Summer is the time for basil

  • basil-2-mushroom

    Wild mushroom, tomato and basil pasta.

    Buy This Image

  • A tomato, basil and fennel salad with lemon vinaigrette.
    A tomato, basil and fennel salad with lemon vinaigrette.

    They call it the king of herbs.

    Basil plays well with others. Paired with tomatoes, it is one of those magic combinations which can support entire branches of the culinary arts. Mixed with olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese, it becomes pesto, one of the world’s top sauces. It brings out a refreshing side of chicken, fish, and pork, helps vegetables to pop, and is a natural with eggs and cheese.

    No wonder it takes its name from the Greek word basileus, which means “king” or “emperor.” The French sometimes call it l’herbe royal.

    Basil is easy to grow at home and it produces copious amounts. If you don’t have the room or the inclination to grow it at home, it is available year-round at every grocery store in the country.

    It’s a warm-weather herb, so right now it’s at its peak. It’s time to get your basil on.

    Of course, you know you can add a few leaves to your favorite homemade tomato sauce or you can sandwich leaves between thick slices of tomato and mozzarella cheese and top it with a balsamic vinaigrette for a classic caprese salad.

    And basil is always welcome on stir fries; it is grown throughout southeast Asia, particularly the slightly peppery variety called Thai basil. It is believed by scientists to have originated in India, though it is rarely used in cooking there. Instead, many Indian Hindus consider it holy and have a planting of it in their homes and temples.

    Wild mushroom, tomato and basil pasta.
    Wild mushroom, tomato and basil pasta.

    Tulsi basil, the variety found most often in India, is also called holy basil for that reason. Italian basil, which has the mildest flavor, is the kind found most often in America, though the other varieties are also widely grown and distributed.

    I typically cook with Italian basil — we also grow our own — so I decided to start with a dish from Italy. Sicilian tomato bruschetta, from the invaluable The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, turned out to be an exceptional dish, truly spectacular. It is the kind of dish that makes you stand back in wonder and ask, “Did I just make that?”

    One simple technique makes all the difference in this bruschetta. Instead of using chopped raw tomatoes, you use tomatoes that have been roasted first, preferably over a fire. I used charcoal, though gas would also work, and a wood fire, if you can arrange it, would be best of all. If you have none of these, you can get much the same effect from a very hot oven.

    With a little bit of heat, a little bit of garlic, and enough basil to make a difference, the flavors in this bruschetta sauce blend together with a perfection rarely seen in a dish created by mere mortals. And although, as bruschetta, it is meant to be spread on bread or toast, it can also be used as an ultra-delicious tomato sauce on your favorite pasta. I added some to a pan of shrimp I was sautéing and served it on top of white rice. It was heavenly.

    I stayed in the region of Italy to make wild mushrooms with tomatoes and basil. As with most dishes with basil in them, this one uses the herb as an accent, a punctuation. And as also with most, the basil is added at the end of cooking to preserve its delicately bright, fresh taste (though Thai basil can stand up to higher heat for longer times, which is why it works well in stir fries).

    Along with a robust flavor, wild mushrooms with tomatoes and basil have the added advantage of making your house smell like wild mushrooms, onions, and garlic while it cooks. To these aromatic ingredients are added white wine and tomatoes, with a dash of bright basil at the end.

    You can almost taste it just by reading the ingredients, can’t you?

    The dish can be served as part of an antipasto appetizer or as a side dish, but following the lead of Martha Rose Shulman, who created the recipe, I turned it into a main course. Ms. Shulman, who included it in her book Mediterranean Harvest, recommends serving it on top of polenta or pasta. I chose pasta, frankly because it was quicker. I was not disappointed.

    I was in the mood for something lighter, so I next made a salad. Basil goes with virtually any salad you can think of (try it in chicken salad sometime), but I had never before paired it with fennel. I will certainly do so again.

    Along with the fennel, the salad also calls for fresh tomatoes — face it, basil goes with tomatoes like peanut butter goes with jelly — and a light lemon vinaigrette, all served on top of leaves of Bibb lettuce. It’s just the right thing for the torrid days and humid nights of summer.

    And finally, I decided to try a little basil for breakfast. I found a recipe online for a mushroom, tomato, and basil frittata that looked very promising. So I made it.

    It didn’t live up to its promise.

    But the combination of flavors was irresistible; it would be like taking the dish of wild mushrooms with tomatoes and basil and adding it to eggs. I determined to do just that, making my own frittata with the same familiar ingredients.

    Beginning with onions and garlic, I sautéed mushrooms and then added a diced tomato. Lightly beaten eggs seasoned with salt and pepper came next. Only when the eggs were set and the dish was done did I add the slivered basil on top.

    That way, the mushrooms, eggs, and tomato all blended together, but it was the fresh basil at the end that helped the dish to shine.

    Contact Daniel Neman at: or 419-724-6155.



