Every summer, a perfect culinary marriage takes place on platters all over the country: the classic pairing of top-season tomatoes and fresh basil. A member of the mint family, basil adds a spicy-pungent flavor that complements the sweetness of tomatoes at their peak. Worldwide, there are more than 60 varieties of basil, including the purple opal basil, lemon basil and the more common green-leaved basil. If you don’t grow your own, the sweet basil found in grocery stores is a good match with garden tomatoes. Choose leaves that are not wilted and store in the refrigerator, wrapped in barely damp paper towels and a plastic bag, and use within a few days. Classic basil-tomato pairings include sliced tomatoes and basil leaves with mozzarella, diced tomatoes and julienned basil with pasta, and chopped tomatoes and basil “bruschetta style” on breads. Here is an example of each combination, to make the most of the season’s dynamic duo.
Sliced tomatoes and mozzarella with pesto
Whole fresh basil leaves are usually alternated with sliced tomatoes and thick slices of mozzarella, arranged on a platter and drizzled with olive oil. In this combination, the basil shows up in a classic pesto, which can be made up to a week in advance. Recipe from Bon Appetit magazine; makes 6 servings.
1 1/2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts, tossed
2 garlic cloves
4 large tomatoes, sliced
4 ounces smoked or regular mozzarella cheese, sliced
Fresh basil leaves
Puree the first 5 ingredients in a food processor, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl. (If not using pesto right away, transfer to a nonmetallic container. Top with enough olive oil just to cover; put on a lid and chill.) When ready to serve, stir pesto before using. Place tomato and cheese slices on serving platter, alternating and overlapping. Top with small dollops of pesto and garnish with fresh basil leaves.
Capellini with tomato pesto
Here’s a twist: put the tomatoes — in this case, tomato paste — in the pesto with the basil. Serve it with pasta for a quick and flavorful meal. Garnish with chopped fresh tomatoes if available. Recipe from “Quick Vegetarian Pleasures” by Jeanne Lemlin; makes 4 servings.
1/3 cup pine nuts
6 ounce can or tube of good quality tomato paste
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 pound capellini or vermicelli pasta
1 or 2 fresh garden tomatoes, optional
Lightly toast pine nuts at 350 degrees until golden, about 5 minutes. Place pine nuts and all remaining ingredients except pasta in a medium bowl. (Pesto can be made up to 24 hours in advance and kept covered and chilled. Bring to room temperature before mixing with the pasta.) Bring a 6-quart pot of water to the boil; add pasta and cook until al dente. Before draining, beat 2 tablespoons of the boiling pasta water into the sauce. Drain pasta; put into serving bowl. Spoon on the sauce and toss quickly; garnish with fresh chopped tomatoes if desired, and serve immediately.
Here’s the classic fresh tomato and basil flavors served on toasted bread, bruschetta-style for an easy hors d’oeuvre or light lunch. If your basil is not too pungent, try a few turns of fresh ground black pepper on top of the bread before serving. Another attractive option is to use yellow or other colors of heirloom tomatoes as well as red ones. Recipe from Cucina Italiana magazine; makes 8 servings.
1 round Italian loaf — ciambella — with a hole in the center
12 small ripe tomatoes or 30 cherry tomatoes
12 basil leaves
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Slice bread in half horizontally. Bake 20 minutes on a cookie sheet or until crispy and golden; remove from oven. Slice tomatoes in half horizontally. Season with salt, toss with basil and drizzle with olive oil. Distribute mixture evenly over the bread and serve.