Sailors from Genoa discovered sweet basil on their trading trips to the Middle East 600 years ago and brought the herb home to Italy in terracotta pots. Since that time, basil has become an essential herb in cooking all across Italy, but especially in Genoa’s region of Liguria where sweet basil is so integral to the cuisine that there is serious talk of branding the herb and the pesto made from it as regional treasures.
Those ancient sailors realized that sweet basil must be used and enjoyed at its freshest. Thanks to the sun and heat of August, that time is now. Late summer is the perfect time to make two simple Italian dishes that depend on the flavor of basil: insalata Caprese, a fresh tomato, mozzarella, and basil salad, and pesto Genovese, the classic sweet basil pesto.
In Italy these dishes are both served as a primi — a first course. But this time of year when the tomatoes are also at their peak, I combine them. I serve the insalata Caprese and follow it with the pasta. All I need to add is a loaf of bread, possibly a green salad, and a chilled bottle of pinot grigio and I have a delicious summer meal.
The key to a memorable insalata Caprese is using the best available ingredients. Fortunately Island farm stands and markets offer excellent fresh basil and an abundant and alluring range of tomato varieties. Many stands and markets also sell extra virgin olive oils and fresh, sometimes homemade, mozzarella.
Choose tomatoes that are ripe but firm and unrefrigerated. It’s fun to mix different kinds and enjoy the variation in taste and color. Look for basil that has been freshly picked. Smell it for fragrance. Make sure no leaves are blackened or droopy. Always use an extra virgin olive oil and try to find a locally made fresh mozzarella.
Once you have the ingredients, putting the salad together is just a matter of slicing and layering. Slice as many ripe tomatoes as you want and lightly salt them. Place the slices on a pretty plate or platter, and in between each slice insert a thin slice of fresh mozzarella and a fresh basil leaf or two. Lightly drizzle oil over the whole thing. That’s it; you’re done. The salad can be served immediately or left to sit at room temperature while you prepare the pasta.
A batch of pesto can be made in less time than it takes to boil the spaghetti water. The word pesto comes from the verb “pestare,” to crush. Traditionally pesto has been made by hand with a mortar and pestle, but fortunately a food processor can do the job in moments and without sacrificing much flavor.
Ligurians are very strict in what goes into pesto and how it is made, but pesto is my son’s favorite pasta sauce and we like to have fun and experiment. We might add a little less oil, a little more salt, or throw in an extra clove of garlic. If we are out of pine nuts we’ll use walnuts. Pecorino cheese is our favorite, but we often use Romano because it’s more easily available.
Here is our favorite recipe for a two-cup batch of Sweet Basil Pesto. It is faithful in ingredients and proportions to the classic Ligurian pesto. Usually the pasta water is heating up while we make the pesto, and we eat one of the two cups immediately. The other cup we cover with a thin layer of olive oil and keep in the fridge or freezer for another time.
Sweet Basil Pesto
2 packed cups of basil leaves
3 cloves of garlic
1/3 cup of roasted pine nuts
6 tablespoons of freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
6 tablespoons of freshly grated Romano or Pecorino if available
3/4 to 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large pinches of salt
1) Roast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat. Shake or stir for two or three minutes until the nuts are lightly colored and fragrant. Meanwhile grate the cheeses.
2) Put the basil, peeled garlic, and roasted pine nuts in a food processor. Add the oil and pulse just until the mixture is blended. To keep the color a bright green and the texture complex do not over-pulse.
3) Stir in the freshly grated cheese by hand and salt to taste.
The pasta shapes most often matched with pesto in Italy are spaghetti or fresh linguini, but my son also likes to use penne. Our ratio of pesto to pasta is a cup of pesto to one pound of cooked dried pasta. In our family that serves three or four. When the pasta is cooked and drained, put it in an ample serving bowl and gently stir in the pesto. Dinner’s ready.
The smell of pungent basil should be permeating the kitchen. Is it any wonder sweet basil is a symbol of love in Italy and a sprig of basil in one’s hair is a sign of courtship? Set the table outside and savor late summer at its best. Buon appetito.