Like so many other aspects of our lives, the best and worst part about cooking is the way that our success hinges on the details.  My mom has a friend who, in her free time, is an amateur/mind-blowing baker.  She once gave us a bag of chocolate cookies for Christmas.  They didn’t look like anything special, really.  Small, brown, round, bite-sized.  Nothing that would jump out from the myriad of options in any Christmas cookie tin.  Until you bit into one, that is, and then you knew something crazy was going on.  The tops of these cookies, where the oven’s heat had caused them to crisp and crack in tiny pinwheeling crevices, were sprinkled with a particular salt.  The salt, if I remember correctly, was imported from France, one of the gourmet strands of artisan salt you see popping up these days.  The salt was simultaneously delicate and complicated, and it worked with the dark chocolate, bringing out its deep, earthy tones, so that the richness of the cookie and the kick of the salt caused a little explosion in your mouth…a bit of alchemy, if you will.  In combination, the two forces become something more than they had been.

What I’m getting ready to propose here is hardly a recipe.  It’s more of a concoction.  An inspiration.  I’m using it on almost everything these days.  And, while it doesn’t really have the romantic exoticism of tiny flecks of salt from terribly far away, it does improve nearly everything it touches.  To begin with, I’d like to share a photo of my favorite purchase from the St. Paul Farmer’s Market thus far in 2010:

A nice big basil plant!  Is there anything more whimsical than a handful of fresh herbs, whenever you want?  If you’re ever feeling impoverished, I recommend investing in a healthy herb plant.  Access to herbs is so decadent, so fancy.  But it also has to be the easiest way to make your everyday a little more elegant.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Orangette, who posted this humble recipe just over two years ago.  Really, this is one of those things that I should probably just throw together, but it’s always easier to wade in with a recipe.

Basil Aioli

2 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ cup packed basil leaves
½ tsp. lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove, pressed
Pinch of salt
½ cup mayonnaise (I used Hellmann’s mayonnaise with olive oil. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I think the olive oil lightens it up a big, and gives it a rich Mediterranean taste.)

In a small food processor, combine the olive oil, basil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt.  Process until the mixture is smooth like pesto.

Scoop the mayonnaise into a small bowl.  Add the basil mixture, and stir well to mix.

It’s not much to look at, I know.  But, I swear, it’s spill-on-your-finger-just-so-you-can-lick-it-off good.  And you can serve it with almost anything– I loved it on turkey burgers, but it has so much flavor that it would work as a simple dip for raw veggies.
I hardly need to tell you that it was perfect on BLTs, the way basil is always perfect with tomatoes, bringing out the gorgeous freshness, the sunshine tang of a nice tomato.  It’s just a little accompaniment, wholly unnecessary to any main dish, which is, of course, the reason it’s so good.