The town of Liguria, in northern Italy, smells like basil in the summer. It grows everywhere, in wild and crazy clusters, and it pops up in nearly every summer dish. It’s easy to see why. Basil’s pungent flavor (a cross between licorice, clove and lemon) and silky soft texture is vibrant, bold and playful. It’s the essence of summer wrapped up in an oval-shaped leaf.
Even if you’re not in Liguria, you can still enjoy basil in the summer. This sun-loving herb grows easily in a backyard garden or in a clay pot in a sunny window. You’ll have fresh herbs at your fingertips when you want to add it to simple summer salads or whip up a batch of pesto, and as a bonus, basil repels flies. If that’s not enough to send you running to the garden center, legend has it that if a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman, he’ll love her forever. Who needs match.com when you have basil in the house?
By some accounts, there are 165 species of basil, though we’re most likely to come into contact with sweet, opal (a stunning purple-colored leaf), lemon or cinnamon. If you’re buying basil at the market, look for bunches with brightly colored leaves that aren’t wilted and don’t have discoloration. The basil should have a strong fragrance. When you get it home, wrap basil loosely in a damp paper towel and store in the fridge in a plastic bag. It should last about 4 days.
You can use any variety to make an easy summer salad. Just thickly slice a garden-grown tomato and sprinkle with salt; top with a fresh basil leaf and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Serve with fresh burrata, rustic country bread and a glass of chilled rose. It’s the perfect sit-back-and-watch the sunset kind of a meal.
Another great way to use basil is in pesto. In Liguria, the women made pesto in a mortar and pestle. It was so gorgeously chunky and rustic and it tasted like it had been made exactly that way for generations. You can make it in one or use a food processor, which will give it a smoother texture. All you need is
Basil. Keep in mind pesto can be made with any type of soft green. Try it with arugula, cilantro or spinach.
Parmesan cheese or your favorite hard cheese
Nuts. Pine nuts are traditionally used in pesto, but different nuts lend different flavor profiles, so don’t be afraid to try macademia nuts or walnuts. To elevate the nuttiness, lightly toast the nuts in a hot pan before using.
Extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin makes all the difference. Trust me.
Lemon for a key burst of acidity
Salt to taste
The beauty of a pesto is that you can mess with the amounts of the ingredients to suit your palate. If you want the pesto saucy so you can toss it with pasta, add more oil and lemon. Looking to make a spread for picnic sandwiches? Cut down on the liquid and use a mortar and pestle to keep it chunky. Go light on the garlic, up the cheese, make it peppery with arugula instead of basil. The world is your pesto oyster, feel free to play.
For a quick and satisfying summer meal, try this Pesto-Glazed Chicken Breast with Spaghetti.