Basil: A Uniquely Common Indulgence

Basil: A Uniquely Common Indulgence

by Donna Marie Zotter

Editorial meetings for Gastronomic Meditations are fairly routine, as things go.  We toss around ideas about ingredients, and share random thoughts about what foods captivate and transport us.  They are foods that are center stage in our worlds, our minds, and our kitchens.  If we swoon, if we dream, if we chatter in a stream of consciousness about its flavor pushing the very limits of our mental mouth then we know we have arrived at what we call an indulgence.

We talk a bit more about the possibilities in the kitchen, and laugh a bit with barely contained excitement.  When the meeting (albeit virtual) is over, the reality of having to create something that matches that uncontained desire is left on my plate… so to speak.  I’m left to think through flavors.  How do I push it?  Pull it?  I’m off to the markets to smell, to taste, and above all else, to observe other people as they are affected by the presence of something so desirable.  How do I capture the truest and best expression of that je ne sais quoi that defines indulgence?

Basil, like so many recent indulgences, was another challenge for our Test Kitchen.  It is the most common of ingredients, available in every market in a variety of ways.  And still, it is, without question, uncommonly special.  Ardently perfumed, the most rugged souls cannot pass by without notice…or comment.  On the palate it is sweet and grassy.  Its flavor is what the word green means.  Often sweet and sometimes pungent, it has the power to offer endless pleasure.  Still, you rarely find recipes that celebrate its flavor in such a way that it becomes the defining element to the plate — and the palate, for that matter.  That’s my job; or so they tell me it is.

What we’ve come to realize is that most indulgences are pure perfection in their natural, raw form.  We coined the phrase naked deliciousness to describe our passion for summer berries that are simply perfect as they arrive at the market:  raw, naked, and undeniably delicious.  They exude aroma and flavor without the aid or presence of other ingredients.  They simply stop us, because they are inherently captivating, uplifting, ethereal…sensual.

Recipe: Basil and Chervil Vinaigrette

Basil appears raw in the vinaigrette recipe, which is a traditional French approach to dressing.  The flavor of basil is elegant and consuming as it is pushed to the forefront of our taste experience by the presence of shallot and garlic.

Capturing the aroma of this verdant herb requires a completely different approach:  Raw is good, but the aroma is uncontained and often lost in the mouth.  Aroma, being the cornerstone of taste, is hard to contain.  A perfumed essence, such as that in basil, needs something to hold it while it is delivered over the palate, but it also needs a structural element that can elevate the aroma’s expression — from a smell experience to a taste experience.

Recipe: Basil and Orange Ice Cream with Cinnamon Tuiles

The cream in this recipe holds the perfumed essence of basil beautifully; the orange zest provides a structure through which the aroma can be received as a taste: The mouth is perfumed; the senses become engaged and the palate desires more.  The experience is undeniably indulgent.

As seen in our tomato primer, there are a number of varieties of basil available at the markets that have different flavors and ideal uses.  Next week, our Test Kitchen Note will offer you our taste evaluation of those varieties and take us into the peak of tomato season by offering the ultimate combination of ingredient (tomato) and indulgence (basil) in a basil pasta with summer tomatoes.

Photo: Kelly Cline

Donna Zotter is the founder and executive chef of There’s A Chef in My Kitchen, a portable culinary school in Harrisburg, PA.