In Season: Basil

Like the Three Musketeers, the combination of juicy tomato, pungent basil and creamy mozzarella in an insalata caprese is a classic trio that's hard to beat.

The salad has its origins in southern Italy, on and near the island of Capri - 'caprese' means 'from Capri' in Italian. One restaurateur there claims to have invented the salad in the 1950s, in order that the female tourists could 'have a nice lunch while still fitting into their bikinis.'

I find this a little hard to believe. Capri has been a beach resort since the time of the ancient Romans. The region is full of people who make fresh mozzarella daily while growing tomatoes and basil in their gardens. Could it really have taken thousands of years before anyone thought to put the three together?

At any rate, the combination works, and not just for a salad. Basil, tomatoes and mozzarella make a lovely pizza topping, filling for panini, or, on hot days in summer, mixed into a cool pasta salad. The caprese's bright color contrasts are part of its appeal, especially since the stripes of red, white and green resemble the Italian flag.

Around these parts, basil comes into season well before tomatoes. Big bunches of the fragrant, peppery greens appear at the farmers market starting in June or early July. The most popular variety is Genovese, which is considered the best for making pesto.

Basil comes in many variations: lemon basil and cinnamon basil are named for their spicy undertones; opal basil is named for its purple color; lettuce leaf basil has large, frilly leaves; there are many more.

Thai basil also is a common sight in Portland's ubiquitous Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. With its more licoricelike flavor, it goes well in curries and is often served in fresh sprigs alongside soups or appetizers.

Grand Central Bakery (2230 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., and other locations) makes a fantastic basil egg salad sandwich. Pix Pâtisserie (3402 S.E. Division St., 3901 N. Williams Ave.) has been known to make basil ice cream. Ribbons of fresh basil give a seasonal touch to potato salad at a barbecue. You can even toss a few leaves into the shaker when you're mixing up a martini. You'll get a pale green cocktail with aromatic hints of basil mingling with the gin's juniper.

And of course a large portion of the basil in the world goes to make pesto. The word 'pesto' means to pound, to mash or to step on. Traditionally, Italian cooks made pesto by pulverizing fresh basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and parmesan cheese with a mortar and pestle. (The Italian salsa verde, which is much less well-known in America, is similarly made with parsley, capers, anchovies, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to use a mortar and pestle when there's such a thing as a food processor. However, some cooks believe that the texture of the hand-ground pesto is better.

When I made pesto at home with a mortar and pestle, it did seem to have a more buttery consistency, but that may have been because, adding the ingredients a small bit at a time, I was able to regulate the texture more closely. Or it may be that, as they say, things taste better when you put your own sweat into them - and in this case, I mean that literally. It's turning out to be a hot summer.

As that heat continues and the local tomatoes ripen, you're off the hook for pesto, or any other complicated basil concoction. Simply layer whole fresh basil leaves with big juicy slices of tomato and circles of fresh mozzarella - the kind that comes in water and only keeps a few days. Drizzle them all over with your best olive oil and, if you want, a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

You can tell your guests a story about how the stripes on the Italian flag were modeled after this dish. It's probably not true, but it's possible - no one really knows for certain how the colors for that national flag were chosen. Just don't try to claim that you invented the caprese yourself.

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Serves two

• 2 cloves garlic

• 1 pinch coarse salt

• 1 cup fresh basil leaves, clean and dry

• 1 heaping tablespoon pine nuts

• 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

• 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Remove the center stems from the larger basil leaves (about 2 inches long or more) and slice all the leaves into pieces roughly 1/4 inch square.

Peel the garlic and place it and the salt into a large mortar and crush.

Add the basil a little at a time and grind to a paste. Add the pines nuts and grind them in, then add the cheese a little at a time and pound until the paste is the consistency of soft butter.

Add the olive oil and work it into the sauce. Let sit in the refrigerator an hour or more before using.

Do not heat this sauce or the cheese will clump up. Add to hot pasta or spread on bruschetta.

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