The first is the Mediterranean basil that goes with tomatoes. It may have big, medium or tiny leaves, but the flavour and scent vary only in intensity. It is heady, peppery, almost clove-like, and evocative of hot summer days.
Then there is holy basil from Asia. This has the pepperiness of all basils but is distinctly anise-scented and deliciously aromatic. Its long stems are flagged with tapering leaves, and it is a slightly slatier green, often streaked with purple. Presumably this is the 'truer' basil, as India is where the plant is thought to have originated. When you find holy basil here, in Thai or Malaysian grocers, it has usually been flown in from South-east Asia, which is to the good.
Basil, any kind of basil, likes strong sunlight. Searingly hot sun fuels the intensity of flavour in the growing plant. Homegrown garden basil this year, if it has been out in full sun, should be notching up an almost Italian passion.
Greenhouse basil, on the other hand, shielded from the full glare, can lack flavour. I recently bought a huge bagful to make a vat of pesto. The leaves smelt sensational and looked ravishingly green, healthy and vigorous. The pesto, though, turned out to be disappointingly dull.
Devotees have strong views about the way basil is handled. I have read and heard that the leaves should, like lettuce, only be torn up by hand, never cut. I am not convinced. The edges of torn basil are bruised and will darken just as knife-shredded basil will.
When it comes to making pesto, or the French pistou, the debate is pestle and mortar versus processor. Here I admit that the pestle may have the edge taste- wise as it presses out the juices, but the difference is not great. The processor is blissfully quick, but useless for small quantities. Either way, the exact proportions of ingredients are as variable as the cook cares to make them. I use about 3- 4oz (85-110g) of basil leaves to 2 cloves of garlic, 2oz (55g) hard pecorino or parmesan, 1 1/2 oz (45g) pine nuts, a little salt, and olive oil enough to produce a thick sauce.
Soupe au pistou
This must be the second most famous basil dish, after pesto. It is the southern French form of minestrone, enlivened with the region's own garlic and basil puree. The vegetables can be varied to fit whatever is freshest at the time.
Ingredients: 6oz (170g) dried haricot beans, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed
3tbs olive oil
1 onion, chopped
12oz (340g) tomatoes, skinned and chopped
12oz (340g) waxy potatoes, peeled and diced
1 leek, sliced
1 stalk of celery, thinly sliced
1 courgette, diced
8oz (225g) green beans, cut into 1/2 in (1.5cm) lengths
1 large carrot, diced
1 bouquet garni
3 pints (1.75 litres) water
2oz (55g) short vermicelli
salt and pepper
For the pistou: 3 large cloves garlic
a handful of basil leaves
4tbs extra virgin olive oil
To serve: freshly grated parmesan
Preparation: Cook the haricot beans in unsalted water until just tender, and drain. Fry the onion gently in the olive oil in a large pan until tender. Add the tomatoes, and continue frying until they have softened to a pulp. Next, put in the haricot beans, leek, potatoes, celery, carrot, bouquet garni, water, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes, skimming off any scum. Add the courgette, green beans and vermicelli. Simmer for 10 minutes or so until everything is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning.
While the soup is cooking, make the pistou. If you want to make it by hand, pound the cloves of garlic with the basil leaves and a little salt in a mortar until they form a paste. Gradually work in the olive oil.
If your processor can handle small amounts, process garlic, basil and a little salt, then, with the motor still running, drizzle in the olive oil. Stir the pistou into the soup just before you take it to the table. Pass the parmesan around.
Gai paad ga-prow
(Thai stir-fried chicken with basil)
I first tasted this in a market in northern Thailand, where holy basil is cheap. It is cooked in two shakes, and makes a marvellous quick lunch with a bowl of rice. If you cannot get holy basil, ordinary sweet basil works just as well.
Ingredients: 2oz (55g) basil leaves
4tbs vegetable oil
1lb (450g) boned, skinned chicken, coarsely minced or finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 shallots, thinly sliced
3 red chillis, deseeded and thinly shredded
1/2 in (1.25cm) piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
2tbs fish sauce
2tsp dark muscovado sugar
salt if needed
Preparation: Set aside 5 or 6 basil leaves for a final garnish. Tear up the rest. Heat a wok over a high heat for a couple of minutes, then add 2tbs oil. Wait a few seconds, then add the chicken, and stir-fry until just cooked through - this will take only a minute or two. Put the chicken and its juices into a bowl.
Add the remaining oil to the wok and heat thoroughly. Add the shallots and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Now add the garlic, chillis and ginger and stir- fry for a further minute. Add the torn basil leaves and stir-fry for 1 minute. Return the chicken and its juices to the pan, along with the fish sauce and sugar. Stir fry briefly to heat the chicken right through again. Scoop into a serving dish, top with reserved basil and serve with rice.
The sweet nature of basil is often overlooked, but it can work well in puddings. Here it is folded into a cream and cheese mixture that will be drained to form cremets, which are particularly good served with soft summer fruit and/or a raspberry coulis (sieved raspberries sweetened with a little icing sugar). If you do not have purpose-made moulds, improvise with plastic yoghurt pots or whatever is to hand.
Ingredients: 10oz (285g) cream cheese
1/4 pint (150ml) fromage frais or Greek yoghurt
7fl oz (200ml) creme frache, or whipping cream, lightly whipped
2 1/2 tbs castor sugar
3tbs chopped basil
1 egg white
Preparation: If you have them, line 6 small coeur a la creme moulds with muslin. Failing that, assemble small yoghurt or cream pots or plastic flowerpots, and pierce holes in the bottom with a hot skewer. Rinse, then line with muslin.
Beat the cream cheese with the fromage frais or yoghurt until smooth. Fold in the creme frache or whipping cream, castor sugar and basil. Whip the egg white until stiff, and fold that in last. Spoon the mixture into the lined moulds. Stand on a wire rack over a shallow dish, cover and leave overnight in the fridge to drain. Turn out just before serving.Reuse content