Cooking With Fresh Herbs

My husband, Joe, and I divide our cruising time between San Diego, California, and La Paz, Mexico. At our Mexico bon voyage party last fall, a friend gave us a window box full of fresh herbs: oregano, thyme, basil, chives, cilantro, and rosemary filled our boat with delightful fragrances as we made our way south. During the month-long trip, there was little opportunity to take on fresh provisions. Isolated islands and desert communities are the norm on the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula. Few villages have any semblance of a super mercado (supermarket) until you reach Cabo San Lucas, nearly 1,000 miles south of San Diego. On this stretch of coastline, you’re lucky to find a few potatoes, onions, or carrots, and you’d certainly be hard-pressed to find any fresh herbs. Having a constantly growing supply onboard made cooking aboard JoyFull a truly joyful experience. Now, I’m addicted to fresh herbs — once you get used to the fresh flavors, dried herbs taste like straw.

By the time we sailed into Marina Palmira in La Paz this winter, my fresh stores were definitely in need of replenishing. Even my onboard garden was looking a little sad. Happily, Mexico has some of the best-tasting tomatoes in the world, and I set out on a search to find some, as well as some fresh basil to complement them. Usually I preserve a large batch of fresh basil in a jar with some good quality olive oil to back up my fresh basil supply. It keeps this way in the fridge for months. But we’d used our entire supply on the passage south, and stripped my plant bare.

I found the tomatoes with no problem. The basil was another story. There was none to be had in any of the supermarkets around this beautiful town. I went to the open-air markets. No luck. In desperation, I walked around town peering into backyard gardens — none there either.

Later that day, as I was walking our dog at the marina, I happened to glance into one of the planters at the base of a palm tree. Basil plants! I looked around and discovered crops of basil plants surrounding most every palm tree. What luck! Carefully I dug up a couple of small plants for my onboard garden and harvested some other leaves for immediate use. That night at cocktail time, I fixed my favorite bruschetta recipe and made some pesto sauce for the next day.

Kay’s Bruschetta

This Italian delicacy is usually served on thick slices of country bread that’s been toasted over a fire, rubbed with fresh garlic, and drizzled with fruity virgin olive oil. But there are many ways to serve this mix of fresh chopped tomatoes, herbs, and seasonings. For me, bruschetta is as versatile in Italian food as salsa is in Mexican.

1 loaf fresh, crusty bread, sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 pounds fresh, room-temperature Roma tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 cup fresh basil, torn into pieces
2 tablespoons fresh oregano (or 2 teaspoons dried)
1 teaspoon crushed, dried red pepper
2 tablespoons capers
Salt and pepper, to taste
3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Prepare bread as described above. Combine remaining ingredients and mix well. If made in advance, you can keep the sauce in the fridge, but it should always be served at room temperature. Leftovers will keep for a week or more if you add a couple of tablespoons of wine vinegar and refrigerate.

Some Other Uses For Bruschetta Sauce:

1. Serve the sauce, either lightly heated or at room temperature, over warm pasta.
2. Ladle over steamed vegetables to add zip. Cauliflower looks especially enticing when accompanied by bright red tomatoes and emerald green basil.
3. Before grilling fresh vegetables such as eggplant, red bell peppers, and zucchini, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with fresh rosemary; serve topped with a little bruschetta sauce.
4. Sprinkle pizza rounds with some mozzarella or smoked Gruyere cheese, top with drained bruschetta, and bake until cheese melts.
5. When making foil-wrapped veggies in the oven or on the grill, add bruschetta for flavor and moisture.
6. Mix 2 cups of bruschetta with a 16-ounce can of white beans for a flavorful salad.
7. The sauce is great on baked chicken or fish, or served as an accompaniment to grilled meat.

Basil Pesto Sauce

Pesto is one of my favorite pasta sauces. It’s also delicious on vegetables or added to vegetable soups in small amounts. Making pesto is also a good way to preserve the flavor of fresh basil. It keeps for many weeks in the refrigerator ad can also be frozen.

2 cups fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 cloves garlic, peeled (or more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Puree all ingredients together in a food processor. Yield: 2 cups.