Basil Beyond Pesto

Story and Photography by Molly Hays 

Basil and I had a standoff last summer.  

It was earliest August, when the days are hot, the air is heavy and the basil goes to bed a plant and wakes up a small tree. We’d welcomed this look, anticipated it mightily, after a long, barren, basil-less winter and spring.  

All July, we’d enjoyed the usual basil suspects. There were plates of Caprese, with the first Sweet 100s, milky nubs of mozzarella and eloquent balsamic. There were homemade pizza Margheritas, edible Italian flags, topped with the same red-white-green holy trinity. And of course there was pesto. Lots of pesto. Cups, pints, quarts, batches and batches of pesto. Genovese pesto. Lemon basil pesto. Pesto with pine nuts. With almonds. With walnuts. With no nuts. Lots of pesto. Too much pesto. 

Or so I told the basil, as I stared it down that muggy morning, and dared it to come up with something—anything—different by dinner. After all, it was early yet in basil season. And we were already drowning. And we were only just beginning.  

Such is the local-seasonal way: feast, famine, glut, rut, flap about madly, feast again. I’d brick-walled it that morning, slammed into stage four, realized I had a serious case of eater’s block. So I turned off auto-pilot, turned on the A/C and plunked myself down in a pile of cookbooks. Then read through exactly two recipes, before my mind began twinkling with past basil-scented meals.

I recalled how well basil works as a green, whole or slivered and slipped into salads, en masse. In a good year, the last strawberries and first twee basil leaves overlap, and I reach for giant handfuls of both. Mixed with fresh lettuces and salted macadamias, stippled with blue cheese, spiked with vinaigrette, berries and basil make one knockout side salad. When strawberries expire, plums take their place. Or peaches. Or pluots. Basil loves summer’s fruit.  

Herbal salads brought to mind another standby, a knife-and-fork affair we turn to when it swelters. Equal parts basil and romaine are julienned, then tossed with heaps of lovely, hearty minced bits: red peppers, tomatoes, chickpeas, provolone, smoked turkey, red onion, good salami. The whole mess is amply salted and peppered, then dressed generously in olive oil and red wine vinegar. It’s magnificent. It also uses the better part of a week’s harvest. Things were looking up. 

I remembered fried basil. Have you ever fried basil? Settled handfuls of washed, well-dried leaves into shimmering oil, until vivid, transparent, shattery, a few seconds? Sprinkled them with sea salt, flung them over grilled veg, or munched their brittle, sweet-savory bling alongside cocktails? Or thin air? Potato chips pale by comparison. 

Applying heat reminded me of all the ways basil brightens cooked dishes. Strewn throughout a zucchini ricotta frittata, basil makes bold an otherwise mild-mannered egg pie. An entire bouquet of the purple-stemmed variety, added at the end of Thai basil chicken, lifts the quick, garlicky, fish-sauce-soused stir-fry firmly into heady territory. Shredded into a bowl of raw tomato sauce—chopped Caprese, essentially, amped up on garlic and extra oil—the basil’s the thing that speaks loudest when hot pasta hits. And oh, what a come-hither speech it is. I was on a roll. And picking up speed.

Compound butter came back to me, and I wondered how I’d ever lost it. There are probably recipes, though I tend toward ratios, the one I prefer running something like this: Place equal parts butter and sliced basil in a food processor, plus perhaps garlic and absolutely lemon zest, then blitz until palest jade. Inhale. Grin. Basil butter turns broiled salmon into an event. Corn on the cob likes it very, very much. A late summer succotash of beans, corn and whatever is infinitely bettered by a dollop or three. Don’t get me started on baguettes, sliced and slathered, re-assembled in foil, gently warmed until maddening. Salad and wine may be superfluous. More basil notions were, anyway. I was set, and then some.  

Oh, dinner that night? A simple pasta salad, one of the two recipes I’d unearthed that morning, an ordinary-sounding sort of which I expected little. (Silly me.) There was sparkle and crunch from fresh corn and red pepper, plus the soft savory slip of tiny orzo. Zucchini and green beans, just-tender, summer sweet, played beautifully off nutty chickpeas and creamy-sassy feta. It helped the whole thing was punch-drunk on the dressing of freshly squeezed lime and ample olive oil. But it was the basil, fragrant, abundant, that pulled the salad together and taught it to sing. I granted it permanent residency in my repertoire, instantly.  

Then I surveyed my basil, in all its August excess, and wondered whether I’d planted enough.