The secret ingredient for making delicious pesto

One of the aromatic compounds in basil is eugenol.
One of the aromatic compounds in basil is eugenol.  Photo: iStock

​My basil made a very insipid pesto this year. How can I make it more vibrant. G. Crooke

I, too, had problems with basil this year. Such an odd summer. Some plants grew with voluminous foliage but had very weak aroma. Others, particularly those facing due north, were stunted with small leaves, but with the most intense basil aroma. You barely need to touch the basil, and the air erupts with waves of what smells like cloves and bay leaves. And that is because one of the aromatic compounds in basil is eugenol. If you chew on a "strong" tasting basil leaf, you may find it slightly numbs your tongue and mouth. That's the eugenol. It's the active ingredient in clove oil that makes it a suitable topical anaesthetic for dentistry. It's also found in bay leaves, dill and cinnamon. If you make pesto again and you find it a little insipid – we all like pesto with that whack of basil, umami from the cheese and richness from the nuts and oil – add a pinch of ground cloves. It's a little-known secret that in a wet year, the nonne, or grandmothers, around Genova will secretly spice up their pesto with a little help from ground cloves. 

I have a load of green tomatoes on my vines, and they just won't ripen. What can I do with them? J. Creati

First of all, you need to watch the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy. There are no recipes in the film set in Alabama during the Depression, but it is a good tear-jerker that will set the scene for the following method. Green tomatoes, compared with ripe tomatoes, are lower in sugar, higher in acid, are much firmer, and therefore cooking will render them more tender. Thickly slice green tomatoes, season well, dredge in seasoned flour, dip in egg wash or buttermilk, dredge in cornmeal seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, and oregano. Rest for 20 minutes and deep fry until golden. Use in sandwiches, burgers, or as a side to fish or chicken. The pectin in green tomatoes will also help thicken a Mexican salsa verde. Normally you would use tomatillos, but, instead, place half a dozen washed green tomatoes under a grill with two long green peppers (jalapenos if you can find them) and cook, turning several times until the skin is blistered. Remove skin. Place in a blender with half a chopped white onion, a chopped bunch of coriander leaves, juice of four limes, a tablespoon of olive oil, and half a teaspoon of salt. Blend until smooth. Serve with tacos. If the tomatoes refuse to ripen altogether, pull the vines out roots and all and hang the plants by the roots in a sheltered, well-ventilated area. A garage is a good bet. The tomatoes should ripen as the vines wither.


A few weeks back I mentioned my then young daughter marvelling at slugs eating poisonous fungi without suffering ill effects. Several of you wrote in saying that slugs do not have a complex nervous system like humans and therefore, can eat toadstools and live to tell the tale. Except for the fact they can't talk.

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