After a horror show weekend, I’m retreating to the garden and the kitchen to recover a little peace of mind. I’m almost afraid to even look at the news for fear of seeing another peaceful, unarmed Wall Of Moms gassed and attacked by feds in unmarked uniforms or grabbed and disappeared to nobody knows where. Instead, let’s take a little break together and think about soothing, delicious, summery food. Ok? Our small but mighty sunroom has proved a blessing this summer, as our part of the maritime Northwest remains frequently cool and overcast. Though it looks like warm, sunny days are here at last, they’ve been a long time coming and our heat loving crops have been dragging way behind those in Oregon and California. My basil in particular was sulking until it got a new home in the sun. Now it’s booming and I’m enjoying playing with the bounty. Of course I’m making various pestos, but I’m also fine tuning a recipe for basil salt, combining dried and fresh basil with sea salt to boost the flavor to the max.
Summery Basil Salt
Here’s my current best version of basil salt, which is my go-to for anything that includes fresh raw tomatoes as well as herb-and-garlic sourdough rolls (this summer’s obsession). You can play around with the quantities, but a 1:1 ration of salt to fresh basil is a good place to start. I use the leaves and the softer parts of the stems as well as any blossoms, but stiff, woody stems won’t work. I blended Genovese with Bolloso Napolitano basils for big, robust flavor, but pretty much any kind will do.
Best Basil Salt
1-2 cups firmly packed basil leaves, stems and blossoms
2 tablespoons dried basil
1 cup coarse sea salt
In a food processor or blender, grind fresh and dried basil to a fine meal. Add sea salt and process until smooth (salt should look very green). Don’t wash the food processor yet (!). Spread evenly in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 225 degrees F until salt forms a crust (about 20-30 minutes, depending on quantity and pan size). Let cool completely, break in chunks and process again until uniform. Store in tightly sealed small glass jars out of direct sunlight for up to a year. Makes about 2 cups. Pack it into glass spice jars with shaker tops for great little gifts!
Need a fabulous starter for a lazy evening pre-dinner nibble? My Siberian neighbor and I both love the spicy-smoky flavor of Black Krim tomatoes, a heritage type from the Crimean Peninsula. This year, Black Krim is the first to ripen in both our yards and we celebrated by making this delicious variation on the classic Italian Caprese salad. We alternated slices of juicy tomatoes and tender, fresh mozzarella, then drizzled on some bright and lively Spunky Pesto Dressing. Outrageous!
Black Krim Pesto Caprese Salad
4 Black Krim tomatoes, sliced
4 three-inch fresh mozzarella balls
1 cup Fresh Pesto Dressing
Arrange alternating and overlapping slices of tomatoes and mozzarella on a serving platter, drizzle with dressing and serve at room temperature. Serves four.
Spunky Pesto Dressing
1/2 cup fruity olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 cups lightly packed basil leaves, stems and blossoms
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch of smoked paprika or your favorite pepper
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and puree, adding oil as needed to make a pourable dressing. Makes about 1 cup.
Bean-Based Pestos With Power & Punch
Pesto always comes in handy, especially when it’s too hot to cook. Instead of turning on the oven, I make hearty entree salads with a protein pop. For many years, that pop came from beans, but now I live with my daughter and she doesn’t like beans. (I know, right? Who doesn’t like beans?) I love beans but it isn’t practical to make sets of her-and-hers meals very often, so I’ve been looking for a clever workaround. The best I’ve found so far involves a sneaky, wonderful idea I was introduced to years ago. The original involved combining pesto and hummus into an intensely flavorful dip or dressing, but over the years, that pesto-hummus hybrid has been transformed into a series of sauces/dressings/dips that partner pleasingly with pretty much anything from the garden.
They’re also great as sauces for pasta, brown rice, and farro; use the rice cooker to prepare rice or whole grains before the day heats up, combining them with dressing while still warm to get the best flavor transfer. The basic recipe is very flexible; change it up with different nuts or seeds, and swap basil for fresh cilantro (pure awesomeness), thyme, or lemon balm. Turns out nobody can tell there are beans involved if I use white beans instead of chickpeas, score! If you are feeding vegans, nobody misses the cheese, either, since nutritional yeast adds both a protein boost and a bold umame flavor that’s often lacking in vegetarian and vegan recipes. However you spin it, this yummy stuff can be used in so many delicious ways. Spoon it over hot pasta, rice, or baked potatoes, or plain steamed vegetables. Add a little to simple vinaigrette and toss with greens, or use it straight as a tasty dressing for pasta or potato salads. Let it replace mayo on sandwiches and wraps. Mash it with soft goat cheese, spread on crusty bread and toast to a bubbly finish. Here’s a very good one to start with:
Power Pesto (Vegan)
1 cup raw pinenuts or hazelnuts
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 cups fresh basil leaves, stems and blossoms
1/4-1/2 teaspoon sea salt (to taste)
1 cup cooked white Italian cannellini beans
1/2 cup water
1/4-1/2 cup flaked nutritional yeast (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4-1/2 cup fruity olive oil (to taste)
In a food processor or blender, grind nuts and garlic to coarse meal. Add basil and salt and process to a coarse paste. Add beans and water and process to a smooth paste. Add nutritional yeast and pepper, process briefly, then slowly add oil while machine is running, then thin with water to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning if desired and serve at room temperature or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 2 cups.