- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

I love ripe, red tomato slices with snow-white fresh mozzarella, bright green basil leaves and a drizzle of good olive oil.

The brilliant green color and the distinct flavor make basil an ideal addition to dramatize many dishes. (Nearly all varieties are a brilliant green. Only opal basil is a gorgeous purple.)

Since basil can be beautiful, it is upsetting to see so many ugly brown pesto sauces. As a food scientist, I began pondering ways to keep basil bright green.

Food stylist Delores Custer keeps basil refrigerated on the stems in a glass of water with a plastic bag over the leaves. The bag limits the amount of oxygen, which speeds deterioration. If you want to keep basil more than two days, it also helps to change the water periodically.

One of my favorite Atlanta restaurants, Pangaea, uses loads of basil. Its pesto is bright green, and the basil in many of their dishes is crisp and beautiful. So I consulted the chef/owners, Jennifer Hultberg and Butch Raphael. They told me that for their sandwiches they generally use Thai basil and that it seems to have a good shelf life. At night it is stored in tubs with a damp towel over it.

Since the basil starts out crisp and clean, covering it with the damp towel prevents wilting without providing surface water in which mold and bacteria — that dreaded brown slime — can grow. It is used the next day at Pangaea so they do not need to worry too much about oxygen exposure.

As an aside, Mr. Raphael appealed to me to help him solve another problem. He said that the restaurant kitchen also struggles with browning on the cut surfaces of lettuce.

I suggested that since vitamin C prevents browning, they should dip the lettuce in a tub of cold water in which a crushed 500-milligram vitamin C tablet has been dissolved. If the lettuce is then dried and stored, refrigerated, with a damp towel over the pan, cut-surface browning will be minimized.

Using thick freezer plastic bags to cut off oxygen is ideal for home storage. Prewashed lettuce that has no surface water can be stored for as long as a few weeks, refrigerated, in resealable freezer bags with the air squeezed out.

Mr. Raphael asked me if using a plastic knife would cut down on lettuce browning. It’s common chef thought that cutting with a steel knife can contribute to browning. Yet according to studies, hand-torn lettuce browns just as fast as knife-cut lettuce. The basic problem is moisture on the cut surface.

Back to basil. Some chefs add parsley or mint or other greens to pesto to keep it green. Mr. Raphael showed me a container of pesto that had been made a week prior. It was still a brilliant green.

He said that to achieve this his cooks sometimes dip Italian basil briefly in salted boiling water, then into ice water, even knowing that some flavor may be lost. This helps it stay bright green even after pureeing.

When basil leaves are cut or mashed they lose their bright green color and turn into a blackish green. Harold McGee, author of “On Food and Cooking” (Fireside, 1997), also notes that basil reacts with a compound in flour to form an unattractive muddy brown compound. S

o pesto combined with pasta can look really unattractive. To avoid this problem, Mr. Raphael uses unblanched basil and instead adds a little lemon juice to the pasta cooking water. This prevents a reaction between the basil and the pasta. However, blanching basil as briefly as 30 seconds can have the same effect, since it deactivates the enzyme that enhances this reaction.

This is a good method, since adding lemon juice to blanched basil causes it to brown. (Acids make the chlorophyll in cooked green vegetables change to a brownish form.

Raw, fresh basil still has a natural waterproof coating, so acid does not turn it brown.) The two choices, then, are blanched basil with no lemon juice or unblanched with lemon juice.

In the sauce that follows, I go with unblanched basil with lemon juice. See what you think.

Southeast Asian herb sauce with soft noodles

Based on a recipe by Bruce Cost, this sauce has the brilliant green of new-growth leaves and is a far cry from the muddy color of most pestos.

Cost combines basil with mint and cilantro to give it an almost chartreuse color. Lemon slows the discoloration.

This sauce is spectacular on pure white noodles made from soft winter wheat. Such noodles are available in Asian markets or in grocery stores. I like to serve this with a fruit salad or other fresh fruit dish.

1 cup peanut oil

cup raw peanuts (see note)

to 2 small hot green chilies with seeds, if desired (see note)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger root

4 cloves garlic

1 cups basil leaves

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

cup mint or spearmint leaves

cup cilantro leaves and stems

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

12 ounces soft wheat noodles or 4 small packages (3 ounces each) ramen noodles, flavoring packets discarded

To roast peanuts, heat 1 cup oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until almost smoking. Remove pan from heat and carefully stir in peanuts. Let peanuts cook in hot oil until golden, then remove with a slotted spoon. Save the oil.

After roasting, process peanuts to a rough paste in a food processor. Add chilies, ginger root and garlic and process to blend.

Toss basil and lemon juice together in a small mixing bowl, then add to peanut mixture in the processor. Process with several quick on/off pulses.

Add mint or spearmint and cilantro and several tablespoons of the reserved peanut oil. Process to a coarse paste.

Add salt and sugar and process to blend. Scrape into a bowl. Stir in more reserved oil, if needed, to make a thick sauce. (You may not need all the oil.)

Bring a large pot of water with 1 tablespoon salt to a boil. Add noodles, stirring constantly the first minute, and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Drain.

Serve sauce alongside or pour into the center of the noodles. Do not stir until just before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes 4 servings.

Note: If you can’t find raw peanuts, use cup roasted, salted peanuts and skip the roasting process indicated in the recipe.

Note: The seeds and veins holding the seeds, which are the hottest parts of the chili, are included in this recipe to give heat. If you prefer a less hot sauce, cut back to one or even chili.


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