Cooking with Basil: Pick it Fresh! Friday, Jun 28 2013 


There’s nothing like the aroma of basil. It is the herb that most heralds that summer is in full swing. Perhaps because it requires bountiful sunshine and seems to thrive in the heat. Basil is often associated with Mediterranean cooking, but basil is native to India and Asia as well as parts of Africa. The leaves are used in cooking, imparting their bold flavor to recipes. There are many cultivars available with different nuances of taste, size, and appearance, including those with cinnamon, clove, lemon, and lime overtones.


The basil in the photo above is Thai basil, also known as Tulsi or Holy Basil, and has a minty, almost smoky aroma. I love it. The purple basil in the photo below has a mild licorice flavor and aroma and provides a rich pop of color in the garden.


Up in Massachusetts, we harvest our Thai basil and dry it for tea and make and freeze pesto from the Italian, or Genovese, to enjoy in the winter months.

Having a garden is especially satisfying, but if you don’t have the space and inclination, basil is a great herb to grow in a pot on the windowsill or patio. If you’ve followed past posts, you know that we love to dig in the dirt. Several months ago, I was able to spend some time with an absolutely wonderful woman and master gardener, Mary Beth Shaddix. She’s my kind of people! After 10 years working in the marketing and research department at Cooking Light, Mary Beth traded in her business suits for garden gloves. She and her husband have a wholesale nursery and farm, Maple Valley Nursery, near Birmingham, Alabama. They also grow a garden for the test kitchens at Cooking Light Magazine.

How lucky are those test kitchen cooks! How smart is that magazine! I love it when big companies do smart and creative things. Mary Beth has collaborated with the magazine and they’ve produced a really smart, fun cookbook with lots of amazing recipes called, Pick Fresh. I absolutely love it.

Book Cover

The book features 200 full color photographs and 150 recipes from starters to sides, light salads to hearty main dishes, and incredible desserts — all with nutritional analysis so you can stay on track for healthy eating. The chapters are divided into fruits, vegetables, and herbs with guides for growing, choosing, storing, and preparing each ingredient. It’s really fantastic and I cannot recommend it enough. The Peach Lemonade, Summer Squash with Bacon and Mozzarella Quiche, and Mint Gremolata Zucchini with Sea Salt are top of my list to try.

Today, with a nod to the myriad of basil varieties available, I’m sharing a couple of basil recipes. First, is the Cooking Light Pick Fresh Spicy Basil Beef Salad. Delicious, bold flavors with cooling cucumber make this dish a great meal for a hot summer night. You could also serve it on a bed of arugula, spinach, or butter lettuce if you wanted to enhance it with additional greens.

I love to eat fish in the summer. It’s light and quick cooking. Today, I’m sharing a simple recipe for Basil Crusted Trout with Creamy Garlic Aioli. I’m using farm-raised trout here, but if you can’t find trout, just make sure to check with Seafood Watch for a sustainable substitute.

Please follow me on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve got lots of great things happening and want to share — I’m now a contributing blogger for Ty Pennington’s Good Eats blog and next up for the 4th of July is Sweet Tea Brined BBQ Chicken. I’ll also be blogging for the Southern Foodways Alliance this July and August. Lastly, I’ll be at the Fancy Food Show on Monday July 1 as the Chef Ambassador for Roland Foods. Please stop by and say hello if you are in NYC!

Thanks so much for reading.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

Spicy Basil Beef Salad

Spicy Basil-Beef Salad
Serves 4

1 tablespoon canola oil
12 ounces hanger steak, trimmed
1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons minced fresh lemongrass
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
2 teaspoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste)
1 1⁄2 cups loosely packed basil leaves
1 cup thinly sliced English cucumber
3 large ripe heirloom tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 425°. Heat a large ovenproof stainless-steel skillet over medium-high heat. Add canola oil to pan; swirl to coat. Sprinkle both sides of steak evenly with black
pepper and salt. Add steak to pan; cook 5 minutes or until browned. Turn steak over. Bake at 425° for 8 minutes or until a thermometer inserted into thickest portion of steak registers 135° or until desired degree of doneness. Remove steak from pan; let stand 10 minutes. Slice across grain.

