Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's a Basil Jungle Out There

I have a small herb “garden” in my kitchen and grow mint, flat leaf Italian parsley, marjoram, savory, oregano and basil. I grow them using an AreoGarden, which is essentially a compact planter that uses water, nutrients, air and light to grow herbs or flowers quickly indoors. I use the garden mostly through colder months, so that I have fresh herbs on hand for whenever I need them. Sometimes though, the herb garden can be too efficient, producing herbs that grow so rapidly that it can be a challenge to use them all.

Recently, the basil has been thriving, so I’ve been coming up with ways to use fresh basil more often in daily cooking. The addition of fresh basil adds so much flavour and colour to a dish that makes it a delight to use. Basil is a relative of the mint family and has been grown for thousands of years. There are hundreds of varieties available although there are a handful of very common varieties, such as the Genovese basil that I have in my kitchen herb “garden”. It’s best to add basil at the last minute of cooking or without any cooking, as it loses its sweet, pungent aroma quickly when cooked.

If you are thinking of growing basil in your garden this summer or in a pot on your windowsill, there are other reasons that might encourage you to get started. Basil adds brilliant colour and flavour to many dishes, but also contains powerful antioxidants which help prevent most kinds of cancer and cellular aging. Basil also contains large amounts of a natural anti-inflammatory compound, called (E)-beta-caryophyllene or BCP, which can help to combat arthritis and inflamatory bowel diseases. Everyone can benefit from the powerful health benefits of this beautiful, flavourful herb.

With its bright colours and flavours, the following recipe for Asparagus and Lemon Chicken with Pappardelle is a perfect pasta dish for spring. The sweetness of the basil and grape tomatoes balance the more acidic flavours of the lemon and asparagus. Traditionally made Paparadelle noodles are made with eggs and durham wheat. These noodles have a wide ribbon-like look similar to fettuccine. The light texture of paparadelle makes it one of my favourite pastas.

Asparagus & Lemon Chicken with Pappardelle (serves 4)


Pappardelle pasta – Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for serving quantities as the width of the pasta and the size of each pasta “bundle” can vary from one manufacturer to another.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts – Count on ½ chicken breast per person with larger chicken breasts, and one whole chicken breast per person for smaller ones.
Fresh asparagus (half of a bunch, or about 10 stalks)
½ cup fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
16 grape tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
Freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Additional Options (to pass at the table)

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Lemon wedges


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Season the chicken breasts with sea salt, freshly ground black pepper and a little sweet Hungarian paprika. Bake on a baking sheet on the middle rack in the oven for approximately 35 minutes, or just until cooked through. Allow to rest for five minutes. Slice each breast lengthwise, then horizontally into bite sized pieces.

While the chicken is cooking, fill a large pot 2/3 full with water and bring to a boil. Rinse the asparagus spears thoroughly to remove any sand (see *Note below). Snap off the bottom of each spear. The asparagus spears will break just above the less palatable woody end. Cut the spears into thirds and cook in lightly salted boiling water for approximately 4 minutes, or until tender crisp. Plunge the asparagus pieces briefly into ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

In a small pot, whisk together the extra virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice and warm the sauce on medium-low heat.

Cook the pappardelle following the manufacturer’s instructions. While the pasta is cooking, slice the grape tomatoes lengthwise and coarsely chop the basil. Drain the pasta, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Put a large, deep skillet over medium high heat and add the pasta water. Add the cooked paparadelle noodles, chicken pieces, asparagus and lemon sauce. Toss gently together. Add the grated Parmigiana-Reggiano and toss again gently until thoroughly heated through. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Pour entire contents into a large pasta bowl or other large dish. Garnish with the sliced grape tomatoes, chopped fresh basil leaves and ¼ cup of the grated Parmigiana-Reggiano. Serve immediately, passing the lemon wedges and additional Parmigiana-Reggiano.

*Note: To store the asparagus, put it into an open container in which the asparagus can be stood upright. Add about 2 inches of cold water into the bottom of the container and keep the asparagus refrigerated. When you are ready to use the asparagus, rinse the tips thoroughly under running water. Asparagus is grown in sandy soil and I have found it beneficial to thoroughly rinse the entire spears as sand is often trapped in the tips.

Pizza with 3 Cheeses and Fresh Basil

Pizza doesn’t have to be complicated to taste fantastic, it just needs flavourful ingredients to make it outstanding. Finlandia Muenster cheese is lactose free, melts beautifully and has great flavour, making it an interesting alternative to mozzarella. Use a rich, thick marinara sauce, suitable for creating a base for the other ingredients.

Makes one 16” Pizza


Fresh pizza dough (your favourite store bought or hand-made)
Extra virgin olive oil (for brushing the crust with)
1 cup marinara sauce
1 cup grated Finlandia Muenster cheese
2 Sweet Italian sausages
2 small fresh tomatoes, thinly sliced, with the seeds and juice removed
½ cup thinly sliced cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup of pitted and sliced nicoise olives
4 oz. of chevre (goat cheese) sliced, then broken into large pieces
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiana-Reggiano
½ cup freshly chopped fresh basil leaves


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. In a large skillet, cook the sweet Italian sausages in about an inch of water for about 20 minutes, pricking the tops of the sausages with a fork about half way through the cooking time to release any liquids. While the sausages are cooking, assemble the other ingredients. When the sausages are cooked through, remove them to a plate. Drain the water from the skillet, add a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and heat over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the sausages back in and brown them on both sides. Remove the sausages and set them on paper towels to absorb any remaining oil. Cool for a few minutes and slice into ½ inch slices.

Brush the prepared pizza dough with extra virgin olive oil and evenly spread the marinara sauce to within ½ inch of the edge. Evenly add the Finlandia Muenster cheese, the sausage slices, tomato slices, mushrooms, nicoise olives, chevre and Parmigaina-Reggiano. Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven for about 15 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Evenly scatter the chopped basil over the pizza and allow the pizza to set for five minutes before slicing and serving.

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