A few weeks ago, I ran a workshop at Nuit Blanche. We talked about a great assortment of food facts, including a demonstration of a brilliant tool: foodpairing.be, which generates incredible (and often unexpected) flavour matches. This can be useful for writing new recipes and coming up with innovative dishes. We showed it off by letting people pair fresh basil leaves with four of the website’s suggested matches: cocoa powder, black tea, grapefruit juice, and honey. I’ve used the website for years, but I was still wary of a few of the pairings. Cocoa and sweet pesto, for instance, was a truly pleasant surprise.
Basil is universally well liked, but largely subjected to the same boring uses: Caprese salad, pesto sauce on pasta, or tossed into tomato sauce. But foodpairing – and reconsidering your own flavour matches – can show that even everyday ingredients like basil deserve reconsideration and reinvention.
It’s only March, but Quebec greenhouses are already producing beautiful fresh basil. I discovered this when a friend brought home some jaw-droppingly fresh herbs that she had grown for a class at Mac campus. A bunch of friends came over for happy-hour beers, and I put together a delicious light meal for them.
I decided to use the fresh basil leaves as greens in a mixed salad, tossing them whole with baby spinach leaves. Arugula, frisée, or tender romaine lettuces would all work instead of – or in addition to – the spinach. Other herbs are also great additions, like Italian flat leaf parsley. The presence of herbs in salad makes the salad’s flavours much more intense and substantial.
I sautéed very thin slices of zucchini, garlic and white onion in olive oil with salt, pepper, and red pepper flake. When these had cooked down and become tender, I took the pan off the heat and added balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of honey (another idea I got from foodpairing). At this point, check for seasoning again. I tossed the basil and spinach with olive oil, balsamic, and some toasted, chopped nuts and topped each plate with heaping portions of the hot vegetables. The greens wilted a bit under the vegetables and the entire dish was bright and flavourful. Served with a thick slice of rustic bread, the dish made an excellent snack on a beautiful early spring day.