Brighten summer meals with basil

versatile herb, basil is used in Western countries for cooking, in India for aromatherapy and in Arab countries to alleviate menstrual cramps.

Basil tomato cup 521 (photo credit: Shiran Carmel "Kosher Elegance")
Basil tomato cup 521
(photo credit: Shiran Carmel "Kosher Elegance")
Even these days, with so much packaged produce at the supermarket, bunches of basil are often displayed unwrapped on the shelves to tempt shoppers with their fragrance. When I’m shopping for produce, the enticing aroma of basil often stops me in my tracks.
“Basil has one of the most delicious aromas around... a scent echoing of mint, cloves and a touch of thyme that is pleasantly sharp and uplifting,” wrote Judith Benn Hurley, author of The Good Herb. This is probably why “basil plants are used in India for a kind of aromatherapy. Indians who rub a sprig to release and enjoy the uplifting aroma say that basil gives people sattva, enlightenment and harmony.”
This is the way my Yemenite relatives use basil – as a garden plant valued for its lovely scent, but not in cooking. In Yemenite synagogues, bouquets of basil are set out on Yom Kippur so the fragrance will give people strength to continue fasting. The basil at the synagogue makes me hungry, but the others don’t associate it with food at all.
In the Middle East, Arabs do not eat basil, although Persians, Turks and Armenians do.
“Offering an Arabic man food containing basil is very likely to offend him,” wrote Hurley.
“In Arabic countries basil tea is often used to alleviate menstrual cramps, and many men consider it embarrassing to ingest the herb in any form.”
She found this out the hard way when she served spinach and feta pastries to a Jordanian diplomat. He loved them, but when she told him that the secret ingredient was fresh basil, he was horrified.
Basil has many other uses. Basil juice is recommended for coughs and earaches in Ayurvedic medicine, wrote my friend Nina Simonds in Spices of Life. In addition, “the leaves of the basil plant are often rubbed on insect bites to relieve itchiness and discomfort.”
Citing Dr. Jim Duke’s Herbal Farmacy, Simonds noted that basil eases “indigestion, flatulence, nausea and stomach cramps.”
Because it has a sedative effect, it is used in the treatment of insomnia, anxiety and irritability.
Great flavor is the reason most of us use basil. It makes even the simplest dishes taste wonderful. During the summertime, I enhance my Israeli salads with strips of fresh basil leaves. Hurley wrote, “The easiest basil to use in cooking is sweet basil, sometimes called Italian basil. Its... taste goes so well with ingredients like garlic, olive oil and tomatoes. That classic quartet of flavors can be tossed with pasta or rice or made into a sauce for fish and chicken.”
In Simonds’s house, the appearance of tomato and basil salad with garlic vinaigrette “heralds the arrival of the best part of summer...
We like to make tomato-basil sandwiches with toasted seven-grain bread for lunch or a light dinner.” The garlic vinaigrette, made with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, is thickened with mustard to a creamy consistency.
BASIL LEAVES lend a fresh accent to the tapenade- like dip for raw vegetables made by celebrated French chef Alain Ducasse, author of Les Recettes de la Riviera. The herb is combined with garlic, black olives, anchovies, olive oil and a little wine vinegar. Ducasse also likes the mixture for seasoning green salads and for topping grilled potatoes and sauteed fish.
In her new book, Kosher Elegance, Efrat Libfroind uses basil in a variety of creative ways. A generous amount of the herb flavors the coating for baked pistachio-encrusted fish on a bed of creamed eggplant. She also adds basil to a cherry tomato salad flavored with garlic, olive oil vinaigrette and roasted pine nuts.
Basil is important in East Asian cuisines as well, notably Thai and Vietnamese. At a Malaysian restaurant, a dish called eggplant with basil and garlic sounded Mediterranean to me, but its tasty spicy soy sauce dressing placed it clearly in the Far East. When I dined at a Taiwanese pub in Los Angeles, I was surprised to find a whole section of the menu devoted to basil dishes. There was a seafood stir-fry with basil, an entree of chicken and meat in syrupy basil-soy sauce and more exotic offerings like duck tongues with basil and hot peppers.
When chopping basil, be sure the leaves, the knife and the board are dry; otherwise the basil will discolor when you chop it.
To store basil, pack it loosely in a bag and don’t put anything on top of it. You can keep it in the vegetable compartment or the lower part of the refrigerator for three or four days.
The writer is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
These crostini – Italian-style appetizer toasts with a savory topping – are spread with a quick basilflavored mushroom pâté and topped with a slice of fresh mozzarella. They make an easy, festive first course for a meatless dinner. Choose finequality crusty bread, preferably whole-grain.
Using mozzarella in this fashion is a good way to enjoy the luscious cheese in a healthy menu.
170 to 225 gr. (6 to 8 oz.) mushrooms, rinsed, patted dry
2 to 3 tsp. extra virgin olive oil 1 garlic clove, minced salt and freshly ground pepper
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped basil cayenne pepper to taste
12 thin slices baguette, preferably whole-grain
12 thin slices fresh mozzarella
12 small basil leaves (for garnish)
Chop mushrooms in food processor to fine pieces, almost to a puree. Heat 2 tsp. oil in a medium skillet. Add garlic and sauté over medium heat, stirring, for a few seconds. Add mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 3 minutes or until mixture is dry. Off heat, stir in basil. Add cayenne; taste and adjust seasoning.
Preheat broiler with rack about 13 cm. (5 in.) from heat source. Toast bread about 2 minutes per side or until lightly browned. Turn off broiler; set oven to 230ºC (450ºF).
Put toasted bread slices on a baking sheet. Spread them with mushroom mixture and top with mozzarella. Return to oven and heat just until warm, about 3 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil if you like. Top each with a basil leaf and serve.
Makes 6 servings
A generous dose of basil flavors this recipe from Kosher Elegance – The Art of Cooking with Style. Author Efrat Libfroind recommends making this dish with cherry tomatoes of different colors – red, orange, yellow and burgundy, but it is delicious when made with one kind of cherry tomato or other small tomato. For extra drama, Libfroind serves the salad in stemmed glasses, such as martini glasses.
In addition to the basil, roasted pine nuts and slivered almonds give the salad a festive touch. To toast the nuts, heat them in a dry skillet over mediumlow heat, tossing them often, for 2 to 3 minutes.
I find the technique of cutting cherry tomatoes in half useful whenever you add them to a salad, so the dressing can flavor the inside of the tomatoes.
3 cups cherry tomatoes
3 Tbsp. slivered almonds
4 Tbsp. pine nuts
1 handful basil leaves, chopped
6 sprigs chives, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. vinegar
1⁄2 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. black pepper
Cut tomatoes in half and place in a bowl. Toast almonds and pine nuts in a dry frying pan.
Place on top of tomatoes in bowl. Add basil, chives and garlic and toss.
Mix dressing ingredients in a small bowl and pour over salad. Toss lightly and serve.
Makes 6 servings