Our weather finally became hot and more Midwestern Summer-like a little over a week ago. The warm weather brought on a growth spurt in my basil plants. I wanted to give them a good pruning to encourage more branched growth, but cutting off enough basil for a batch of pesto might have decimated them. Instead, I decided to make a little basil butter. It will keep for a while (can even be frozen) and will add a quick, fresh burst of basil flavor to whatever I choose to add it to.
Basil butter is a compound or flavored butter. Compound butters are wonderful flavoring agents—they can be used to dress vegetables, garnish a soup or finish a pasta or risotto. They can also be smeared on a crostini or spread on a resting steak. They are quickly made and can include pretty much anything you like—minced herbs, citrus zests, reconstituted and minced/puréed sundried tomatoes or dried porcinis, finely minced olives, capers or anchovies, reduced liquids like port or orange juice, toasted and ground spices, finely minced shallots, smashed garlic, lemon juice or brandy.... Because fat carries flavor, any dish you add a compound butter to will be permeated with the flavor of your chosen additions. If you have never made a compound butter, and you have some basil plants that are beginning to come into their own, a basil butter would be a good place to begin.
For my basil butter I picked and then washed and dried a handful of basil (half an ounce? maybe less?). I minced it finely and added it to 2 or 3 oz. of softened, unsalted butter (you may use salted, but if you use unsalted, then you will be able to control the amount of salt that ends up in the butter). Because garlic is a good partner for basil, I added a small clove of garlic that I had smashed to a purée with a pinch of salt. I added more salt to taste and I was done. If I had wanted to, I could have added some lemon zest or maybe even some minced, toasted pine nuts...to mimic the flavor of pesto.
The point is, you can add whatever you like to get the effect you want. But, having said that, there are a few tips for making a successful compound butter. First of all, everything you add to the butter should be finely minced or, if a liquid, reduced to a syrup (two exceptions to this that come to mind are lemon juice and brandy). The butter should be jam-packed with whatever you are adding—the basil butter for example should look almost green.
(Be careful with garlic though—one or two cloves should be plenty for a stick of butter.) A small amount of compound butter should pack a solid punch of flavor. It shouldn't be necessary to add a ton of butter to something in order to taste the flavors you have added. Finally, when making a compound butter, always let it sit at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before correcting the seasoning—especially the salt. It will take some time for the salt to dissolve in the fat and for the other flavors to permeate the butter.
The night I made the basil butter, we had it brushed over hot corn on the cob:
The following night I smeared it on some Sockeye Salmon before baking it. This is one of my favorite ways to use compound butter. It is the easiest way I know of to prepare fish.
To begin, pat the fish dry. It is almost impossible to spread butter on a piece of meat or fish that is wet. Place a blob of softened basil butter on the fish filets.
Spread the butter in an even layer over the fish. If you will be using the butter for other things, make sure that you don't contaminate it with the raw fish—use one implement to dollop the butter on the fish, making sure that it doesn't come into contact with the fish itself, and another to spread the butter.
Place the fish on a rimmed baking sheet or casserole and bake in a hot oven (400° to 450°) until it is done the way you like it. I like to cook my salmon until the white proteins are just beginning to be visible on the surface of the fish—for my 1/2-inch thick piece of salmon, this was about 6 minutes at 450°. A good rule of thumb for cooking fish is 10 minutes per inch of thickness. The finished fish is evenly covered with the herbs from the butter and the butter has basted the fish as it bakes. Fast, delicious and beautiful.
I served the salmon on top of a quick sauté of corn with zucchini and green beans (finished with a blob of my basil butter), and I topped the fish with some quick roasted cherry tomatoes. The acidity of the roasted tomatoes really lit up the dish, so if you don't want to make the tomatoes, maybe add some lemon zest and juice to the butter.
My directions for the Basil Butter, Butter Baked Fish and Roasted Cherry Tomatoes may seem a little vague and loose. And that's because they are. For me, this was a quick evening meal, inspired by the ingredients at hand. If you try it, I encourage you to be engaged with the process, using my instructions from my experience in my kitchen as a guideline and then altering times, temperatures and ingredients to fit your pantry and your equipment.
The vegetable sauté that I made was loosely based on a succotash recipe out of one of my favorite cookbooks—The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters—so I have a more concrete recipe to pass along for that.
Sweet Corn with Zucchini, Romano Beans & Herbs
1/2 a small onion (about 2 oz.), diced
1 t. picked fresh thyme
1 small zucchini (3 or 4 oz.), diced
3 or 4 oz. Romano beans, cut in one inch pieces on the diagonal
2 to 3 t. minced chives
1 to 2 T. basil butter or plain unsalted butter
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Cut the kernels off of the cobs. Scrape the cobs to release the milky "scrapings". You should have about 1 to 1 1/4 cups corn. Set aside.
Heat some olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. Add the onions and thyme along with a pinch of salt and cook until tender—about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and continue to cook until just tender—another 5 minutes or so. If the pan seems dry, add a bit more oil.
While the onions and zucchini are cooking, cook the Romano beans in boiling salted water until tender—5 to 7 minutes. Drain and set aside until ready to use.
Meanwhile, add the corn and corn "scrapings" to the onion and zucchini and continue to sauté until the corn is tender—this should only take a minute or two. Add the beans and cook for a minute. Add the chives. Add the basil butter and cook, stirring and tossing to coat the vegetables with the butter. If the pan seems dry, add a splash of water and continue to toss until the vegetables are just coated in a light film of butter and herbs. Taste and correct the seasonings and serve immediately. Serves 2.