Stem sell: use up basil stalks in this recipe for panna cotta

Lifestyle

Chop excess basil leaves and freeze them for another time, and use the stems to flavour all sorts, including this fragrant, creamy pudding

Ican’t get enough basil, and I eat it much as I do leafy vegetables: picked into salads, blended into pestos and salsa verdes, wilted with other greens, whizzed into soups, as a sandwich filler, on ice-cream and in other sweet treats such as today’s panna cotta. Yes, really: that sweet, floral, anise flavour works surprisingly well in puddings.

Once picked, basil browns quickly, whether it’s kept at room temperature or in the fridge. Sitting a bunch in a cup of water, just like flowers, is one way to help it keep longer, but growing your own is by far the best way to have fresh basil readily available.

If you do have an excess of basil, catch it before it’s too late and blend it into a classic pesto, or chop and freeze in ice cube trays to add to dishes at a later date. As with any soft herbs, the stalks are edible and delicious, too, and will add depth of flavour to all kinds of dishes.

Basil stem panna cotta
Panna cotta deserves a good-quality cream, because that’s the main ingredient. Raw, full-fat cream, especially, has heaps of flavour and creates a wonderfully unctuous but clean texture when lightly set. The crushed basil stems add a subtle but delicious sweet aniseed and clove-like flavour. Collect any bruised or unwanted leaves to add to the panna cotta base, to make the basil flavouring more pungent.

I grow basil in pots on the windowsill to feed my insatiable appetite for this sweet, antioxidant-rich, green herb. Rather than picking leaves one by one from the plant, I find it keeps better if you cut a whole stalk at a time. The leaves can then be picked off and the stem finely chopped or crushed and used in this dish, and many more besides.

Serves 4

8 (or more) basil stems, plus any bruised or excess, unwanted leaves
2.5 tbsp agar flakes (I use Clearspring’s traditional Japanese ones – just 1 tbsp will set 240ml liquid, or adjust the amount to the product’s guidelines)
400ml double cream
50g unrefined sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Lightly crush the basil stems with any bruised or excess, unwanted leaves and put them in a small saucepan. Cover with 200ml water, then sprinkle over the agar flakes, so they float on top. Turn on the heat, bring to a boil without stirring, then turn down to a low simmer and cook, stirring, for five to 10 minutes, until the agar dissolves. Turn off the heat and lift out and discard the basil stems. Stir in the sugar and vanilla extract, until dissolved, then whisk in 400ml double cream. Divide the mixture between four glasses or ramekin moulds, then put in the fridge to set for at least five hours. Serve decorated with a basil leaf.