Basil and tomatoes are among those flavors that always go well together, like strawberries and cream, like chocolate and banana, like cinnamon and toast.
A bit of basil always brightens tomato, whether it is sprinkled with vinaigrette over sliced tomato and mozzarella cheese or added in the last minute of cooking to a simmering tomato sauce.
It’s an easy combination and an expected one.
But basil is known as the king of herbs for a reason: It goes so well with so many things. So I wanted to do something different. I wanted to use basil in recipes that do not call for tomato (or watermelon, for that matter, because watermelon and basil is another one of those always-perfect pairings, like oatmeal and raisins).
It isn’t hard to find such recipes. And that is good at this time of year, because basil is particularly abundant now.
I began with a drink. Basil is closely related to mint – you can tell from the sharp-flavored, refreshing taste that they are close cousins – so I decided to make a basil version of the popular mint-based drink, a mojito. You could probably do the same thing with a mint julep, but I like mojitos more than mint juleps.
I muddled a few fresh basil leaves with a bit of sugar and some lime juice in a cocktail shaker, bringing out all of the herb’s flavor. I added ice cubes and rum, shook it until it was cold and poured it out into eagerly awaiting glasses.
About the glasses: What makes this drink really sing are the glasses. As suggested by a recipe I’m afraid I found on the Internet, I mixed together some basil and sugar in a food processor, moistened the rim of the glasses with lime juice, and dipped the glasses in the basil sugar. I did this, of course, before putting anything else in the glasses. The basil sugar along the rim gave the drink a festively sweet complexity, and club soda to top it off kept the drink light and perfect for the summer.
Next came the entree. I know that basil pairs well with eggplant – it’s not as well-known a match as tomato, but just as effective – so I looked for a suitable recipe.
I found it in a stir fry, a spicy basil eggplant recipe that apparently comes from Thailand.
To be honest, I thought the recipe was too simple to be good. Other Thai dishes I have made, and even other stir fries in general, typically call for more than a handful of ingredients and a couple of steps.
But I was wrong. Although it is a snap to make, this is a fully realized dish with a big flavor. The basil complements the eggplant, and two serrano peppers create just the right heat (feel free to adjust up or down, to your liking). It has plenty of garlic, but just a splash of fish sauce and a smattering of sugar completes it.
The recipe calls for two Thai eggplants (they’re green and round), but I used one purple American eggplant instead. I even substituted the familiar sweet basil for the more peppery Thai basil specified in the recipe, and it all tasted great.
For a vegetarian or vegan version, you can easily use soy sauce instead of the fish sauce.
A basil-friendly vegetable dish was next on my list, and I made one that is ridiculously easy but also ridiculously good. It’s grilled corn on the cob with basil butter, and because the basil is in the butter you could use the same preparation for any number of vegetable dishes or even pasta.
The corn part is simple; you could boil it or microwave it, but for this particular recipe it would probably taste best just to grill it. For mine, I combined convenience with taste by microwaving the corn first and then charring it lightly on a hot grill pan.
I then slathered it with basil butter, which is just as it sounds: butter with basil mixed into it. I stirred some chopped basil into a stick of butter I had allowed to soften, but you could make it even easier by mixing the ingredients in a food processor. The only problem with making it that way is you have to use twice as much butter and basil for the processor to do its job.
Naturally, I had to have a dessert. A recipe for a thin basil and vanilla custard caught my eye, and why wouldn’t it? Custard is one of the world’s great foods, an impeccable blend of cream, sugar and egg. .
Vanilla, which is also one of the world’s great foods, can only make it better. And basil? That’s the genius of this dish. The basil flavor is noticeable but subtle, and it plays against the vanilla in a way that is sheer magnificence.
Pour it over some fresh berries of the season, add a sprig of basil for color, and you’ve got a dessert so delicious you'll want to skip the rest of the meal.
Basil and vanilla custard (crème anglaise)
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
3 large egg yolks
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups cream or milk
1/4 cup basil leaves, torn
1 vanilla bean
1 pinch salt
Fresh seasonal berries
In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and sugar thoroughly; the color will turn a pale yellow. Add cornstarch and whisk to mix. Set aside.
