Rachel Allen's Basic Basil Recipes
In a wide-ranging culinary tour, Rachel Allen uses the floral flavour of basil, which is beloved of both Italian and south-east Asian cooks.
Published 11/08/2014 | 02:30
The sweet, floral notes of basil make it the most summery of herbs. I love to throw the bright-green leaves, whether whole or torn or chopped, into soups, salads and summer stews.
Basil's aniseed aromas and peppery taste make it the perfect herb companion for tomatoes. In fact, apart from perhaps lamb and rosemary, I know of no more suitable herb pairing. Basil's flavour just works so well with a tomato. The classic Caprese salad doesn't just use basil for its green colour, to echo the Italian flag - for a simple salad, no other herb works as well as basil with some fresh tomatoes.
Pesto is the boldest expression of basil. It's all about the basil and should never be too garlicky or too oily. All the other ingredients should only serve to enhance the flavour of the basil. A simple dish of pasta with pesto needn't be just a student stand-by. It can be an elegant and bold dish that is wonderfully aromatic.
I usually use a food processor to make pesto, as it is more convenient, but a pestle and mortar is the traditional method of making it. The stone pestle and mortar pounds and grinds the basil, releasing its aromas without heating it, which can diminish the flavour.
While basil is undeniably a fundamental to Italian food, it is just as important to the cooking of south-east Asia.
I always remember the wonderful basil-laden red curries I had in Thailand. There, people usually use Thai basil, whose leaves are straighter and the stems purple. The flavour has more pronounced aniseed and is less peppery than regular basil. Thai basil is available in Asian food shops and it is worth seeking out for Asian recipes - the flavour stands up better to heat than other varieties of basil. If you can find it, purple basil has a similar flavour and, of course, it has a magnificent and unusual colour.
Handmade Classic Pesto
Fills a 200ml (7 fl oz) jar.
1 clove of garlic, crushed
25g (1oz) pine nuts
50g (2oz) basil leaves, chopped
25g (1oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
100ml (3½fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for the top
If you are using a large pestle and mortar to make the pesto, first add the crushed garlic clove with a pinch of salt and pound until smooth. Next, add the pine nuts and pound until they are coarsely crushed. Then, add the chopped basil leaves and pound together with the pine nuts and garlic until you have a coarse paste, then lightly mix in the grated Parmesan cheese using the pestle, followed by all of the extra-virgin olive oil. Taste and add more salt if necessary.
If you're using a food processor to make the pesto, put the the crushed garlic, the pine nuts, the chopped basil leaves, and the freshly grated Parmesan cheese in the food processor and whizz everything until it is coarse. Add a good pinch of salt and the extra-virgin olive oil and taste, adding more salt if necessary.
Pour the pesto into a sterilised jar and cover with 1cm (½ in) of extra-virgin olive oil and store in the fridge, where it will keep for up to three months.
Thai noodle broth
75g (3oz) egg or rice noodles (optional)
1 tablespoon of sunflower oil
1 x 400ml (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk
450ml (16fl oz) chicken stock
250g (9oz) peeled, raw tiger prawns
For the paste, you will need:
1 bunch of coriander
1 lemongrass stalk (outer layer removed), roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons caster sugar
½ red chilli, de-seeded
2 tablespoons water
To serve, you will need:
½ red chilli, de-seeded and sliced
A good handful of basil leaves, see my Tip, above (Thai basil if possible)
Juice of 1 lime
A few splashes of fish sauce (nam pla)
Cook the egg or rice noodles, whichever you're using, if you're using them, following the instructions on the packet, then drain them and rinse through with cold water. Drain again.
To make the paste, whizz the bunch of coriander, the chopped lemongrass stalk, the peeled garlic, the light soy sauce, the fish sauce, the caster sugar and the de-seeded chilli together with the 2 tablespoons of water in a food processor. Whizz for 1-2 minutes, or until a smooth paste has formed.
Put a large saucepan on a medium heat and add the sunflower oil. When it is hot, add the paste and cook for 1 minute, then add the coconut milk and the chicken stock and gently warm through for 5 minutes. Add the peeled, raw tiger prawns and the cooked noodles, if you're using them, and cook for a further 2 minutes until the prawns are opaque and firm.
To serve, stir in the sliced chilli, the basil leaves, the lime juice and the fish sauce, and pour into warmed bowls.
Tomato, Basil and coconut soup
1kg (2 lbs) ripe cherry tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 sprigs of basil
5 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of sugar
150g (5 oz) onion, chopped
425ml (¾pint) of chicken or vegetable stock
1 x 400g (14fl oz) tin of coconut milk
3 tablespoons chopped basil
Preheat the oven to 230°C (450°F) Gas 8.
Cut the ripe cherry tomatoes in half, removing the little core. Spread them out on a large roasting tray. Add the garlic cloves and the sprigs of basil, then drizzle over 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and season generously with some salt, freshly ground black pepper and the sugar. Place the tray in the hot oven and roast for 30-40 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and a little browned.
As the tomatoes are roasting, put the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan on a medium-low heat. Add the chopped onion and cook it for 8-10 minutes until soft.
When the onion is cooked, remove the tray from the oven and discard the basil sprigs. Add the tomatoes, the garlic and all the juices from the tray and the chicken or vegetable stock, whichever you are using, to the pan of cooked onions.
Increase the heat to medium-high, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Tip in the coconut milk and stir to mix. Taste and add more salt, freshly ground black pepper or sugar if necessary. Liquidise the soup in a blender or food processor until it is completely smooth.
If you'd like a very smooth soup you can sieve the liquid at this point - it's not essential, but I usually do.
Put the soup back in the pan; you can add more stock at this point if you'd like a thinner soup.
Reheat the soup to serve, divide it between the bowls and sprinkle over the chopped basil to garnish.
A pestle and mortar is one of my essential kitchen tools. Unchanged for thousands of years, I adore the simple elegance of using a good stone pestle and mortar.
Pestle and mortars come in many shapes and sizes, but I always find myself using a medium-sized stone one. I like that it is quite heavy, so it doesn’t require much work at all to grind up spices, nuts or herbs. It’s a good all-rounder and I think a medium-sized stone pestle and mortar makes for a smart purchase if you’re buying one for the first time.
If you like, though, you can also buy one made from wood or a ceramic version. I’m not so keen on the ceramic pestle and mortars as I think they can be too slippy, and are tricky for crushing spices because of this. The wooden versions are often used in Asian cooking. I don’t use my wooden pestle and mortar as much as my stone version.
However, they will do a good job with a little effort and they’re also useful as they’re lighter and often more affordable than stone. Once you have your pestle and mortar, you’ll find it indispensible for grinding spices, pounding small amounts of nuts, making spice pastes and even for hand-made pesto.
If you’re cooking with basil, don’t add all of it in during the cooking process, save the majority to finish the dish. A lot of the flavour is lost when you cook with basil, so just tear or chop the fresh basil to add to your dish at the last moment.
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