Combine soy sauce and next 5 ingredients (through sambal) in a small bowl,stirring well. Combine basil and remaining ingredients in a large bowl. Drizzle dressing over basil mixture; toss gently. Divide salad evenly among 4 plates; divide beef evenly among salads and serve immediately.


Basil-Crusted Trout Fillets with Creamy Garlic Aioli
Serves 4

If you are new to cooking fish or worried about overcooking, this recipe has “training wheels”. The spicy-herb topping helps protect the fish under the broiler and can help prevent it from drying out and overcooking. This trout would be lovely served with freshly sliced tomato on a bed of crispy greens.

For the Creamy Aioli:
1 head garlic, peeled
1 large egg yolk
6 sprigs flat leaf parsley
Juice ½ lemon
¼ cup olive oil

For the Fish:
8 sprigs chopped fresh basil
8 sprigs chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 small cloves garlic, peeled and very finely chopped
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 8-ounce trout filets, halved

For the Creamy Aioli:
Place the peeled cloves in a in a small saucepan with 1 cup cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then drain. Repeat process 4 times, always starting with cold water. Place the softened garlic, egg yolk, parsley, lemon juice, and 1/4 cup of olive oil in a blender; blend until creamy. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and freshly ground white pepper. Set aside.

For the Fish:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 450° F. Combine the parsley, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Brush each fish with olive oil, season with salt, then dust top side with mixture. Place fish on an oiled baking sheet and bake until the fish is opaque, 5 to 7 minutes. Top with Creamy Aioli and serve immediately on warmed serving plates.

Trout – photo credit Virginia Willis
Pick Fresh photo and recipe credit photo credit, Cooking Light Pick Fresh Cookbook/Oxmoor House.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

Copyright © 2013 Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc.

Green Means Go: Easy Summer Salmon & Seafood Watch Thursday, Jul 14 2011 

Isn’t that photo mesmerizing? Ethereal. Beautiful. No, don’t worry. I’m not about to tell you how to cook jellyfish — although they are caught off the coast of Georgia and sent to Asia, where they are preserved and served in all manner of ways.

There’s nothing as primal and pulling as water, especially the ocean. When I was a little girl and we’d go to the beach, I wasn’t happy until I had my feet in the water. I’m still that way to this day. If I am near the ocean, I am in the ocean. If I see a creek or a babbling brook, I want to wade in it.

The part I love the most about water is that I love to fish. Now, I am pretty high energy and don’t sit still too much. If I were to stand still on the edge of a body of water, I’d settle down for a little bit, but eventually? Eventually, my mind would be assembling lists and I would be thinking of all the things I need to do. I get restless. However, put a pole in my hand and I’m happy and content. I’ll sit still for hours and hours. My mind frees and it’s the most peaceful thing in the world to me.

There was a pond at my grandparent’s house and although we no longer own the property, it remains one of my most favorite places on earth. I was practically born with a fishing rod in my hand. One of my first memories was falling in the pond, the murky brown water, and the adults scampering to fish me out of the pond.

Mama said the first time I caught a fish on my own I jumped up and down so much that my diaper fell down around my ankles.

Like I said, I was born to fish.

I was also taught to respect the pond. Dede, my grandfather, explained not to keep bass that were too small. We were taught to recognize when females were swollen with eggs and release them back into the water. Fishing around the laying nests in the shallow end in the spring was forbidden, and sometimes, Dede would toss some of the bream (pronounced brim in Georgia) onto the bank if he felt like their stock was overpopulated and they were too skinny. We were taught to respect the pond and the fish it held. If a fish was hurt or maimed, we kept it regardless of size, and we always ate the fish we caught.

To this day, when I kill and gut a fresh fish I have caught, I thank that fish for its life.

About 12 years ago, I read a book that changed my life and the way I eat fish. The book was Cod: The Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. Not only did I quit eating cod, I started thinking about just what the heck we humans were doing to our oceans. I started applying that same respect for the fish in my family pond as I did for the fish in the ocean.

This curiosity eventually led me to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their sustainable seafood advocacy program called Seafood Watch.

Fish and shellfish are part of a nutritionally sound diet. Seafood is high in protein, low in saturated fat, and contains heart-healthy omega-3s, which help boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other ailments. Omega-3s are especially important for pregnant and nursing women and young children.