In a medium pot over medium heat, combine cream or milk and the basil leaves. While it heats, slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and use the edge of a knife to scrape the seeds into the cream mixture. Add the vanilla pods as well. Lower the temperature to keep it from simmering and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon.
Remove the cream from the heat. Place a sieve over the yolk mixture and pour just a little bit of the cream, about 1 tablespoon, through it and into the eggs. Whisk the eggs thoroughly and add just a little more of the cream. Whisk again and continue the process until all the cream is mixed into the eggs; as the eggs become warmer you can add more of the cream with each addition. Use the wooden spoon to press the last bit of flavor out of the basil that has collected in the sieve. Discard the basil and vanilla bean pods.
Return the mixture to the pot and heat over medium-low heat, stirring constantly in a figure-8 motion. Continue cooking, without allowing it to simmer, until the mixture thickens enough to adhere thickly to the spoon and a finger drawn across the back of the spoon leaves a clean, visible trail, about 10 minutes.
Allow to cool, and then refrigerate. To serve, pour over fresh berries (or freeze in an ice cream freezer, according to manufacturer’s directions, for delicious ice cream).
Per serving (based on 6): 351 calories; 32 g fat; 19 g saturated fat; 202 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 15 g carbohydrate; 13 g sugar; no fiber; 61 mg sodium; 63 mg calcium.
Serves 4 to 6
Basil butter for grilled corn
Note: To soften butter, leave it out for 2 to 3 hours. You can make this recipe in a food processor, but it will require two sticks of butter (unsoftened is fine) and 1/2 cup of basil (unchopped is fine).
Recipe by Daniel Neman.
1 stick softened butter, see note
1/4 cup basil, chopped, see note
Corn on the cob
With a spoon, mix the basil into the softened butter, or place butter and basil in a food processor and process until well-mixed. Store in refrigerator until needed.
Serve with hot corn, preferably grilled. To grill corn, soak the corn, including its husk, in water for at least 30 minutes and set on a hot grill grate. Turn occasionally until done, about 10 minutes. Remove husk and silk before eating.
Basil butter can also be served with peas, green beans or eggplant, on cooked chicken or eggs or on cooked pasta.
Per serving (butter only): 51 calories; 6 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; no protein; no carbohydrate; no sugar; no fiber; 1 mg sodium; 3 mg calcium.
Spicy basil eggplant
Note: Fish sauce, also called nam pla, is available in the Asian section of any well-stocked grocery, usually near the soy sauce. Recipe from ThaiTable.com
1 large purple eggplant or 2 Thai or Japanese eggplants
1 tablespoon oil
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 chili peppers or to taste, sliced
1 cup water
2 tablespoons fish sauce, see note
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
Leaves from 1 bunch Thai basil or sweet basil
Cut the eggplant into bite-sized pieces.
Heat the oil over high or medium-high heat in a wok or large pan. Add the garlic and sliced peppers, and stir until the garlic turns golden brown. Stir in the eggplant and add the water. Cover, and cook until the eggplant is done, about 5 to 7 minutes – you can tell it is cooked if it has turned from white to translucent. If the eggplant is not yet cooked and all the water has been absorbed, add more water and cover until it is done.
Add fish sauce and sugar, and stir. Add basil and cook, stirring, just until it wilts. Serve hot with rice.
Per serving: 86 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 13 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 713 mg sodium; 25 mg calcium.
Recipe by Stephanie Spencer, via Sunset.
10 large basil leaves, divided
1/4 cup plus 4 teaspoons granulated sugar, divided
1/4 cup lime juice
1/2 cup white rum
About 1/2 cup club soda
Place 2 basil leaves and 1/4 cup sugar in a food processor and process until well-blended. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Put the remaining 8 basil leaves in a large cocktail shaker with the remaining 4 teaspoons of sugar and lime juice. Muddle the mixture (crush the basil leaves) with the back of a thick wooden spoon.
Add rum and several ice cubes to shaker, cover and shake to blend. Rub a lime wedge along the rim of 2 lowball glasses and dip the wet glass rims into the basil sugar mixture. Add a few ice cubes to each glass and divide the rum mixture between the glasses. Top off each with club soda, and stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Per serving: 267 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; no protein; 36 g carbohydrate; 34 g sugar; no fiber; 14 mg sodium; 12 mg calcium.