Basil, freshly grown, vibrant, deep-green, and succulent is at the farmer’s market. I make do with the plant on my kitchen counter in the winter, but at this time of year, I do veer towards the outdoor, garden grown. In reality the flavor may be the same, but the perception is so different. Basil grown in an outdoor garden takes on the flavor of the soil and the minerals that have enriched it. Alone or in a pesto, Basil is a flavor dimension that has summer written all over it.
Lillet – old-fashioned aperitif, resurrected.
I worked in an amazing French restaurant once upon a time, that had always had a bottle of Lillet for that little old lady who might once a summer order it. For years I have passed it by in the liquor store, and a few summers ago, finally bought it. I had to know what it was all about that no one drank it, as far as I could see in these parts. To me it was a drink that red-lipsticked ladies, with sleek hair buns, drank on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Anyway, I bought it and it took up a wine space in my fridge. This summer my fridge broke and I had to move everything to a little beverage fridge while I waited for three months for the repairman (who when he showed up was the most kind and polite repairman I have ever met!). So, in moving this bottle of Lillet, I decided that this would be my choice drink of summer.
Lillet is categorized as an aromaticised (infused) wine with orange as the predominant flavor. It is considered to be an aperitif, thus meaning a before-dinner drink. Served chilled, over ice with an orange twist is quite refreshing and complements an appetizer spread of cheese and jam quite nicely (try the recent Brie discovery!).
In the creation of this recipe, which as many of you probably have come to know, I get inspired in the moment about one ingredient and pull a recipe in around it, so when Basil was to be my focus, and I chose an orange scented salt, the Lillet with its orange base, came to mind.
Fresh Basil vs Dried Basil
There are some herbs like Thyme or Dill that take well to drying and in my estimation are somewhat interchangeable. Ok, they are a bit different, but they taste fine and do not add a bitterness or funky taste to a dish. Basil on the other hand is one such herb that should only be used fresh. Sends chills up my spine to think about those dried little chips that I once thought were how one should season a sauce with Basil.
Being a “Queen of Freeze,” one can grow or purchase fresh basil and freeze it, thus enabling having it “fresh” on hand in a pinch. If you are going to freeze, my suggestion would be to make it into a “pesto” of some sort. Either the traditional pine nut/basil blend or simply mortar and pestle it with some olive oil, or put it in the food processor and freeze it into cubes. Keep a reserved ice cube tray that is only for freezing cubes of herbs, as it will take on the flavor of herbs and probably produce odd tasting ice cubes. (A recipe link will be in the Additional Recipes below.)
Life before Pesto
Basil blended with EVOO, pine nuts (Pignolia Nuts), freshly grated Parmesan, and frequently garlic. The most basic of ingredients blended together make a most perfect tasting sauce. Pesto may have been known in Italian restaurants, but it did not hit the general population’s dinner table until the food explosion of the late 80’s – 90’s. Perhaps a gourmet cook here and there had a mortar and pestle, had visited Italy and returned with the knowledge of this foreign sauce. We did not know good from bad, only that it was this new “it” sauce, and it seemed exotic. Fast forward and pesto is part of the vernacular.
Variations on the Pesto scene, it does not always mean Basil.
“Pesto” means to pound with a mortar and pestle. When we say the word pesto, it is usually the Basil kind. The word has become ubiquitous with other sauces, and is generally clarified as whatever the primary ingredient is. Did you know that Basil has been known about for over 4000 years? As home cooks, we seem to think that all these foods are new inventions and that we are miraculously discovering them. In a world where there are no secrets thanks to the digital age, having a little fantasy about our kitchen ingredients is relatively harmless, and if it keeps us excited about standing at the stove, so be it.
French cooking is the backbone of my cooking technique, and if you read some of my spring recipes, you would see some pretty basic ingredients that came together to make a simple, yet tasty dish (Radish & Parsley Salad, for example). I am still on this kick and the recipe for this post follows in that vein. Have intricate recipes for when you really want to have an experience in the cooking process, but have some simple ones on hand that are a melding of flavors with few ingredients that comes together for a memorable meal.
Not all fish is created equal.
The best fish backdrop for highlighting simple ingredients is a mildly flavored one. A strong oily fish may be fine for holding up to blackened seasoning, but when you want the fresh herbs and other flavors to stand out, choose something like flounder, plaice, haddock or cod. And most important note on fish, it should not smell fishy, if it does, then it is probably not that fresh. My preference is frozen over the fish from a fish counter where I can smell it back in the produce section.
There are salt stores. Table salt is no longer that little Morton’s girl with the umbrella, salt is now a main ingredient. Pretty much all savory dishes, and even some sweet ones, benefit from salt. Salt was of such value at one time in history that people traded it as an item of value. Sea salt, lava salts, to herb scented (seasoned with) salts are staple in the kitchen pantry. Flor de Sal d’Estrenc is one of my favorite brands, but they change their flacvors . There are a few flavors on Amazon, and they vary as to what is available. And now that I have googled trying to find it for you, and found a recipe, perhaps I paid for a beautiful, fancy little box. Next blog post will be on how to make a variety of these flavored salts to keep on hand…
Additional recipes to try:
Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C Place fish in a baking dish. Slice onions into thin half round slices. Spread in a solid layer over the fish. Sprinkle seasoned salt over the top. Remove the Basil leaves from the stems. Reserve a few for garnish. Arrange the leaves, other than reserved ones, over the onions around the dish. Drizzle EVOO over the fish/onions/Basil. Pour the Lillet into the bottom of the baking dish. Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish. It is done when it becomes opaque. For the sauce: blend the mayonnaise and lemon juice. Serve on individual portions with a garnish of fresh Basil leaves. The wine will cook off and there was no sauce left behind, and the fish remained moist and flavorful.
Fresh Basil, Lillet, Haddock, & Red Onions
Preheat oven to 350°F/175°C
Place fish in a baking dish.
Slice onions into thin half round slices.
Spread in a solid layer over the fish.
Sprinkle seasoned salt over the top.
Remove the Basil leaves from the stems. Reserve a few for garnish.
Arrange the leaves, other than reserved ones, over the onions around the dish.
Drizzle EVOO over the fish/onions/Basil.
Pour the Lillet into the bottom of the baking dish.
Place in the oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish.
It is done when it becomes opaque.
For the sauce: blend the mayonnaise and lemon juice.
Serve on individual portions with a garnish of fresh Basil leaves.
The wine will cook off and there was no sauce left behind, and the fish remained moist and flavorful.