes I made, I think the soup was the best-tasting. It also was the most work. That is the case more often than not, that hard work produces good food. But the pasta sauce had a pleasing flavor, and wasn't too much trouble.

As for the basil-infused salad dressing, I must admit that I am a relative newcomer to infusion, but I kind of liked it.

Cherry-Tomato Salad With Basil Oil

Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil

4 sprigs fresh basil, plus basil leaves for garnish

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 pounds cherry tomatoes

Warm the oil in a saucepan over medium heat, then immediately remove it from the heat. With the back of chef's knife, tap the stems of the basil sprigs to bruise them and release their oil. Chop stems coarsely and add them to the warm oil. Let sit for 1 hour.

Strain the oil into a small bowl and discard the basil. Add the red-wine vinegar and whisk together. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

To serve, place the cherry tomatoes in a serving bowl and toss with vinaigrette. Garnish with basil leaves.

Recipes adapted from "You Say Tomato," by Joanne Weir (Broadway Books, 1998)

Tomato Sauce With Basil and Black Olives

Makes about 4 cups

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium red onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

4 medium-sized red tomatoes, diced

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh basil

1/3 cup pitted, chopped cured black olives

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet; add the onion and cook until soft, about 7 minutes over medium heat.

Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes.

In the meantime, mix the basil and olives.

Add the tomato mixture to the basil and olives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm on pasta.

Basil-Tomato Soup

Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

8 sprigs fresh basil, tied with string, plus 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips

8 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup water

coarse salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 7 minutes. Add the tied-up basil sprigs, tomatoes, chicken stock and 1 cup water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until the liquid is reduced by one quarter, about 20 to 30 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes. Remove the basil sprigs and discard.

In a blender or food processor, puree the soup in several batches until smooth, 2-3 minutes per batch. Strain into clean pot and simmer over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour into bowls and garnish with basil leaves.

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