Basil: from seed to plate

A guide to planting your own basil, making pesto at home and creating dishes that are guaranteed to impress.
Basil can be grown in the garden or indoors. iStock photo
Basil can be grown in the garden or indoors. iStock photo

Growing basil

Basil is one of the most wonderfully fragrant and easiest-to-grow herbs around. Though sweet basil is the most common variety and ­recommended for making ­pesto, there are several other kinds to choose from, so your first step is ­figuring out which you would like.

Cinnamon basil, which gives out the sweet and warm aroma of its namesake, also grows pretty and fragrant flowers; lemon basil ­contains citral, an aromatic compound also found in citrus fruit; while purple basil has great decorative qualities.

Once you’ve made your choice, it’s time to plant. As basil needs warm air and sun to grow, you can plant the seeds in your garden, although it can also thrive indoors. Fill your seed containers with a mixture of equal parts perlite, vermiculite and peat, all of which regulate the moisture and oxygen around the plant. For a more eco-conscious alternative, you can substitute peat with composted bark, coir, wood fibre or green compost, mixed with inorganic materials such as grit, sharp sand and rock wool.

Press the mixture to eliminate any air pockets and dampen with water. Drop one or two seeds into each container and lightly cover them with soil. Use clear cling film to cover the tops of your containers so they stay moist. You should sprinkle the soil twice daily with water.

Once sprouts emerge (they look like little green tendrils), remove the plastic wrap and continue to water, twice daily (more during the warmer months), to ensure that the soil doesn’t dry out. Soil should be kept damp, rather than soaked.

When the sprouts grow to a few inches, transfer them into larger containers. Once two sets of leaves have formed, make sure the container is large enough to accommodate the number of plants you are growing, allowing for each to be 6 inches (around 15cm) apart.

To ensure your basil leaves maintain their flavour, pinch off any flower heads and the two pairs of leaves ­directly under them. Finally, as the plant matures and the stalk reaches a reasonable height, pinch off the top two pairs of leaves (this is known as pruning), taking care not to destroy the two tiny leaves just below.

Making pesto

Basil is a great addition to any number of dishes, from salads to just about anything that you can find on an Italian restaurant menu. And let’s face it, nothing has that yum factor quite like a pizza topped with a few sprigs of fresh basil.

It should come as no surprise, then, that this fragrant herb works brilliantly as the front runner in several recipes, pesto being the most common. This delicious, easy-to-make Italian staple only requires a handful of ingredients and five minutes of your time.

Ingredients

• 2 cups of fresh basil leaves

• 2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil

• ¼ cup of pine nuts

• 2 cloves of garlic

• ½ teaspoon of salt and pepper

• ½ cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Tip

Some people choose to toast the pine nuts prior to making their pesto. If you do this, heat a dry frying pan over medium heat and add pine nuts, toasting until lightly browned.

Method

• Combine the basil, ½ clove of garlic, a pinch of salt, olive oil and pine nuts into a food processor and pulse.

• Add the Parmesan into the mix and pulse again until it becomes smooth.

• Remove the pesto from the processor and place into a bowl.

• Taste the pesto and seasoning with more olive oil, salt, pepper and/or a squeeze of lemon, as needed.

Tip

Your pesto can be used ­immediately or stored in the fridge for about a week. Alternatively, you can place the pesto into ice trays and freeze for longer periods of time.

For those who are looking for an ­alternative to green pesto, why not throw in a few tomatoes to make a lovely red pesto? Not only does it taste great, it also adds a healthy dose of ­vitamin C and folic acid.

Recipes

Claudio Melis, the group executive Italian chef for the Jumeira Group, is driven by an appreciation of fresh, simple ingredients and authentic Italian cooking. The Sardinian chef and author of La Cucina a Colori di Claudio Melis oversees operations at Alta Badia in Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Segreto and Toscana in Madinat Jumeirah and Carnevale and La Veranda in Jumeirah Beach Hotel, and is a frequent visitor of local farmers’ markets around the UAE. Here, he shares two delicious recipes that will expertly showcase the flavours of your home-grown basil

1. Giardino d’inverno - Winter garden

Serves 4

Ingredients

• 4 eggs

• 40g red radish

• 120g carrots

• 120g baby potatoes

• 120g butternut squash

• 80g snow peas

• 120g artichokes

• 80g broccoli romanesco/broccolini

• 50g fresh basil

• 5g chopped shallot

• 100ml extra virgin olive oil

• 10g grated Parmesan

• 5g pine nuts

• 20g garlic

• 5g fresh thyme

• Salt and pepper to taste

• Mixed edible flowers to garnish

Method

• For the basil pesto, wash the basil leaves and put in a blender along with the Parmesan, pine nuts, shallots and 60ml of the oil. Blend well and refrigerate.

• Poach the eggs in the water at 65°C for 50 minutes.

• Parboil the potatoes in salted water for approximately 20 minutes.

• Take half of the carrots, half of the butternut squash and the radish, cut into thin, long slices. Keep in iced water.

• Cut the potatoes in half and roast with the remaining carrots, remaining butternut squash, artichokes and garlic, thyme and oil at 180°C for 40 minutes.

• Blanch the snow peas and broccoli in salted water for 2 minutes and then chill in iced water.

• Add the snow peas and broccoli to the roasting pan for the last few minutes.

• Season well.

To serve

Spread the pesto onto four flat plates, arrange the raw and cooked vegetables on the pesto and top with the slow-cooked egg. Garnish with few edible flowers and drizzle over a touch of oil.

Chef’s top tip

This dish is best when the vegetables come from an ­organic farmers’ market. The eggs need to be extremely fresh and ideally organic as well.

2. Gnocchi basilico pomodoro - gnocchi in sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients

• 520g potatoes

• 120g strong plain flour

• 1 egg

• Pinch of nutmeg

• 60g fresh basil

• 100g tomatoes, datterino or cherry

• 1 clove of garlic

• 80ml extra virgin olive oil

• 30g yogurt

• 1 lemon

• 5g chopped chives

• Salt and pepper to taste

Method

• Take four tomatoes, cut in half and dry in the oven for two hours at 85°C.

• Boil the peeled potatoes in salted water until cooked and mash well.

• For the gnocchi filling, take 100g of mashed potatoes, add yogurt, chopped chives, lemon zest and season.

• For the gnocchi dough, take the remaining mashed potatoes (reserving 20g), mix with the flour, egg and nutmeg, and season.

• Roll out the dough and cut into rounds with a ring (8cm diameter). Place a heaped teaspoon of filling onto the dough and close like a half moon.

• For the basil sauce, wash the basil leaves and blend with 20g of mashed potatoes and 10ml of oil till the sauce becomes thin and smooth.

• For the tomato sauce, cut the remaining tomatoes in half and fry quickly with oil and garlic, season with salt and pepper and strain.

• Take four basil leaves and deep fry in oil.

• Cook the gnocchi in salted boiling water for 3 minutes, spread a little oil on top and place on a flat plate.

• Garnish all around with dots of basil sauce and dots of tomato sauce.

• Garnish with the fried basil and 2 half dried ­tomatoes per portion.

Chef’s top tip

This is a traditional Italian dish, but in this case the gnocchi is filled with a little sour filling and served with a basil sauce instead of a classic oily pesto.

alane@thenational.ae

Published: December 25, 2014 04:00 AM

SHARE

Editor's Picks
NEWSLETTERS
Sign up to:

* Please select one