Val’s way with bril­liant basil

A hot­tie herb used to make pesto has be­come a house­hold favourite. Va­lerie O’con­nor of­fers mouth-wa­ter­ing tips on how to grow this taste-os­terone fu­elled Ital­ian

Irish Examiner - Property & Interiors - - In The Garden -

Basil is the de­li­cious and fra­grant del­i­cate herb that we just can’t get enough of since pesto ex­ploded into our lives back in the nineties. Since then it’s been pasta with pesto, salmon with pesto, pesto bake, ba­con with pesto, pesto with pesto. Pesto, for a while was a bit of a pest. It’s easy to buy nice pesto any­where these days, though many are made with less than best in­gre­di­ents. Of course the fa­mous pesto Lig­uria, from Italy uses care­fully hand­picked basil from well cared-for plants.

If you want to grow your own basil it’s very easy and the plants will last about two months each, if you keep them well wa­tered and grow them in or­ganic com­post. The plants that you buy from shops look great be­cause there are so many seeds used in each pot so you get a re­ally full plant, but once you take it home you will see how quickly it dies. These plants are also forced in hot-house con­di­tions so don’t adapt too well to your Ir­ish kitchen and tend to die quickly.

There are many va­ri­eties of basil to buy so just get started with a reg­u­lar basil. Holy basil and pur­ple basil have dif­fer­ent flavours and all these herbs can be used in many dishes, not just Ital­ian, they are great to pep up an Asian noo­dle salad or soup or to stuff into fresh spring rolls.

To grow your own basil just get a packet of seeds. You will need some small pots and some good com­post, reg­u­lar com­post won’t do as there isn’t enough nutri­tion to feed an edi­ble plant. John Innes Num­ber 2 will do the job. Sim­ply fill your pots two thirds full and pop in just two seeds per pot. Cover with soil and wa­ter them well. Don’t put them out­side, leave them on a sunny win­dow sill, and seedlings will ap­pear quickly.

Within three weeks you should have a plant a cou­ple of inches tall. To cre­ate a full, bushy plant pinch out the top shoots, the big leaves on the top just above the new small, ones un­der­neath.

Don’t go mad pick­ing the leaves un­til the plants are a bit more ma­ture, the pinch­ing out will en­cour­age new growth. If you re­ally love basil, then plant new seeds every three to four weeks to keep you in fresh stock of this won­der­ful herb.

To re­cy­cle your pots for suc­ces­sion plant­ing, just get an old con­tainer like a tub and fill it with com­post and some bits of bro­ken ceramic or stones for drainage. Pop the plants out of their pots, loosen the roots gen­tly and lay them in the tub, not too many to­gether and fill them in with soil. Wa­ter the plants in well — a well tended basil plant should keep giv­ing for about two months be­fore it goes to flower, but you can keep on sow­ing them un­til the end of sum­mer, so now is good.

Two of the most pop­u­lar things to do with basil are pesto and br­uschetta. In my wheat-free days there was noth­ing I missed more than a big bowl of spaghetti, but now that I’m off meat I’m eat­ing all these things again.

If you’re stay­ing away from wheat there are great pas­tas made from spelt or brown rice. I find the brown rice spaghetti good for a sauce like pesto, as it’s not as dense as the spelt. Ve­g­ans can leave out the cheese or use ve­gan cheese which I am cur­rently work­ing on. (I’ll re­port when all is safe to do so).

PESTO

A trea­sured sta­ple of Ital­ian cook­ing and now a sauce, condi­ment, call it what you will, an in­sti­tu­tion in food, loved the world over. Mak­ing your own is easy and noth­ing com­pares to the flavours you get from home-made freshly picked leaves, just blitzed and stirred into your hot spaghetti. If you don’t want to wait a month to make this recipe then by all means go and get some plants from the su­per­mar­ket, but why not buy a packet of seeds at the same time? Some recipes call for blanch­ing the basil but I think this just dulls the flavour.

In­gre­di­ents:

You will need a food pro­ces­sor. Grab as much basil as you have, about 8 cups will make enough for today and an­other meal 1/2 cup parme­san cheese

2 tblsp pine nuts — toasted or not, some peo­ple say wal­nuts taste just as good 2 gar­lic cloves — good or­ganic gar­lic is best 1/2 cup mild olive oil, don’t use ex­tra vir­gin, it’s too pep­pery

Sea salt

METHOD

In your food pro­ces­sor blitz the gar­lic and then add the basil, in batches if needed, then add the nuts and blitz again. Spoon out the mix­ture and pour in the olive oil and stir well to loosen up the herb mix­ture, now stir in the cheese and about 1/2 tsp sea salt and your pesto is ready.

Cook your spaghetti to the instructions on the packet, be­ing care­ful not to over­cook it. La­dle some pesto into a big bowl and lift your spaghetti out of the pot so it still has some wa­ter cling­ing to it, don’t let it sit to get sticky in a colan­der.

Mix it through the pesto, adding a lit­tle more cook­ing wa­ter from the pot if you need the sauce to ad­here bet­ter, this makes a lovely silky sauce that holds much bet­ter to the pasta. Driz­zle on some ex­tra cheese and get stuck in. Keep any ex­tra pesto in a jar, cov­ered with some ex­tra olive oil.

BR­USCHETTA

Cur­rently one of the most or­dered starters in restau­rants and of­ten du­bi­ously made. Cheese on br­uschetta?? I don’t think so. You need good ro­bust bread to make a good br­uschetta and the whole point of it is to use up bread that’s go­ing stale. I al­ways use sour­dough as it won’t go soggy un­der the toma­toes, but use any good rus­tic bread you can get. This is sum­mer fresh­ness and sim­plic­ity on a plate, or a slate if you’re in a res­tau­rant, or a shovel if you’re in some hip­ster joint.

Serves 2

2 large slices of good bread, white or a rus­tic rye and white mix

1 clove of gar­lic, peeled

2 large or 10-12 small plum toma­toes, any tasty toma­toes will do

Olive oil, a glug/ Sea salt and pep­per Fresh basil leaves

Toast the bread. Chop the toma­toes and pile them into a bowl with the olive oil, basil, salt and pep­per, mix it all around.

When the bread pops from the toaster, rub the gar­lic into it while it’s still hot, pay­ing at­ten­tion to the crusty bits where the gar­lic will melt in bet­ter.

Pile on the tomato mix and it’s ready to eat.

Pic­ture: Va­lerie O’con­nor

What’s bet­ter than a lunch made with fresh basil, toma­toes and gar­lic.

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