There may be only a few days left, but it still feels very much like summer at the moment. Some of the things I like most about the seasons are the scents and aromas I associate with each of them. In summer a favourite smell of mine is basil. Basil is truly an incredible herb. Enjoyed for its rich and spicy, mildly peppery flavor with a trace of mint and clove, basil is an annual herb belonging to the mint family. There are over 40 known varieties of basil of which Ocimum basilicum or Sweet Basil is the most commonly known and grown.
Ocimum is from a Greek verb that means “to be fragrant”. The delicate foliage is easily bruised and just brushing against its foliage releases its wonderfully spicy fragrance. Foliage colors range from pale to deep green, vivid purple and even purple laced with goldish yellow foliage. Basil is native to India and Asia having been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years. It is grown there as a perennial in those warm, tropical climates.
It is grown at my place in pots on the deck. I love being able to walk out and snip some off for use in whatever I am cooking. This year has produced a bumper crop so I decided to make pesto. It is not hard to make, but it is important to get the balance right with the few ingredients you need.
2 cups tightly packed basil leaves
60 gm pine nuts
4 cloves garlic
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
120 gm freshly grated parmesan (use the best you can get – it does make a difference)
Put everything except the parmesan into a food processor and blend until smooth, then stir through the cheese. A mortar and pestle will also do the job, but its hard to go past the ease of the processor.
If you don’t use it all straight away, store it in a screw top jar with a thin layer of olive oil on top. This layer of protection will help stop it spoil. It can also be frozen for up to six months.
One of the most common ways to use this culinary classic is with pasta. The traditional pasta used is normally trofie. Trofie is a Ligurian pasta made with flour and water, no eggs. It is from a place called Recco – and is rolled by hand into little squiggly shapes. I am yet to try making it, but after recently reading a story about it being called the “sexy pasta” because it used to be rolled on the side of the knee by fishermen’s wives waiting for their husbands to return from their fishing trips, think I might have to give it a try. Until then I will stick with what I have in the cupboard, so for the first dish I had using my just made pesto, I used tortiglioni which are a little larger than rigatoni and good with chunky sauces. This recipe serves two for dinner and provides lunch for one the next day!
Chicken pesto pasta
1/2 cup freshly made pesto
1 chicken breast fillet
1 small zucchini, sliced into circles
2 slices prosciutto
few small basil leaves
Put a big pot of water on. Whilst you are waiting for it to come to the boil, cook the chicken breast fillet in a frying pan with the tiniest drizzle of olive oil. Depending on the size of the fillet it should take around 8-10 minutes. Don’t overcook the chicken as it keeps cooking for a while after you remove it from the heat. When you think it is done, remove and put to the side so it can cool down. In the same pan place the pieces of prosciutto and cook until they are just getting crunchy. This will take no more than a minute. When the chicken is cool, use your fingers to shred it roughly so that you have thin strips. Then do the same to the prosciutto. At some point during all of this the water will have come to the boil and if you are clever, you will have noticed and put on the pasta! Cook it according to the instructions on the pack and when there is only a minute to go, add the zucchini. Drain the pasta and the zucchini.
Put the same pot on a low heat and add about two tablespoons of olive oil. Return the drained pasta and zucchini, the pesto, chicken and prosciutto to the pot and toss through until well combined. Serve into bowls and garnish with the baby basil leaves and a bit of freshly ground black pepper. Pour yourself a Margaret River Semillon Sauvignon Blanc and you have a wonderful summer dinner.