I count an excess of basil as one of the real luxuries of owning a greenhouse. I was never able to produce much of it before, but now I have it in aromatic abundance. Outdoors it always struggled for me, and created a meagre, sickly crop that I would have to eke out with a leaf or two here and there scattered across a salad. Now I have armfuls, and it means I can really indulge in this most summery of herbs.
I can’t say my troubles with basil are entirely over. My basil sowing skills are still not up to much. To get the seedlings growing happily I have to wait and sow when the weather is warm, or start it in a heated propagator and then transfer them to final growing places without too much of a shock to the system. This is easier said than done: they are sensitive things and do love to flounce, and a night time chill or a draught will send them flopping and turning black. And so now I cheat and buy the pots from the supermarket, harvest them until they are good for almost nothing and then plant them out into the polytunnel. They love it, and I get the fattest, loveliest leaves, in vast quantities.
So, what to do with it? Pesto is the obvious answer, and almost always the correct one. And in salads too basil is ever welcome. But basil does not have to be reserved for savoury. I have come to love it as a sweet herb too, and most particularly with fruit. Try taking a finely chopped handful of basil, the same of mint, the zest of a lemon and a few tablespoonfuls of sugar and pounding in a pestle and mortar. The result is a herb sugar that enhances any fruit it is sprinkled upon, and gorgeous on ice cream too. I have also made it into an ice cream of its own, basil choc chip, very much along the lines of mint choc chip. It works very well, though I think it would be pretty good without the chocolate too, and then work even better as an accompaniment to summer fruits such as peaches and raspberries.
Basil choc chip ice cream
- 6 egg yolks
- 125g caster sugar
- 500ml full-fat milk
- 150ml double cream
- Large bunch of basil
- 150g dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
In a large bowl whisk together the sugar and the egg yolks. Heat the milk to scalding and then take it off the heat. Add a little of the milk to the egg and sugar mixture and whisk well, then add a little more and whisk and so on until all of the milk is in the bowl. Pour a basin of cold water and keep it aside. Clean out the pan and pour the mixture into it, plus half of the basil, then heat it slowly, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon. The mixture will start to thicken, and is ready when you can draw a clear line across the back of the spoon. There is always a danger that it will start to curdle: if you notice tiny lumps then quickly take it off the heat, plunge the base into the basin of cold water, and whisk fast. Leave to cool and then place in the fridge to chill. When the mixture is completely cold fish out the basil leaves, whisk the cream, and fold it in. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn. While it is churning, chop the leaves of the remaining basil and tip them into the ice cream maker, along with the chocolate chips. Pour into a Tupperware box and freeze for at least 20 minutes before eating.