Basil is the most summery herb of all, says Rachel Allen, who uses it in everything from pestos to cocktails. Photography by Tony Gavin
The sweet, fresh flavour of basil makes it the quintessential summer herb. It’s an intrinsic flavour in Italian and Provencal cooking, as well as in many south-east Asian recipes, and it packs such a pretty punch with its gentle, peppery notes. The classic Genovese pesto would, of course, have been very different without the leafy green herb that brings its unmistakable flavour to everything from pastas and pizzas to salads and sauces. The tomato is probably basil’s best friend, though it loves hanging out with all the other summer veggies too, such as peppers, aubergines, courgettes and broad beans.
When you’re adding basil to a dish, it’s worth putting half of the leaves in for the cooking part and saving the other half for adding in at the end; this will give you the two dimensions of basil’s great flavour.
The Italians always say that basil shouldn’t be chopped — which is good advice, as the leaves will bruise and lose flavour quickly — so tearing or slicing is the best bet for this baby.
Research suggests that basil — which is part of the mint family — can help to fight bacteria and viruses. It comes in a few different guises from green to opal, sweet or lemon-scented. For south-east Asian cooking, it’s Thai or holy basil that’s used, but if you can’t get your hands on those, the sweet or lemon basil will be great too.
This summer, I have a delicious basil oil on the go, as described in my Tip, above right, but my newest discovery is a basil gin (made in the same way as the oil) which has, all of a sudden, turned into my favourite summery tipple.
BASIL AND LEMON MOJITOS (Pictured) Makes 1.
You will need: 4 basil leaves, torn or sliced ½ to 1 tablespoon light brown sugar ¼ of a lemon, cut into 2 pieces 35-50ml (1 ½ to 2fl oz) white or golden rum Crushed ice, to serve Lemon slices, to serve
Put the torn or sliced basil leaves, whichever you’re using, and half a tablespoon of the light brown sugar in a glass. Use the end of a wooden spoon, or something similar, to crush the basil leaves into the sugar. Next, add the lemon pieces and use the same spoon to squash and extract the juices from the lemon. If you wish, you can put the glass in the fridge for about half an hour at this stage to let the flavours meld together. To finish, add the white or golden rum, whichever you’re using, top up the glass with the crushed ice and gently stir to combine. Taste, adding more light brown sugar if necessary. Garnish with the lemon slices.
THAI PORK NOODLE SOUP WITH BASIL AND CORIANDER Serves 4.
You will need: 110g (4oz) medium or fine rice noodles 1L (1 ¾ pts) chicken stock 1 stalk of lemongrass, bashed (or rolled with a rolling pin) and cut in half 1 x 3cm (1 ½ in) piece of ginger, cut into about 6 slices Juice of 1 lime 1 tablespoon fish sauce 1 tablespoon soy sauce 2 teaspoons palm sugar or brown sugar 1-2 red chillies, sliced plus, to garnish, ½ to 1 red chilli, finely chopped and deseeded 1 small bunch of coriander, about 20 stalks 400g (14oz) quite lean minced pork 2 teaspoons finely grated ginger 1 clove of garlic, crushed or finely grated Salt 2 tablespoons sunflower oil or rapeseed oil A small handful of torn basil leaves
Put the medium or fine rice noodles, whichever you’re using, in a bowl. Pour boiling water over them to cover them very well, and leave them to stand for about 5 minutes, or until they are softened. Drain the noodles and set them aside, leaving about 50ml (2fl oz) of the soaking liquid in with the noodles to stop them sticking together.
Put the chicken stock, the bashed lemongrass halves and the sliced ginger in a saucepan and put it on a high heat. Bring it to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the lime juice, the fish sauce, the soy sauce, the palm sugar or brown sugar, whichever you’re using, and the 1-2 sliced red chillies.
While the broth is simmering, cut off the thick stems from the base of the coriander stalks, removing just 2-3cm (about ¾ in to 1 ¼ in), and discard. Pick the coriander leaves off the remaining stems and set aside, then finely chop the stems.
Mix together the minced pork, the finely grated ginger, the crushed or finely grated garlic, whichever you’re using, and the chopped coriander stems and season with salt. Roll the mixture into 20 balls.
Put a large frying pan on a high heat, allow it to get hot, and then add the sunflower oil or the rapeseed oil, whichever you’re using.
