Soul food

Soul food

We love Italian food for its rich aroma and comforting flavour. Made from a few staple ingredients, like sun-kissed tomatoes and plump cloves of garlic, no sauce would be complete without basil. Chef Fernando Remejo of Primi Piatti in Mbombela tells us why.

Basil’s sweet, earthy aroma promises a heady delight. A dish made with this pungent, delicious herb brings to mind long days spent on the Mediterranean coastline, languishing alongside carafes of deep red wine and heaped bowls of rustic, home-made pasta drenched in sun-ripened home-made tomato sauce, redolent with the aromas of garlic, fresh basil and in our case, Lowveld sunshine.

Who needs the Mediterranean when you can bring these delights into your own home, here on our very own doorstep? Fernando uses basil in almost all of his dishes. Because prolonged cooking destroys the flavour of the herb, he usually only adds it right at the end, and often prefers to sprinkle fresh basil over the completed dish.
“It imparts a very unique flavour, subtly sweet with an aroma similar to that of anise,” he says.

There are over 60 different varieties of basil, classified into three classes: purple, bush and sweet. Each of the different categories has a slightly different taste, and while subtle, these variances are enough to change and enhance just about any dish.

“It pairs well with almost anything and a pasta sauce isn’t complete without it; it is one of my favourite herbs. We scatter it over our pasta dishes and it’s delicious on pizza. It really brings out the flavour in the tomato reduction.”
Indeed, it’s no secret that tomato and basil are a match made in heaven, they grow well together and complement each other in food.

Medicinal holy basil or tulsi leaves on a mortar with pestle

Basil also has numerous health benefits and what better way to engage your taste buds than with the knowledge that you are also feeding your body an inspiring array of nutritional goodness. Vitamin A is packed with the powerful antioxidant beta carotene.

It protects the cells and blood vessels from free radical damage and helps to prevent cholesterol oxidisation in the blood, ward off heart attacks, strokes and atherosclerosis. In addition, two tablespoons of basil are nearly 30% of the daily requirement of vitamin K, which is essential for healthy blood clotting. It is also chock-full of iron, calcium, manganese, magnesium, vitamin C and potassium, and has antibacterial as well as anti-inflammatory properties.

Most of the health benefits are due to the action of its volatile oils, which contain antibacterial properties capable of restricting the growth of harmful bacteria including listeria, staphylococcus, E coli, Yersinia enterocolitica and Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

The flavonoids protect on a cellular level. One of basil’s oil extracts, eugenol, has been found to inhibit the action of the damaging enzyme cyclooxygenase. This relegates basil to the anti-inflammatory category as it provides relief from associated complications, for example rheumatoid arthritis.

Pasta arrabbiata

• 3 tsp olive oil
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 2 to 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
• 1 to 2 chilli, diced (to taste)
• 6 fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
• 1 tbs vegetable stock granules, dissolved in a cup of warm water
• ½ cup basil leaves
• 400g penne pasta, dried
• A scattering of Parmesan
• ½ cup Kalamata olives, sliced in half.

Heat oil in a large saucepan, over medium to high heat.
Add onion, garlic and chilli.
Cook, stirring often until onion is translucent. Add tomatoes, stock and half the basil leaves. Cover and bring to a gentle boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. While the sauce is simmering, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the pasta.
Cook according to packet instructions and drain, reserving a little of the liquid. Add the leftover pasta water to the sauce and stir, then add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss to combine.
Season well and scatter the remaining basil, the olives and the Parmesan (if using) over the top.
Garnish with a basil leaf and serve warm.

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