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Posted: Monday, October 7, 2013 4:04 pm

Last week the Pacific Italian Alliance of San Joaquin County celebrated Basilico at its annual Concorco di Cucina - Cooking Contest. A call for recipes was announced — the only requirement was the use of basil as an ingredient.

While the judges deliberated over the entries and the guests ate a pesto pasta dinner, I demonstrated a variety of ways to use basil and surprised the audience with a most unique presentation in a delicious dessert.

Sweet basil is associated with Italian cooking because of its fabulous transformation into pesto. For a perfectly balanced recipe, check out page 121 in “Cooking Dinner – Simple Italian Family Recipes Everyone Can Make!” by Rima Barkett and Claudia Pruett. However, basil is actually native to India and is prevalent in Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese food culture.

Thai basil is sweet basil’s spicier cousin with similar flavors and aromas but with an added intensity. Thai basil stands up to cooking a little better than sweet basil, making it a good choice for soups, stir-fries, and curries. It can also be sprinkled over salads or cold noodle dishes. Holy basil grows with similar shaped leaves but sports a purplish stem. It has been prescribed for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine. The fragrant leaves contain tannins, flavonoids and essential oils that are responsible for its anti-stress properties.

On my recent trip to Italy, I discovered a recipe in the local newspaper which paired chopped fresh basil and fresh mint in equal amounts as the primary flavor burst in a couscous salad. Extra virgin olive oil, toasted pine nuts, capers and lemon zest completed this easy and versatile side dish.

To finish the menu, I adapted a dessert recipe from Martha Stewart that featured a sweetened cream with hints of basil. Chopped basil leaves are steeped in warm cream just so a hint of flavor permeates the concoction. The garnish is created with basil leaves that are quick fried in extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sugar.

Basil cream for napoleons, tarts and parfaits

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil, chopped

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup mascarpone cheese

Combine cream, basil, and sugar in a heatproof bowl. Set bowl over a small saucepan of simmering water, and stir for a few minutes until sugar dissolves. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least one hour (or up to two hours for a more pronounced basil flavor). Strain through a fine sieve into a bowl.

Add mascarpone, and beat just until combined. Do not overmix! Mascarpone will separate and the cream will be ruined! Cover, and refrigerate or use right away as a cream base for napoleons and fresh fruit tarts or layered with fresh fruit in tall parfait glasses. Cook, Eat, Laugh…Claudia Pruett.

Claudia Pruett was raised in Saratoga. She is an entrepreneur, chef and community volunteer. She is married to Greg and they have three children. She enjoys cooking for friends and Bikram Yoga.

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