Purple reigns

Add basil to your tomato salad - and, hey pesto!

The first time I met Marco Pierre White was over lunch at his Canteen restaurant, and I ordered the spaghetti with pesto. Feeling slightly daunted by the presence of the omnipotent one, I managed to pick my way through the pesto and leave the spaghetti - at which he looked rather shocked.

But I have long held an affection for pesto's orgy of basil - created by pulverising a heap of tender leaves into a green paste together with the requisite addition of pine nuts, garlic and coarsely grated, pungent cheeses.

In smaller quantities, though, basil can be curiously overwhelming. I have never worked this out, other than to quote the 17th-century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper who wrote that, "basil either makes enemies or gains lovers, but there is no in-between".

A tomato salad or panzanella easily suffers from a few leaves the wrong side of the equation. It becomes harsh and vulgar, affected with the same strains of aniseed and cloves which sing with unrestrained elegance when the leaves are crushed.

These days, even the most conscientious of Italians use a good processor for making their pesto. I have this on the authority of an Italian cook, who also said you should coat the blades with salt to achieve the same result as you would in a pestle and mortar. "Trrrry it, trry it," she huskily insisted, in a manner that left me in no doubt she was right.

This brings us to the business of chopping or tearing - an issue that has travelled through the ages, first with lettuce leaves, and now with the more delicate subject of how best to provide the finest fragrance of basil for your plum tomatoes on the vine.

I am relieved that Harold McGee has done most of the work for me on this in his The Curious Cook - Taking the Lid Off Kitchen Facts and Fallacies. Having always lived by the rule of the knife, I was interested to delve further into the subject.

"Tearing divides a leaf along the boundaries between cells," says McGee in a chapter entitled The Green and the Brown, "while a knife cuts right through cells. So tearing does less damage to the leaf than cutting, and, therefore, prolongs its fresh appearance."

Like all the best scientific experiments, he takes us through method, results and conclusion. Method: he takes some basil, which is prone to browning at the best of times, and tears it. Result: while the cut pieces develop a brown edge, the torn edges stay green. Conclusion: for a tomato salad to stay looking good, you should tear rather than cut your herb.

But enough of science and more of gustatory pleasure. It is a delight to find opal basil in pots beside the common green Genovese variety. I have always loved the sweeter fragrance of the purple one. In fact, it is my first choice in salads. It looks completely different with smaller leaves splayed at the edges.

I tasted my way through some of the other varieties when I visited the Fetzer Food and Wine Center in California, and there are strange and wonderful differences between them. Gently rub the leaves of the "cinnamon basil" and its scent is true to its name, while the "lettuce-leafed basil" has vast, floppy leaves that are large enough to wrap around a scallop and throw on the grill.

For pesto, though, the "Genovese" is made for the job. Freshly picked and consigned to the blade when its fragrance has the clarity of a garden after rain, it's easy enough to forget to eat the spaghetti.

Summer vegetables with pesto, serves 4

What Mr McGee omits to say in his treatise on basil and pesto is that spaghetti is not the only partner for this glorious, smudgy green sauce. I can happily spread it on a wide variety of things.


40g/112oz basil leaves

15g/12oz pine nuts

1 small garlic clove

4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

25g/1oz freshly grated Parmesan

sea salt and black pepper

To make the pesto, place the basil, pine nuts, garlic and olive oil in a food processor. Reduce it to a puree, incorporate the cheese and season. Cover and chill. If you do need to keep it, then cover the surface with a fine layer of olive oil.


700g/1lb 8oz largish new potatoes

50g/2oz unsalted butter

1 lemon

sea salt

175g/6oz fine French beans, topped and tailed

150g/5oz shelled fresh peas

caster sugar

Preheat the oven to 180C (fan oven)/190C (electric oven)/375F/Gas 5. Peel the potatoes and cut them into match sticks about 0.5cm/a quarter of an inch thick. Rinse and drain thoroughly. Place on a piece of foil large enough to enclose them. Dot with the butter, reserving a knob for the peas, and with a smidgen of lemon zest, squeeze over a little lemon juice and season with salt. Fold up into an airtight package and bake for 50-60 minutes.

When the potatoes are nearly cooked, bring a large pan of salted water to the boil and cook the beans for 3-5 minutes until just tender, then drain.

To cook the peas, place them in a saucepan with 3tbsp water, a large pinch of sugar and salt and a knob of butter and cook for about 3 minutes, tossing them.

Combine all the vegetables in a bowl and toss with the pesto. Serve straightaway

Suggested Topics
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing

Other places that have held independence referendums
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's most starring part

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week