July Season’s Feastings – Basil

Even if you love cooking as much as I do, there are times when you just don’t want to spend hours in front of a hot stove. Thankfully, in summer nature produces an abundance of amazing natural ingredients – working extra hard so we don’t have too! It’s the perfect time to celebrate the raw and wonderful simplicity of high quality food.

Most of the best summer food celebrate the best of natural ingredients, and it can be the little details that really make the dish. Of course, herbs and spices are used to season and perk food up all year round, but in summer they really come into their own.

A Royal Herb

The word basil derives from the Greek basileus, which means “king”.

Under the right conditions, basil can grow all year round, but it is at its best during July and August.

In Britain, we are most accustomed to seeing sweet basil, but this is just one of three main Mediterranean varieties, and there are also a number of Asian versions too. The three common Mediterranean types are sweet, Greek, which has a peppery note to it and smaller leaves, and purple, with a gentle flavour.

In Asian cookery, you can find Thai, which is rather like a stronger version of sweet basil; lemon basil, with small leaves and a citrus flavour to it; and holy, which is more intense and spicy. Holy basil is curious, being at its most flavoursome when cooked.

Like most herbs, it is used to taking a supporting role, but if you love the flavour as much as I do, then let it take centre stage in mouth-watering pestos which you can use for as pasta sauces, dips, pizza enliveners…

Selection and storage

The best way to store fresh cut basil is to wrap it in damp kitchen roll inside a perforated bag and keep it in the fridge

Basil will happily grow on a warm windowsill, so you can have your own stash, perfectly fresh and ready for use as soon as you need it. Make sure it has plenty of water but not too much, as that can actually reduce the flavour.

For a seasonal feast

Beautiful basil can perk up so many dishes, and it is the perfect complement to the simple dishes of summer. Add it to discs of mozzarella and the best of the summer’s tomatoes for a Caprese salad starter, as part of an al fresco Italian feast.

It’s also a surprisingly tasty addition to summery cocktails, such as a strawberry mojito with basil in place of the mint. It may sound strange but, trust me, well worth a try.