Last spring, at an elegant luncheon prepared for the elite of Washington's chefs, Jean Louis Palladin touched off the menu with a light feuillantine of raspberries layered with bright green basil sprigs. The chefs were shocked. Basil's cousin, aromatic mint, would have been delicious. But basil with raspberries? That shocking combination was just the start of the summer of 1982: the summer of basil -- with anything and everything.
This summer, I have spread homemade bread with sweetsmelling basil butter, dressed salads with basil vinegar and olive oil, and added torn leaves of fresh basil to fresh tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dribbled with virgin olive oil and sprinkled with grated black pepper.
The herb has worked its way into vegetable combinations -- especially those with eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes -- from ratatouille to moussaka. Still there are surprises: I recently tried pesto-broiled swordfish and, at a Vietnamese home, a rice paper roll filled with Boston lettuce, chicken, scallions, fresh mint and basil.
The word pesto comes from the Latin pistillum, pestle. It once was made by placing basil, oil and other ingredients in a mortar and then grinding them with a pestle. Now, the modern food processor has taken away most of the hard work. In fact, containers of pesto now line my freezer, waiting to be mixed with butter and freshly grated parmesan cheese, then tossed with pasta for my standard last-minute dinner.
At Le Gauloise, hot or cold pistou (a close relative of pesto) is a soup filled with garlic pounded with basil. Pesto has become so popular this summer that many carryout food stores stock Genoese pesto, a pounded combination of pine nuts, butter, olive oil, parmesan cheese and basil. (But choose wisely: some stores skimp and use substitutes, such as walnuts for pine nuts and parsley for basil.)
In Italy, a suitor lets his beloved know of his matrimonial intent by wearing a sprig of basil in his hair. East Indians believe that a home surrounded by basil will be blessed. (Mine must be, for basil grows wild in our garden.) An added benefit: Rubbed on the face, basil seems to ward off gnats (mint does the same).
Basil was considered by the Greeks to be the herb of kings. The name comes from the Greek word basileus, meaning king. Not all of basil's associations are positive, however. Salome supposedly hid the head of John the Baptist in a pot of basil. And the first-century Greek herbalist and physician Dioscorides cautioned that too much basil was bad for the digestion. In the Middle Ages it was believed that scorpions would breed under pots where basil was growing.
Wherever your basil is growing, now is the time to stop pinching back the flowers and begin to put up your basil or work it into into dishes. Try this salad, using good olive oil, your bumper crop of vegetables and as much creativity as your garden or refrigerator allows. Harvest Pasta Salad Serves 4 to 6 2 cups packed fresh basil leaves 1/4 cup virgin olive oil 1/2 pound imported pasta in different shapes and colors, or 1 pound fresh Salt to taste 4 cups fresh green beans, julienne of zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant or any other vegetable in your garden 2 tablespoons unsalted butter 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 4 tablespoons pine nuts 2 cloves minced garlic 1/2 cup freshly grated imported parmesan cheese 1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino cheese Freshly grated pepper to taste 12 cherry tomatoes Black olives
Put olive oil and basil leaves in a food processor and use the on-off motion to combine but not pulverize.
Cook pasta according to the package directions. (Imported Di Cecco is good if you can't find fresh pasta.) Try to mix shapes or colors. Remember that rigatoni expands more than tubular shapes, so measure accordingly. If using linguine in combination with shell shapes, break the linguine strands before cooking.
At the same time, cook the string beans or other vegetable between 10 and 15 minutes and then plunge into iced water to retain color.
While the pasta and vegetables are cooking, combine the butter and vegetable oil and brown the pine nuts. At the last minute add the garlic and then toss with the drained pasta. Add the basil-oil and then the cheeses. Adjust to taste, adding more cheese, basil or oil as needed. Mix with freshly grated pepper and garnish with olives and cherry tomatoes.