I'm a sucker for basil.
The smell alone is heavenly, but the taste... Picture this: a halved summer-ripe cherry tomato with a pinch of crunchy salt and a basil leaf draped over the top -- yep. If you need me, I'll be in the garden with the salt shaker...
This summer my garden plot is 4' x 4', and squeezed in between 3 tomato plants, a cucumber, some sunflowers, an eggplant and more, I have 6 basil plants.
I recently discovered that basil not only adds a terrific punch of flavor to a dish, but it is also extremely healthy in terms of fighting cancer.
As you may know, chemotherapy medicines act by poisoning cancer cells, and this often leaves the person receiving the medicine feeling poisoned, too. There are now new drugs coming to market that work by blocking the cellular mechanisms that day after day enable cancers to grow. These drugs, like Herceptin for breast cancer and Gleevac for leukemia and intestinal cancer, can contain cancer growth (as in, control the growth), often ceasing them to be dangerous. Judah Folkman, who discovered angiogenesis (cell death), said that with the arrival of drugs like these we had reached the stage of "cancer without disease."*
It so happens that many herbs and spices act along the same lines as these drugs -- blocking the cellular mechanisms that day after day enable cancers to grow. Cue the labiate family of herbs: mint, thyme, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and -- you guessed it -- basil.
These herbs are rich in fatty acids of the terpene family, which makes them particularly fragrant. Terpenes have been shown to act on a wide variety of tumors by reducing the spread of cancer cells or by provoking their death.
All of this combines to mean when I see pesto on a menu, it usually means I will be ordering it. However, I made a wonderful discovery recently: homemade pesto is 10x more tasty than store/restaurant bought -- and it is so easy!
I recently boosted a family favorite (recipe below) by making the cancer-fighting, taste-bud pleasing pesto sauce from scratch. It blew my socks off -- and then I went to the store and bought 3 more basil plants.
Zucchini Noodles with Pesto adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg; serves 4
This recipe calls for a mandoline slicer for the zucchini, and for this recipe alone, it is worth the investment. There are many different brands to choose from, and many are on the expensive side. However, Molly Wizenberg suggests this reasonably priced one. I happen to have this one and it works well, too.
For the pesto:
2 cups moderately packed basil leaves, washed and dried well
1/2 c. olive oil
3 TBSP pine nuts
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c. Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the noodles:
2-3 medium zucchini, trimmed
1 TBSP olive oil
8 oz. dried thick noodles, fettuccine or tagliatelle
First, make the pesto. Put the basil leaves in a large heavy-duty ziplock plastic bag. Press all the air from the bag, and seal it carefully. Put the bag on the countertop or floor and, using a rolling pin, roll the bag until the leaves are bruised. This helps release their flavor.
Put the pounded basil, olive oil, pine nuts, garlic, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process to a smooth, creamy consistency, stopping once or twice to scrape down the bowl with a rubber spatula. Transfer the mixture to a medium bowl, and stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Set aside.
Boil a large pot of salted water and make the pasta according to the package.
Meanwhile, prepare the zucchini. Using a mandoline slicer fitted with the julienne blade, carefully (watch those fingers!) slice the zucchini into long, skinny noodles, each the width of a strand of spaghetti.
Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the zucchini "noodles" and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender but not mushy. Five to 8 minutes will do.
When the pasta is cooked, using long-handled tongs, scoop the pasta directly from the pot into the skillet of cooked zucchini. Doing it this way, rather than draining the spaghetti into a colander, means that each strand brings with it a little bit of its cooking water, which will loosen up the pesto and help it form a nice sauce. It also keeps the cooked pasta from clumping together.
Add the pesto and toss the mixture well to ensure that each noodle -- zucchini and pasta alike -- has a thin, even coat of sauce. If you are having trouble mixing it all together, add a little of the pasta cooking water.
Serve immediately with additional salt and a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table for grating.
*From Anticancer by David Servan-Schreiber, MD, PhD