Basil: The Green Leaves of Summer

by Catherine Harper

I celebrate the beginnings of several different, overlapping, summers. When April blooms into May, and the days become long, that is the beginning of summer, the voluptuous green and flowering summer that turns into warm gold autumn in August. In mid-July, when the rains dry up, and we have our stretch of dry, hot days, that is the beginning of another summer that continues through September, usually, or perhaps later. But the summer of the palate, for me, begins when the local basil begins to appear in the farmer’s markets, beginning the cycle that will bring in turn corn, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants to the table.

Basil is the most delicate of herbs. While many tough, resinous herbs of the Mediterranean thrive in poor, rocky soil, developing their best flavor where water is not overplentiful, basil is a tender, soft-leaved plant. It requires as much care as all the other herbs in my garden put together, and indeed is happiest if given the rich loamy soil and regular waterings I think of as more the provenance of vegetables. I start the plants indoors, on a warm surface, and then hold off on planting them out until June. From that point on, they must be watered and tended, given plenty of sun and protected from slugs (planting basil in large pots — large so that they do not dry out too quickly — and fixing a three inch strip of copper to the rim to deter slugs is perhaps the simplest solution). And deer. And even your neighbors. Basil needs to be gathered in fall before the night temperatures fall much below 50 degrees.

I have an aesthetic preference for working closely with my local climate, and growing mostly the things that thrive here with little intervention. These plants seem, to me, to belong here. With all the culinary splendors of the world open before us, it is a comforting discipline to me to work sometimes with a more limited palate of local food. Basil, is at the best, borderline. There is a reason we have no native basil. Basil self-seeds only reluctantly here and is outcompeted by any number of plants better suited to this clime. But every year, I plant or buy my starts, and fuss over them throughout the summer months. Basil I cannot resist.

Basil is the name given to any of about 150 plants in the Ocimum family (Ocimum basilicum is perhaps the best known culinary basil, varieties of which are usually sold fresh, though Ocimum minimum, or bush basil, is also common, and often sold dried). These are native to Africa, the Mediterranean and southern Asia. Even inside the O. basilicum species, flavor can vary incredibly, tasting now like cinnamon, now like cloves, and here again like lemon.

Ocimum sanctum, holy basil, is a plant sacred in India to Krishna and Vishnu, and found to this day planted around their temples. To my mind, basil is an herb well-suited to temples beyond just these. Many European cultures, especially those of Latin origin, consider this herb to be associated with love. In Italy, a pot of basil displayed in a window of a family’s compound indicated that a daughter had reached marriageable age. In Mexico, there is a custom of carrying basil in one’s pocket to attract love.

But basil lore has a darker side. Culpepper, the noted English herbalist, mentions that while many Arabic physicians defend the curative properties of basil, he has found it useful only for such things as poultices for drawing out poisons, for, he remarks rather snarkily, like calls to like. The English used it to ward against insects and evil spirits. Early English sources also refer often to its unpleasant odor, a reference which quite bemused me until I recalled that garlic, too, had been referred to as foul-smelling by many. (Asafoetida, on the other hand, is a well-loved spice in many Near Eastern cuisines but is disliked intensely by most people of European descent, who see it only as a banishing herb. Tastes vary.)

Though the common name “basil” derives from the Greek word “basileum,” meaning king, the Greeks saw basil as a plant of ill-omen. The Romans, perhaps similarly, thought that basil would only grow well if abused when planted or on ground that had been cursed — a custom that seems to survive to this day. But not with me.

To me basil, with its strong clear flavor, its affinity with light foods and its splendor when served fresh, epitomizes summer cooking. Though I used fresh basil first in cooked tomato sauces, and then more heavily in Thai dishes where basil was treated almost as a green vegetable rather than as a mere flavoring, I find myself most pleased with the basil leaves uncooked. Vietnamese cooking seems to have a particularly fine grasp on the use of fresh herbs. One of my favorite of such dishes is the cool noodle salad bun, where rice vermicelli is served on a bed of shredded greens including copious amounts of basil and mint (not to mention Vietnamese coriander and perilla) topped with grilled meat and drizzled with a fish-sauce based dressing.

But one does not need to be so complicated.

Pesto

Pesto is a paste, such as might be made by grinding moist ingredients with a pestle. The proportion and ingredients vary greatly — what I include here is the recipe in its simplest and most common form. But increasingly pestos are based on other herbs than basil, or sunflower seeds and walnuts are incorporated to spare the expensive pine nuts, or spinach is added to supplement the basil. These too, can be fine (if you like sunflower seeds, or walnuts, and remember to use twice the quantity of pesto, which spinach dilutes in flavor — this is a fine way to eat spinach, but it does not save on basil). All measurements are approximate; adjust to taste.

  • 5 parts basil leaves, coarsely chopped
  • 1 part grated Parmesan
  • 1 part pine nuts
  • 1 part olive oil
  • Fresh garlic and salt to taste

Combine ingredients in a mortar and pestle. Or a blender, or a food processor (though the texture of pesto worked by hand is superior). Blend ingredients until they reach the desired consistency (which can be completely smooth, or rather lumpy and grainy, as desired, but should be more or less pastelike). If you are using a blender, you might need to add more olive oil so as to have a liquid enough consistency for adequate blending. Serve tossed with pasta. Or on bread, or pizza, or crackers. Pesto can also be frozen in ice cube trays or muffin tins (and later transferred into freezer bags) yielding a number of single serving portions for less bounteous times of the year.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

By fresh, here I mean “uncooked.” This is a dish that should wait for the arrival of decent tomatoes. If the tomatoes have no scent, pass them by.

Combine the following:

  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 generous fistful of basil, sliced widthwise into ribbons (slicing basil widthwise, across the veins, best releases its flavor)

Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar (or a good red wine vinegar), then add salt and pepper to taste. One can also add a bit of pressed garlic, or a finely minced shallot, but in a dish so fully flavored there is no need to allow the alliums to dominate. Allow the sauce to sit for at least 10 minutes to better mingle the flavors before eating.

Serve, again, over pasta. Or as a topping for bread. For that matter, tossed with greens this sauce makes a nice salad.

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