The deal is, according to Seafood Watch, nearly 75% of the world’s fisheries are fished to capacity, or overfished.

Programs such as the Seafood Watch or the Marine Stewardship Council offer information to help you choose seafood that’s good for you — and good for the oceans. Using a simple red means no, yellow means caution, and green means go color system, Seafood Watch recommends which seafood to buy or avoid, helping consumers and businesses become advocates for ocean-friendly seafood.

These recommendations are available online, in printed pocket guides, or even downloadable on mobile devices. Whole Foods Market has started labeling their fish with the Seafood Watch color coding system as well as the MSC-certified seal of approval. The choices we make as consumers can make this situation worse, or improve it. Seafood Watch recommendations consider the fishery, habitat, species, management, and a host of other factors that affect each species.

Another book that has had a huge impact on me and my opinion and my seafood choices is called Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food written by Paul Greenberg. It’s about the 4 archetypes of fish flesh — starting at the shore with salmon and moving further out into the ocean with bass, cod, and then finally tuna, the fish that swims the length of the ocean. It’s brilliant. I was fortunate enough to meet Paul at Cooking for Solutions, an event held to raise funds and awareness about Seafood Watch and sustainable seafood. (Here’s a snap of me serving up shrimp and grits and fried catfish for the Savor the Gulf Coast Champagne Breakfast.)

In Four Fish Paul examines and explores the fish that dominate our menus. How many times have you seen salmon on the menu at a fish shack on the Gulf? Too many. Paul’s tale about catching a bluefin tuna is so real, so well told, you will feel the rocking of the boat. It’s powerful. This book will make you think about what fish you choose to eat, that’s for sure. Let me put it this way, I read it twice, back to back.

Earlier this week I cooked for a business luncheon. It’s been pretty warm, so while I was planning my menu, I was thinking about cold poached chicken or salmon with an herb salad with fresh greens from the garden. When I went to the store, I saw fresh sockeye salmon. I always look for fresh, not frozen, wild salmon and when I see it, I buy it. There are seasons for harvesting and catching fish just like there are for zucchini or apples. Sockeye salmon has a full flavored firm flesh. It’s the second most abundant Alaska Salmon species. (There are different salmon species just like there are different kind of apples, too.) The distinct, deep red flesh retains its color throughout cooking.

Poaching is a fantastic way to make an easy make ahead summer lunch or supper. I made mine the night before and chilled it in the refrigerator overnight. That way, I had precious little to do right before the big lunch. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Let me know what you think.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!

PS On a whole other note, in the film “The Help” from DreamWorks Pictures and Participant Media, the food on the dinner table tells a story much deeper than the list of ingredients. Drawing inspiration from the film, TakePart brings you Every Recipe Tells a Story, a series featuring the stories behind the recipes. I was fortunate enough to be included, as was my friend and colleague, Sherri Brooks Vinton. Please check it out.

Poached Sockeye Salmon
Serves 4

3 cups water
2 cups dry white wine
2 to 4 sprigs tarragon, leaves coarsely chopped and stems reserved
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 carrot, sliced
Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
4 (5-ounce) skinless salmon fillets
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced, for serving
Mayonnaise, for serving
Dijon mustard, for serving

To poach the salmon, combine the water, wine, tarragon stems (leaves reserved), bay leaves, peppercorns, and carrot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to low. Simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes to make a flavorful court-bouillon. Season with salt and pepper. Have ready a large, heavy-duty sealable plastic bag filled with ice cubes. Make an ice bath to cool the salmon by transfering several cups (or more, if needed) of the broth to a large heatproof bowl. Place the ice pack in the bowl of broth; move the pack around until the broth is well chilled (drain the bag and add more ice to it as needed). Return the heat to high and bring the remaining mixture to a rolling boil. Add the salmon fillets. Cover and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove from the heat and remove the salmon from the poaching liquid. Transfer to the cooled broth and allow the salmon to cool in the bouillon. Cover the fish and broth with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours or overnight until you are ready to serve.

When ready to serve, using a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the liquid. Pat dry with paper towels. Place on a chilled platter and repeat with remaining filets. Scatter cucumber slices over. Serve immediately with mayonnaise and mustard on teh side.

Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, Thanks so much.

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