We felt a bit negligent with last week's summer tomato primer. To mention tomatoes without including the basil in the basket next door is to gloss over one of the more perfect culinary matches of the season. We were reminded of that this week when we went to one of our favorite vendors and were shown a basil leaf that spanned the width of our palm. Broad, ruffled, mostly green, but sometimes purple, fresh and fragrant summertime basil is now available bundled up in fat layered bouquets.
There are almost as many different kinds of basil as there are tomatoes, though you're likely to find only a handful of cultivars at the farmers market, sweet basil being the most common, with a heavy clove (from eugenol, which is the same chemical that give cloves their pungency) and sometimes fruity perfume. The aforementioned palm-sized leaf was from a variety called mammoth basil, which proves its name with each gigantic leaf. It and the Genovese variety (the traditional leaf of pesto) have that signature clovey quality plus a slight spiciness reminiscent of pepper and cinnamon. Other basils take the guesswork out of their primary flavor profiles by being named according to type, such as lemon basil, cinnamon basil, and licorice or anise basil. And what steamy bowl of phở would be complete without a pile of aromatic, purple stemmed, and smooth leaved Thai or Spice basil sitting nearby waiting to be plucked.
Basil of any kind has a tendency to turn a muddy brown when left to oxidize or when cooked overlong, so freshness is absolutely key. Stems should be green (or purple depending on variety) and juicy. Leaves should be brightly colored and have firm veining down the center, though on sunny market days a few wilty bunches will probably be the norm. No matter. Treat them like a bouquet of flowers, trimming off a section of stems and putting them in a cup of cool water on your counter. Ideally, you should plan on using them within a couple of days of purchase. If not, make pesto and freeze for later. If you plan on cooking with the fresh leaves, wait to add them to your pot at the end of your recipe so they keep most of their green color and fresh flavor.