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Hey Chef, What Can I Do With Basil?
Welcome to Hey Chef, a series where we ask pros around the country for tips on how to use ingredients we love.
Spring shifting into summer means that basil plants across the nation are about to grow in full force, from window boxes in Brooklyn to rock gardens in San Francisco and every plot of land in between. While pesto is an easy guarantee to basil deliciousness, it's easily saved for the end of the season, when major harvesting happens right before the plants go to flower.
What about the next two months? We spoke to five chefs about some new ways to get the most out of this awesome herb.
Infuse Into Pasta Dough
Chef Dan Wright has made a strong mark on the Cincinnati food scene with side-by-side restaurants Senate Pub and Abigail Street in the city's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. His recent Senate CookBook shows us how to recreate the souped-up hotdogs that have helped make his name.
You blend the shit out of [basil] with some olive oil until it's a smooth purée, then run it through a strainer, then fold it into any pasta dough. We do it in our gnocchi and then serve it with lobster, corn, and maitake mushrooms.
Chicago's Jonathan Zaragoza makes classic Mexican cuisine that we can't get enough of. He's big into the local gardening scene, too, growing massive amounts of fresh produce that make it directly into the kitchens of Birrieria Zaragoza and Masa Azul.
There are so many kinds of basil; we have sweet cinnamon basil and Thai basil planted upstairs. I make a limeade in the summertime. We force carbonate it, so it's just water, lime juice, and simple syrup with basil, just because I feel like you need something savory with that sweetness; you need balance with contrasting flavors to echo or amplify the flavor that you're looking for. Basil is sweet by itself, so it makes sense to go in with the lime.
Ice Cream It
Pastry Chef Joe Murphy heads up the kitchen at the iconic Jean-Georges in Manhattan, where his dessert menu adorns one of our favorite fine-dining values in the city.
I love rhubarb with basil; we're ending the rhubarb season, but once it hits spring I always make a rhubarb compote with maybe a little bit of spice in there, plus lime juice, orange zest, vanilla bean, and red wine, and top it with either a scoop of basil ice cream or garnish it with an almond crumble and garnish the crumble with micro-basil.
For basil ice cream, I don't really love when I get an ice cream and it's incredibly bright green; I like there to be kind of an element of surprise. So when I make the ice cream I take the leaves and the stems (some people pick the leaves off, but the stems have flavor), chop up both, put it right in the beginning with the milk and cream and let it infuse from the start. And at the end you still have this amazing basil flavor, but the ice cream is pale. It may have a little green hue to it, but it's not bright green.
You can get our basil ice cream recipe right here.
Chef Lee Wolen held a sous chef position at Eleven Madison Park in New York for three years before heading over to Chicago's Boka, where he breathed new life into the ten-year-old restaurant's menu.
If you put vinegar over it, it's kind of crazy but it lasts for a long time. I pickle basil leaves with sugar, vinegar, salt and water; it keeps it green for a long time for the most part, and it tastes like the herb but, well, pickled, so it's a great addition to everything. You can also store it in the fridge in a jar and it will keep a long time, kind of forever. Fennel seeds in it would be good; sliced dill that's kept in it tastes good, too. Mustards seeds and the like won't overpower it, either.
Make a Purple Basil Vinegar
San Francisco's Chef Matt Accarrino is a 2014 Food & Wine "Best New Chef" and his restaurant SPQR has been awarded a Michelin star for two years running.
You basically make a pickling liquid—two parts vinegar, one part sugar, one part water—and then some salt to season it. Take that liquid and blend a good amount of raw opal basil with it until it's pretty pourable; you're just beating up the basil in the blender to get it to extract into the liquid, so it doesn't have to be super fine. You take that and put it into a pot, and you slowly bring it up to just below a boil, to clarify the taste. You strain it, and what you get is essentially purple, basil-y vinegar that you can use for all sorts of things. We spoon it over tomato salad in the summertime.