    Mushroom, Tomato, and Basil Frittata

    ½ tablespoon butter, plus more if needed

    ¼ cup onion, minced

    1 garlic clove, minced

    1½ cups thinly sliced mushrooms

    ½ medium tomato, diced

    Salt and pepper, to taste

    3 large eggs, beaten

    1 tablespoon fresh basil, chiffonade (see cook's note)

    Cook's note: To chiffonade basil, roll the leaves together like a cigar. Cut crosswise into thin slivers.

    Heat the butter in a medium nonstick skillet (use more butter if you don't have nonstick) over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms soften, about 2 minutes.

    Stir in the tomato and salt and pepper to taste, and cook one minute. Add more butter if needed. Add salt and pepper to the eggs to taste and pour the eggs into the skillet; mix the eggs and vegetables, making certain both are distributed evenly throughout the pan. Cover, lower heat to low, and cook until the eggs are set, about 5 minutes.

    Yield: 2 servings


    Sicilian Tomato Bruschetta

    2 pounds small very ripe tomatoes

    2 tablespoons olive oil, if necessary

    2 garlic cloves, chopped

    2 tablespoons minced fresh basil


    1 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano

    ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

    ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

    Slices of country-style bread, toasted if you prefer

    Have ready a charcoal fire or glowing wood embers in a fireplace. Set up a grill. Rinse and dry the tomatoes and set them on the grill about 3 inches above the coals. Grill or roast until they have softened and the skins are starting to split open. Remove the tomatoes, using tongs, before they go totally soft and slip between the grill spaces. Transfer the tomatoes to a serving dish and squash them lightly with a fork, so that the juices run out a little.

    (If you don't have a grill or a fireplace, turn the oven on as high as it will go — 450° or 500°. Set the tomatoes in a single layer in a roasting dish. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and stir the tomatoes to coat them all over with the oil. Set in the preheated oven and let them roast until they have softened and the skins are splitting open).

    While the tomatoes are roasting, pound the garlic and basil together with the salt in a mortar until you have a coarse paste. Mix in the oregano and crushed red pepper, then stir in the olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding salt if necessary.

    As soon as the tomatoes are done and squashed on the platter, pour the dressing over them and mix vigorously to break up the tomatoes even further. Pile onto slices of bread, first toasting them if you wish (the tomato juices will soak into untoasted bread so that it really must be eaten with a knife and fork; toasted bread can be eaten in the hands).

    For a variation, serve the sauce over pasta.

    Yield: 4-6 servings

    Source: Adapted from The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins


    Wild Mushrooms with Tomatoes and Basil

    2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

    1 medium onion or 2 shallots, chopped

    3-4 garlic cloves, minced

    1 pound fresh porcini or other wild mushrooms (such as chanterelles, shiitake, or oyster), cleaned, trimmed, and thickly sliced


    ¼ cup dry white wine

    1 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped; or 1 (14-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and chopped

    Pinch sugar


    1 tablespoon fresh basil, chiffonade (see cook's note)

    Cook's note: To chiffonade basil, roll the leaves together like a cigar. Cut crosswise into thin slivers.

    Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy nonstick skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add half the garlic, stir for about 30 seconds, then add the mushrooms. Turn up the heat to medium-high and cook the mushrooms, stirring occasionally, until they begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms begin to soften and exude their juices, about 5 minutes.

    Add the wine and turn the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until the liquid boils down and glazes the mushrooms, 5-10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, remaining garlic, sugar, and a little more salt. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, about 15 minutes. Stir in some pepper and the basil, taste and adjust salt, and remove from the heat. Serve warm by itself or over poletna or tossed with pasta.

    Yield: 4 servings Source: Mediterranean Harvest, by Martha Rose Shulman


    Tomato, Basil, and Fennel Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette

    ¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from about 1 large lemon)

    1 medium shallot, finely chopped

    1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed

    Salt and pepper

    ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

    2 fennel bulbs

    4 medium ripe tomatoes

    8 fresh basil leaves, chiffonade (see cook's note)

    2 heads of Bibb lettuce, washed and dried well, leaves left whole

    Cook's note: To chiffonade basil, roll the leaves together like a cigar. Cut crosswise into thin slivers.

    In a small bowl, combine the lemon juice, shallot, and fennel seeds. Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Whisk in the olive oil in a steady stream until it's incorporated and an emulsion forms.

    Cut off the stalks of the fennel bulbs. Slice off about ¼ inch of the tough bottom and remove any tough or discolored outer layers. Slice each bulb in half lengthwise and then slice the fennel as thin as you can. Put the slices in a bowl with room enough to toss them. Stem the tomatoes and cut them into 6 or 8 wedges, depending on their size. Put them in the bowl with the sliced fennel and add the basil.

    Toss the tomatoes, fennel, and basil with enough of the vinaigrette to coat them well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Allow the flavors to combine for a few minutes.

    When ready to serve, toss the Bibb lettuce with enough of the remaining vinaigrette to coat it lightly. Divide the lettuce among six plates, aiming for the leaves to look like cups. Place the tomato, fennel, and basil mixture on top of the lettuce.

    Yield: 6 servings

    Source: Bistro Cooking at Home, by Gordon Hamersley with Joanne McAllister Smart