Tip in the pork balls (if the frying pan doesn’t fit them all comfortably in a single layer, then cook them in two batches). Cook the pork balls, stirring them occasionally, for 6-8 minutes until they are golden brown and cooked in the centre, then remove them to a piece of kitchen paper on a plate.
Divide the noodles between four warmed bowls, then add the pork balls and pour over the broth, leaving the ginger slices and the lemongrass behind in the saucepan. Garnish with the coriander leaves, the torn basil leaves and the finely chopped red chilli, and serve.
TOMATO, BASIL AND CHEESE TART Serves 4-6.
For the shortcrust pastry, you will need: 200g (7oz) plain flour, plus a little extra for rolling out the pastry Pinch of salt 110g (4oz) butter, chilled and diced 1 egg, beaten For the filling, you will need: 10 ripe tomatoes, halved across the equator
2 tablespoons olive oil Sea salt and freshly ground pepper ½ teaspoon sugar 25g (1oz) butter 1 onion, peeled and chopped finely 200ml (7fl oz) cream 2 eggs 2 tablespoons torn or sliced basil 150g (5oz) grated cheese, such as cheddar or Gruyere
You will need a 25cm (10in) tart tin.
First, make the pastry. If you are making the pastry by hand: put the plain flour and the pinch of salt in a mixing bowl and rub in the diced butter until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add in half of the beaten egg and, using your hands, bring the pastry together. If it is too dry to come together, add a little more beaten egg until it does.
If you are making the pastry in a food processor, add the plain flour, the salt and the diced butter. Whizz up for a few seconds, then add half of the beaten egg and continue whizzing for just a few seconds until the pastry comes together. You might need to add a little more egg, but don’t add too much; the pastry should just come together.
Do not knead the pastry — shape it into a round, about 1 or 2cm (less than ½ in to ¾ in) thick, using your hands to flatten it.
Cover the pastry with cling film and put it in the fridge for about 30 minutes (it can sit in the fridge for up to 24 hours, and it can also be frozen for up to three months).
Reserve any leftover beaten egg for use when you’re baking the pastry. Preheat the oven to 180°C, 350°F, Gas 4. To roll the pastry, take it out of the fridge and place it on a floured worktop, or between two sheets of cling film, which should be bigger than your tart tin. Using a rolling pin, roll the pastry out until it is about just 3mm thick. Make sure to keep it round, if the tin is round; and large enough to line the base and sides of the tin.
If you’re using cling film to roll out the pastry, remove the top layer of cling film, place the pastry upside down into the tart tin — the remaining cling-film side should be facing up. There is no need to flour or grease the tin. Press the pastry into the edges of the tin, cling film still attached, and using your thumb, ‘cut’ the pastry on the edge of the tin. At this stage, it should look quite neat. If there are any holes or gaps, patch them up with some of your spare pastry. Remove the cling film, if you’re using it, and chill the pastry in the fridge for 10 minutes, or even in the freezer for 5 minutes.
Next, blind-bake the pastry. When the pastry is chilled, line it with parchment paper, leaving plenty of paper to come up the sides. Fill it with baking beans, dried pulses or even rice (you can use these over and over), and blind-bake the pastry for 25-30 minutes in the preheated oven, until the pastry feels just dry to the touch on the base. Remove the parchment paper and the baking beans or dried pulses or rice, whichever you’re using, brush the pastry with a little of the leftover beaten egg and return the pastry to the oven for three minutes.
Again, if there are any little holes or cracks in the pastry, just patch them up with any leftover raw pastry — the filling will leak out in the oven if any holes haven’t been patched up. Once the pastry is baked blind, take it out of the oven. Set pastry aside in the tin while you make the filling.
To make the filling, put the halved tomatoes, cut-side up, onto a baking sheet, drizzle them with the olive oil and sprinkle them with some sea salt and the sugar. Put them in the preheated oven and bake them for 40-60 minutes until they are completely soft and a little golden around the edges. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool.
Put a frying pan on a medium heat and add the butter. When it is melted and foaming, add the finely chopped onion and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until they are golden. Then remove the pan from the heat and allow them to cool.
In a bowl, whisk together the cream and eggs and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread out the cooked finely chopped onion, in a layer, in the blind-baked pastry shell. Top the layer of onion with two-thirds of the grated cheese, then arrange the cooked tomato halves on top. Add the sliced or torn basil, whichever you’re using. Next, pour in the cream and egg mixture and top with the remaining grated cheese. Put the tart in the oven and bake it for 30-40 minutes until it’s golden brown and just set in the centre.