The Joys of Basil
David Leite is the publisher of the website Leite’s Culinaria and author of The New Portuguese Table, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award. David will provide occasional blogs for CHEFS and will share his experience about everything from champagne to Welsh food to high tea to being a super taster for publications including the New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, and others. His website, which he created in 1999, is a two-time James Beard Award-winning site.
For years, about the only thing I could grow in our herb garden without incident was basil. The thyme grew spindly, the tarragon wilted, and the cilantro—well, let’s just forget the cilantro.
But, every summer I secretly wished Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, could see me as I pinched, pruned, and picked that herbaceous stalwart of her homeland—basil. The One (Who Brings Me Love, Joy, and Happiness) and I use it in and on everything: Caprese salads, sauces, marinades, pizza, and, perhaps its greatest incarnation of all, pesto. I make tubs and tubs of the stuff and freeze whatever we can’t wolf down in one sitting. (And with us, let’s just say, leftovers are rare.)
Linguine with pesto is what got three friends and us through several post-Hurricane Irene days, when our Connecticut house was the only home in the neighborhood that had a generator during one of the worst power outages in the state’s history. Each night I happily buzzed about the kitchen, lit by only a lamp I carried from counter, to sink, to stove top, making steaming bowls of pasta. I was actually sad to see the power come on and our friends go out.
However, this year my basil obsession has migrated from the main course to dessert as I determined to create a basil ice cream. Since basil is part of the mint family, and mint is a popular ice cream flavor, then basil should be a popular ice cream flavor, too. Right? It’s simple if A=B, and B=C, then A=C logic.
And I was right. After The One decided to take his very opinionated nose out of the air and point it in the direction of the bowl I handed him, he discovered what I knew: that the iconic summer flavor we adored so much in pasta was extraordinary in ice cream.
Then I went one step further. I decided to try to add crucial components of pesto to the ice cream: pine nuts and garlic. Now, I know–garlic? But, after much experimenting—which included garlic syrups, candied garlic, and pine nut-garlic brittle—I hit upon candied pine nuts with a hint of garlic (and cayenne and nutmeg for good measure).
Sprinkle some of these bad boys on top of the ice cream and there you have it: A sweet version of pesto. Frankly, I’ve been popping those nuts in my mouth by the handful—they’re that good. However, if you’re of a more delicate constitution, you can serve the ice cream naked, I won’t judge.
Next experiment: Basil ice cream and a tomato granita—two-thirds of a Caprese salad. Now, if I could only get Marcella over here for dinner.
Basil Ice Cream with Garlic-Spiked Candied Pine Nuts
Makes approximately 1 quart
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- Pinch of salt
- 6 large egg yolks
- 2 cups tightly packed basil leaves, torn
- 1-ounce piece Parmigiano Reggiano rind, cut into three pieces
- 1 tablespoon fruity extra-virgin olive oil (optional, but lovely)
Store the KitchenAid freeze bowl attachment in the freezer for at least 15 hours.
Pour the cream and milk into a heavy-bottom medium saucepan. Swirl in the sugar and honey and sprinkle with the salt. Bring the mixture to simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved completely.
Stir the basil into the pan and plop in the pieces of cheese rind. Slide the pan off the heat, cover, and let the mixture steep for 1 hour.
Pour the infused basil mixture through a fine strainer into a medium bowl, pressing on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Toss out the solids and rinse the strainer.
Clean the saucepan, pour the strained basil mixture back in, and bring it to a gentle simmer over low heat.
Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water, place a medium bowl in the center, and top it with the cleaned strainer.
Whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl. When steam begins curling above the saucepan, dribble a little of the simmering basil mixture into the eggs and whisk vigorously. Continue dribbling and whisking, until half of the basil mixture is incorporated.
Pour this custard back into the saucepan, stirring constantly, until it reaches 175 F on an instant read thermometer or until it lightly coats the back of your spoon and doesn’t drip when you swipe your finger across it.
Immediately strain the custard into the chilled bowl and stir occasionally until the custard has cooled. Drizzle in the olive oil, if using. Remove the bowl from the bath, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to a week.
Churn the ice cream as described in the instructions for your KitchenAid ice cream attachment. When the ice cream is finished, approximately 20 to 30 minutes, scoop it into a plastic storage container, and freeze until firm. Serve the ice cream with a sprinkling of the Garlic-Spiked Candied Pine Nuts.
Garlic-Spiked Candied Pine Nuts
Makes 1 1/2 cups
- Cooking spray
- 1 large egg white
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder, up to 1/4 teaspoon for the brave at heart
- Pinch of cayenne
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cup pine nuts
Position the rack in the middle of the oven and crank the heat to 300 F.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and spritz it with cooking spray.
Whisk the egg white with a fork in a medium bowl until foamy. Whisk in the sugars, salt, garlic powder, cayenne, and nutmeg. Dump in the pine nuts and stir to coat the nuts evenly.
Spread the nuts on the foil in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast the nuts, tossing several times with a spatula, until browned and crisp, 30 to 45 minutes. Watch closely, as these little guys have a tendency to burn easily. Gently pry the nuts from the sheet and break up any large clumps. The nuts will last 2 weeks in a dry, airtight container.
Your turn: Have you ever considered basil-flavored ice cream? What is the most unique flavor you have tried?