Explore the many variations of this versatile herb with these easy, delicious recipes, perfect for an al fresco summer lunch — and finish off with a Cuban mojito twist
The sweet floral notes of basil make it the most summery of herbs, bringing instant sunshine and goodness to soups, salads, sauces and summer stews.
Basil’s aniseed aromas and sweet, peppery flavour make it the ideal companion to summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and aubergines and, of course, it loves cheeses like Parmesan, mozzarella and ricotta. The original Genoese basil pesto is the boldest expression of basil. All the other ingredients simply serve to enhance and augment the flavour of the basil, and when a basil pesto is good, it can be the most delicious addition to everything from pasta to grilled lamb chops or roast chicken.
Yet, while basil is undeniably a fundamental to Italian food, it is just as important to the cooking of Southeast Asia, where many curries, soups, and noodle and rice dishes are heavily embellished with the herb. There, they use a few slightly different varieties of basil. There is Thai basil, which has straighter leaves and purple stems. The flavour has more pronounced aniseed notes and is less peppery than regular basil (or sweet basil). Asian cooks also use holy basil and lemon basil. All three varieties of basil can be grown here in a glasshouse or polytunnel, and they are also to be found in some Asian food shops.
I love this chilled courgette and basil soup recipe, below. The courgettes and basil don’t get cooked so the flavours are super-fresh and perfect for a sunny starter. The Thai noodle coconut broth, featured below, is a great little recipe — it’s light and invigorating, and perfect served as a meal in a bowl. This recipe uses prawns but other seafood or chicken will work well, too. Just don’t scrimp on the seasonings — you want to get the perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavours.
And from Southeast Asia to Havana, this little cocktail recipe, also featured here, gets its inspiration from the classic Cuban Mojito. The muddling of the basil gently mashes the herb to break down the fibres and release juices, helping the flavours to bind with the alcohol.
Cheers — or as they say in Cuba, salud!
You will need:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small leeks, trimmed and sliced (150g when sliced)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium courgettes, trimmed and sliced (200g when sliced)
10 large basil leaves
100ml natural yoghurt
Juice of ½ to 1 lemon
To serve, you will need:
A drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil
A few extra-small basil leaves
1 Put the extra-virgin olive oil in a saucepan sitting over a medium heat. Add the sliced leeks and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir together so that the leeks are coated in the olive oil.
2 Turn the heat down to low and cover the saucepan with a lid. Cook the leeks very gently for about 10-15 minutes until they are completely tender. You’ll need to stir regularly to make sure they don’t stick and burn.
3 Tip the leeks and any juices out of the pan onto a plate and allow to cool.
4 Once the leeks have cooled, put them in a blender, along with any juices on the plate, and add the sliced raw courgettes, the basil leaves and the natural yoghurt.
5 Blend until totally smooth. Add the water and some lemon juice to taste, and a little more sea salt and freshly ground black pepper if the soup needs it.
6 Serve the soup cold or at room temperature with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil over the top and some extra-small basil leaves to garnish, if you wish.
Basil is a bit like lettuce in that it bruises really easily, so when adding it to a dish, it’s better to tear it or slice it, rather than repeatedly chopping it!
You will need:
75g rice noodles
For the paste, you will need:
Approximately 12 stalks of coriander leaves, chopped
1 lemongrass stalk (outer layer removed), roughly chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
2 tablespoons caster sugar
½ a red chilli, de-seeded
For the broth, you will need:
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 x 400ml tin coconut milk
450ml chicken stock
250g peeled raw prawns
To serve, you will need:
½ a red chilli, de-seeded and sliced
A good handful of basil leaves (Thai basil if possible)
Juice of 1 lime
A good few splashes of Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
1 Put the rice noodles in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Put a plate or a lid over the top of the bowl to keep it warm. Allow the noodles to sit for approximately 5 minutes until they are tender. Drain them, reserving some of the soaking water. Set the noodles aside in a bowl, adding a few tablespoons of the soaking water to stop them sticking.
2 To make the paste, put the chopped coriander leaves, the roughly chopped lemongrass stalk, the garlic cloves, the fish sauce, the caster sugar and the de-seeded chilli in a blender or food processor. Whizz for 1-2 minutes or until a smooth paste is formed.
3 Next, make the broth. Place a large saucepan on a medium heat and add the sunflower oil. When hot, add the paste and cook for 1 minute, stirring it well. Add the tinned coconut milk and the chicken stock and gently simmer for 5 minutes. The broth can be prepared in advance up to this point if you wish.
4 Just before serving the broth, add the prawns into the boiling broth (reheat it if it has cooled down) and simmer for 2 minutes until the prawns are cooked, then tip in the cooked rice noodles you set aside earlier.
5 Before serving, add the sliced red chilli, most of the basil leaves (keep some small ones aside to use as garnish when serving), the lime juice and some fish sauce, and taste for seasoning, adding a little more fish sauce or lime juice if necessary.
6 Pour the broth into deep bowls to serve, ensuring everyone gets lots of noodles and prawns. Garnish with the leftover small basil leaves.
Fills a 200ml jar
You will need:
50g basil leaves
25g pine nuts — see my Top Tip, below
1 small clove garlic, crushed
100ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for the top
25g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 Put the basil leaves, the pine nuts and the crushed garlic in a food processor and whizz until a paste has formed. Scrape down the sides and whizz again.
2 Add the 100ml of extra-virgin olive oil and the freshly grated Parmesan cheese and blend briefly to bring the pesto together. Season to taste with some sea salt.
3 Pour the pesto into a sterilised jar. Cover with a layer of olive oil. Store in the fridge.
If you prefer, when making the pesto, you can use cashew nuts in place of the pine nuts.
You will need:
4 basil leaves, sliced
½ tablespoon caster sugar
¼ of a lemon, cut into 2 pieces
Lemon slices, to serve
1 Put the sliced basil leaves and the caster sugar in a glass. Use the end of a wooden spoon to muddle or crush the basil leaves into the sugar; they should be well bruised. This will help the basil to release its aromatic oils.
2Add the lemon pieces and use the end of the same spoon to squash and extract the juice. If you have time, it is worth placing the glass in the fridge for at least half an hour to let the flavours meld together.
3 To finish, add the rum, top up the glass with crushed ice and gently stir to combine. Taste, adding more sugar if necessary. Serve immediately with a slice of lemon.