Basil rides again

Pub date July 31, 2007

Now is the season of our wondering what to do with all the basil. Basil has been particularly abundant this summer and of notably higher quality than the last few years, so we can’t say the droughty winter was a complete bust. All the summertime crops, in fact — from stone fruit to melons to tomatoes and beyond — have seemed especially sweet and full lately.

If we are facing a surfeit of basil, this almost certainly means we are facing an associated surfeit of tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and eggplant. There is a well-established procedure for dealing with that quartet: make ratatouille. Basil in ratatouille wouldn’t be a disaster, but the usual method of being thrifty about summer’s basil riches is to make pesto, which freezes well. Pesto issues include the mess involved in making it (even if in a food processor) and its extroverted personality. Pesto is a funny, loud, charming drunk at a party; you can’t help but feel a certain fondness, yet you long to get away.

I have been chopping up a few basil leaves and throwing them in salads for brightness. Basil, sliced into chiffonade, also makes an appealing addition to dishes with tomato-based sauces, such as my beloved Provençal seafood stew. I feared it would clash with the dash of pastis added at the end, but it turns out those flavors get along famously.

But excess basil finds one of its best homes with some chopped tomatoes in a simple pasta sauce. Start with a flavor base of diced red onion, softened in a splash of olive oil with a fleck of red chili flakes, a bit of minced parsley and garlic, and a pinch of salt. After seven or eight minutes, add some seafood, if you like (scallops, cubed fish, peeled shrimp), or diced chicken meat — or nothing — along with a healthy splash of dry white wine and some stock. (I use shrimp stock, but bottled clam juice will do.) Simmer until the sauce looks slightly thickened; throw in your chopped basil and tomatoes, turn off the heat, cover, and let stand for several minutes while your pasta cooks in a separate pot. Season with salt and black pepper to taste, thin the sauce as needed with pasta cooking water, and toss with the cooked pasta — linguine is good, as is some grated cheese on the side.

Paul Reidinger