Monday, June 17, 2024

Open the gates of heaven with these sweet basil recipes

Now that we’re all “stuck” at home, it’s a good time to start learning how to make dishes you usually only order when you go out to eat.

I’m ashamed to say pesto is one of those things for me. I’ve probably only made it a handful of times in my entire life. It was just easier to buy it ready-made or order it at a restaurant.

Basil, the main ingredient, is an easily and commonly grown herb, called albahaca in Spanish (pronounced al-BAH-ka, as the “h” is silent) and thought to bring good luck. That’s a belief not only in Mexico but in India as well, and it’s not unusual for shops and businesses to have a plant inside their establishment or outside the front door.

In ancient Egypt and parts of Europe, people believed basil would open the gates of heaven and ensure a safe journey, and sprigs were placed in the hands of those who’d died.

For cooking, the most commonly used type is sweet basil, with soft, rounded green leaves; this is what gives Italian foods (and pesto!) their distinctive taste. Thai basil, with smaller, “harder” leaves and a spicier flavor, is used in Indonesian and Asian cooking. The list of basil varieties is long – purple basil, lemon basil, Thai holy basil (not the same as Thai basil), cinnamon basil, to name a few – and each has its own unique aroma and flavor.

Fresh sweet basil grows well in Mexico.
Fresh sweet basil grows well in Mexico.

Depending on climate and variety, basil grows year-round, and in most parts of Mexico that’s the case. It’s a pretty and easy plant to grow, either in pots or in the ground, from seeds or starts. You’ll want to pinch off any buds or flowers, because once the plant flowers, the leaves stop growing, the stem becomes woody and essential oils (i.e., flavor) decline.

Back to pesto! You might as well make a big batch and freeze some for later. (If you’re going to do this, leave out the cheese and add it after defrosting.) The easiest way is to line ice cube trays with plastic wrap and fill each space with pesto. Once frozen, pop ‘em out and store in a Ziploc bag or container.


Pesto is traditionally made with pine nuts, but other kinds of nuts work fine. See what tastes best to you. This is great for making a tomato-free lasagna too! 

  • 4 cups basil leaves
  • 5 cloves garlic (or to taste)
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, almonds, walnuts or pecans
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese
  • ¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 tsp. each salt & pepper

Mix first four ingredients in blender or food processor until paste forms, stopping often to push down. Add both cheeses and salt. (If freezing, don’t add cheese.) Blend until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use. –Bon Appetit

Pistou is an olive oil-based sauce that goes well with grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables.
Pistou is an olive oil-based sauce that goes well with grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables.

Classic Pistou

Use this olive oil-based sauce from the south of France as an accompaniment to grilled meats, poultry, fish and vegetables, or add a dollop to any kind of soup.

  • 4-½ cups basil leaves, torn into pieces
  • ¼ cup chopped ripe plum tomatoes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup grated Gouda or Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbsp. (or more) minced fresh garlic
  • 1 tsp. salt

In a molcajete or with a mortar and pestle, grind garlic and salt to a paste. Add basil by the handful and grind the leaves until almost smooth. Stir in tomatoes; gradually add olive oil until combined. Stir in cheese and refrigerate until ready to serve. – Food & Wine

Black Pepper Queso Fresco Bruschetta

Here’s a different take on a classic Italian appetizer.

  • 8 oz. fresh queso fresco or requeson
  • ¼ cup fresh basil leaves
  • 1 tsp. fresh lemon zest
  • Salt & pepper
  • 8 slices baguette, sliced ½-inch thick
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3 Tbsp. toasted slivered almonds

Place cheese, basil, zest, salt and pepper in a food processor and process until smooth. Heat grill or broiler to high. Brush bread with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and rub with garlic cloves. Grill bread on each side for 1 minute or until slightly charred. Spread each slice with the cheese mixture and top with slivered almonds and pepper. – Adapted from Bobby Flay

Roasted Tomato Basil Soup

  • 3 lbs. ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp. salt
  • 1½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups chopped yellow onions (2 onions)
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • ¼ tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 (28-ounce) canned plum tomatoes, with juice
  • 4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, if available
  • 1 qt. vegetable or chicken stock or water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss together tomatoes, ¼ cup olive oil, salt and pepper, then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. In a large pot over medium heat, sauté onions and garlic with 2 Tbsp. olive oil, the butter and red pepper flakes for 10 minutes, until onions start to brown. Add canned tomatoes and juice, basil, thyme and stock or water; then add oven-roasted tomatoes, including any liquid on the baking sheet. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. Blend in small batches or pass through a food mill fitted with the coarsest blade. Taste for seasonings. Serve hot or cold.

Salmon with Capellini, Lemon, Capers & Basil

Have all your ingredients assembled before you start! Especially watch the capellini, as it cooks very quickly and gets mushy in the blink of an eye.

  • ½ lb. capellini
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ tsp. each salt and pepper, plus more for seasoning
  • 4 (4-oz.) salmon filets
  • ¼ cup chopped basil leaves
  • 3 Tbsp. capers
  • 1 lemon, zested
  • 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves

Cook and drain pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Add garlic, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, salt and pepper; stir gently. Add basil, capers, zest and lemon juice. Toss gently, set aside, uncovered.

Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Season salmon with salt and pepper, then cook until medium-rare, about 2 minutes per side, depending on thickness. To serve, place ½ cup spinach on each plate, top with pasta and a piece of salmon. –

Janet Blaser of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, has been a writer, editor and storyteller her entire life and feels fortunate to write about great food, amazing places, fascinating people and unique events. Her work has appeared in numerous travel and expat publications as well as newspapers and magazines. Her first book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, is available on Amazon. Contact Janet or read her blog at

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