From M.G., 5 April 2012, basil – dealing with the bumper crop.
Q: As you can see, I have a basil surplus. What can I do with this immediately, and is there a way to preserve basil for the winter months?
A: Thanks for your question. Basil is one of the best things about summer – it grows like a weed and, as long as you cut it back, will continue to yield bright, licorice-scented leaves until the nights become too cold. As you’ve seen, you can end up with what seem insurmountable mountains of basil.
Most leafy greens look bigger than they really are – a bushel cooks down to nearly nothing. In our home, a favorite way to turn a mountain of basil into a manageable condiment is to turn it into pesto. The classic pesto alla genovese – basil pounded in a mortar with a creamy mixture of garlic and pine nuts, finished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and olive oil – can be stored, under a thin layer of olive oil, frozen for many months. For something with a less distinctive taste and perhaps broader application, you might consider pistou – basil with garlic and olive oil. Again, this freezes well, and is especially useful when frozen in small quantities, such as in ice cubes. One of the nicest ways to lend brightness to vegetable soups, not to mention clear chicken or turkey soups in the autumn – is to stir in a bit of pistou or pesto at the end.
For immediate use, try my variant on a Thai classic, gai ka prow (chicken with basil). In Thai restaurants, this dish is slightly sweet, fiery hot, and mildly fragrant with Thai basil. This variant – a favorite of my husband’s – is aggressively hot, sour, salty, a little sweet, and features a much more intense basil flavor. Served with steamed jasmine rice, it tends to be rather moreish – it’s hard to stop eating once you’ve started.
Pesto and pistou both mean “pounded,” a reference to the literal pounding the basil takes in a mortar. Don’t worry about pounding your pistou – most people don’t do that anymore, not even in Provence or Genoa. Use a blender or food processor instead. The texture admittedly will not be as velvety as in a pounded pistou, but this way you might actually get around to making it.
Precise measurements are unimportant; my only word of warning is to exercise restraint in using garlic, since it can overwhelm in a hurry. I recommend not more than two cloves garlic per four packed cups of basil leaves. Add olive oil slowly to form a creamy paste.
4 cups packed basil leaves, well washed and dried
2 cloves garlic
about 1/2 to 2/3 c extra virgin olive oil
pinch of salt
Place the garlic and a large pinch of salt in a blender or food processor and blend. Add the basil and about 1/4 oil; blend until the basil has been torn to small shreds. Then add additional oil slowly through the hole in the blender top or the feed tube until the mixture is creamy and thick (but not liquid).
Store in a tightly covered container under a thin layer of oil. For storage beyond about 4-5 days, transfer to the freezer; you can portion in ice cube trays first for ease of future use, and then store the frozen cubes in a tightly sealed plastic bag. Add to soups and sauces until you have more fresh basil next summer.
Chicken with basil, lime, and chiles
The real gai ka prow gets its distinctive aroma from Thai basil, which boasts a far more licorice-y taste than Genovese basil. Don’t substitute soy sauce for fish sauce; it lacks the necessary pungency. Note to authenticity maniacs – this is not meant to be a recipe for a true gai ka prow.
1 lb chicken, either white or dark meat according to your preference, sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 c water
1/4 c fish sauce (nam pla)
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp palm sugar (substitute granulated white sugar)
2 serrano or other hot green chiles, thinly sliced (halve and seed first if you dislike intense heat)
about 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
A few handfuls of basil, washed and spun dry
Several limes, quartered
Combine the water, fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, sliced serranos, and the black pepper. Set aside.
Set the jasmine rice to steam.
Place a large skillet or wok over medium high heat; when hot, add about 2 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the sliced chicken and cook, tossing from time to time, until just cooked through. Add the garlic and saute about a minute more. Remove to a plate.
Wipe out the pan and return to the heat. Add the fish sauce and chile mixture and bring to a boil; reduce slightly (by about 25%). Return the chicken and garlic to the pan and add the basil. Cook a minute more until the chicken is warmed through and the basil is wilted. Remove from heat and season with the juice of one lime. Taste for sugar, black pepper, saltiness, and acidity; add more palm sugar, pepper, fish sauce, or lime juice as necessary.
Serve with the jasmine rice and additional lime wedges.