A fragrant basil bouquet from my summer herb garden: Lower left, anise-scented Thai basil; upper left and right, purple basil; center, citrusy lime basil.
It took me nearly 30 hours to reach Kochi, for millennia India’s most fabled spice depot. So I was slightly befuddled when I awoke the next morning. There was the Arabian Sea and a freighter chugging right past my window--pure romance, if you happen to be me. But I had a nagging memory of a 9 AM appointment for a massage to shake the jet lag.
“What was I thinking?” I muttered as I wobbled blearily from my room to the verandah. Still the vista alone was worth the effort. Beyond the palm-framed infinity pool, fishing boasts plied the grey blue waters. Marigolds and frangipani blossoms floated in a stone basin at my feet.
True bliss arrived in the spa with a glass of warm tea made with holy basil, lemon and honey. OK, that plus the foot-washing in a copper basin scented with rose petals. But it’s the purifying tea I most remember. It was delicious even with a pungent whiff of something medicinal wafting from the glass.
I didn’t mind, though. Holy basil, also known as Krishna tulsi, is native to India where it’s used to reduce stress, rev up the immune system and blast infections. I’m sure I needed all of the above.
I can’t remember where or when I first tasted fresh basil, but I do know that I can’t get through the season without it. I’ve been growing it for 12 summers, and every year I try to mix up trusty friends with two or three new acquaintances.
There’s always Genovese, of course, the classic Italian basil, sweet, with a mild scent of cloves, that makes such good pesto and pasta sauces. But depending on the year, there may also be lemon or lime basil, cinnamon basil, Dark Opal or another purple basil, tiny-leaf bush or globe basil and, one of my favorites, Valentino, a fragrant basil with ruffled leaves big enough to use as wraps for slivers of grilled pork drizzled with lime juice, Vietnamese fish sauce and garlic.
All these basils and many more—at least 150, according to Jerry Traunfeld, former chef at The Herbfarm and author of The Herbfarm Cookbook—belong to the genus Ocimum basilicum. The word basil is derived from basileus, the Greek word for king and for some of us, it is the king of herbs.
Though sweet basil is the name given to the herb most commonly grown in our gardens, its pointed green leaves are actually imbued with a bouquet of spicy flavors: clove, cinnamon, anise, even mint.
What I love, though, is the way that some basils taste like single spices. Cinnamon basil absolutely does taste like cinnamon, for instance. According to Gernot Katzer, a chemist and spice maven, its essential oils have high levels of the compound methyl cinnamate, the very same chemicals that give cinnamon and cassia their distinctive flavor.
Here’s a peek at the spicy basils I’m growing in the herb garden this summer—and a few ideas for using them. Whatever their flavors, nibbling the leaves is, as Samantha at Rabelais Books observes in her latest newsletter, "like eating the color green." Well, she actually said that about mint pesto, but it holds true for fresh basil as well.
Thai basil is one of a small group of basils that taste like anise. Its lush, semi-glossy leaves, green and occasionally tinged with purple, get their pungent, licorice-like flavor from the compound estragol. Though the leaf is spicy-peppery at first taste, it has a sweet finish. It blooms with large clusters of purplish flowers which are also edible.
Thai basil stands up smartly to fiery chile-laced dishes such as stir-fried prawns and squid with baby corn and green Thai chiles, or vegetarian rice stick noodles with snow peas in peanut basil sauce. It is also the herb most commonly served as a garnish for Vietnamese pho. Don’t even think of making The Lantern’s Hibiscus Petal without it.
Cinnamon basil is tall and willowy, with sharply serrated green leaves, tough red-purple stems and pinkish purple flowers. It definitely tastes like cinnamon—courtesy of the compound methyl cinnamate—having both the sweetness and the astringency of the spice. It is so strongly aromatic that it’s said to be an insect repellent. It will keep pests away from your tomato plants and supposedly also repels mosquitoes, though I continue to be a feasting ground.
Jerry Traunfeld has an appealing recipe for cinnamon basil ice cream in The Herbfarm Cookbook. He serves it with sweetened blue berries, which are delicious with cinnamon. (If you don’t have cinnamon basil, try faking it with ordinary sweet basil and a cinnamon stick). I like to chop it with other basils to sprinkle over pasta, in tomato salads, or stirred into creamy grilled Fairytale eggplant with olive oil and lemon juice.
Lime basil is a new one for me this year. It has a strong citrusy flavor, rather like lime Jello without all the sugar, and the typical spicy basil finish. Slightly wan in appearance, it has little matte green leaves and modest white flowers, but packs a huge flavor wallop. I plan to add it to summery fruit salads—canteloupe, honeydew, raspberries and blackberries for instance—and also to make a simple syrup for cocktails. Right now I’m channeling bourbon, lime basil syrup and blueberries.
I adore all purple basil, though truth be told, it has a rather pallid taste. I love the looks of this one—tall purple stems, greenish leaves heavily veined with purple, dark purple bracts with pink flowers. I’ve tried several named varieties including Dark Opal and Purple Ruffles, but find that even this year’s choice—plain old no-name purple basil--is perfect for adding color to white wine vinegar and to simple syrups.
For the vinegar, barely warm a cup or two in a saucepan and add a big handful of purple basil, flowers, leaves and stems. Let it steep for a few hours until it turns rosy. (Do not cook the basil by overheating the vinegar.) Pour the vinegar into a clean glass bottle; add a few more sprigs for extra color.
Purple basil is also a beautiful addition to the fragrant basil bouquet I keep by the sink.
Marseilles basil’s medium green leaves and insignificant white flowers conceal an intensely spicy, almost peppery aromatic flavor. Not the prettiest basil in garden but an intriguing variation for Italian pesto with garlic and pinenuts. It's also great in fresh tomato sauces, and layered with sun-ripened heirloom tomatoes and jalapenos—a twist on summer tomato salad.
Last but not least, I always have a patch of Genovese basil. It is a sweetly spicy, all-purpose, clove-scented basil that can go anywhere anytime. I use its beefy yellow green leaves to perk up cold rice salads, in tomato sandwiches in place of lettuce, for pesto in soups like Julia Child's Soupe au Pistou, over grilled pork and chicken rolled up in corn tortillas. Sprinkling it over small slow roasted potatoes with garlic and olive oil turns simple spuds into a feast.
One thing I know for sure: Always plant twice as much basil as you think you’ll need.