Kitchen Garden: Almost time for a pesto party!

It didn’t make the front page, but sometime toward the end of the second millennium, basil replaced parsley as America’s most popular herb. Much of the thanks goes to pesto, the gloriously green Italian pasta sauce that set the nation’s food processors humming back in the ’80s and is now as much a household word as alfredo or Bolognese.

Thanks also goes to our ongoing adventure with ethnic cuisines. We have learned that for true Thai and authentic Vietnamese meals we need basil, and the only way we can get enough of this rather perishable herb is to grow it in our gardens. So we do.

Basil is in many ways an herb of great power. Its name in Greek signifies royalty. Italians deem it an herb of love. Hindus hold it sacred. In France it was traditionally considered a plant with a contrary nature, that must be sown with ranting and curses in order to make it grow.

The flavor is strong too — a bit like that of mint, to which it is related (you can tell by the square stem) but with an unmistakable character of its own. The scent is so volatile that you need only brush up against basil to know it is there. I consider it a “pathway” herb, planted where feet go, to release fragrance. Medicinally, it has the power to calm both the stomach and the nerves.

Recently basil has gained fame as an ornamental plant as well. ‘Dark Opal’ was the first purple basil of note, followed by ‘Purple Ruffles’ and others. Lacking chlorophyll, these are less vigorous than green basil, but beautiful both in the garden and on the plate, and I have found ‘Red Rubin’ a quite satisfactory performer. All are prized as a flavoring and coloring for white wine vinegar. Some basils are merely purple-tinted or, like cinnamon basil, purple-stemmed.

Some, like the “lettuce leaf” types (used for salads) are huge. Others, like ‘Spicy Globe’ are small-leaved, and grow on tiny plants like topiary balls.

Green basils have white flowers, which gardeners assiduously remove to keep leaf production going. This is very hard to do with the purple types, whose pink blossoms are gorgeously set off by the dark leaves. It is also good form to let some of your basil bloom for the bees, who love its nectar.

Flavors also vary, according to which essential oils predominate in a given strain. I’m partial to ‘Genovese’ for all-around cooking, a classic, large-leaved sweet Italian variety named after Genoa, the basil capital of Europe. My other favorite is lemon basil, of which there are several varieties, with a delicious lemony edge. Other varieties named for flavor overtones include anise and cinnamon (a Mexican type). The Thai basils, in which some detect a clove taste, are especially pungent.

Older plants tend to have the strongest-flavored leaves, so some fussy cooks even keep a tray of little seedlings coming along, for a supply of fresh, mild tips for times when subtlety is needed.

It is easy to become a basil collector, in order to savor these nuances, and some catalogs, such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, list 20 cultivars, or more. With poor old parsley the choice is apt to be just “curly” or “flat.”

Basil is an herb for summer. Given plenty of sun, heat, regular water and a fertile, well-drained soil it grows abundantly. Perennial in the tropics, it’s an annual everywhere else, blackening at the first hint of frost. And in a cold, wet spring it shows its contrary nature. In just such a season, my basil will sulk outside the kitchen door, “palely loitering,” as Keats would have it, despite all the French swear words I’ve hurled at it. Whether you start it ahead or sow directly, you’re best off waiting till the soil has warmed up, though planting in a raised bed or a container sometimes helps. A shot of liquid seaweed will nudge it along once the weather is more to its liking.

During the summer I’ll use it in eggplant casseroles, with my favorite chopped-yellow-summer-squash-with-onions dish, and in the classic plate of heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella and whole basil leaves that never goes out of style.

But pesto will always be my favorite, made with tons of basil, pine nuts, garlic, real parmiggiano-reggiano cheese and enough good olive oil to make the Cuisinart churn. (Sometimes I add it to pasta with the leaves and the nuts left whole.) When the frost apocalypse threatens, I gather great armloads and make pesto to freeze in ice cube trays. The green power cubes then go into plastic bags in the freezer, for pasta with summer’s taste, or to give a soup instant personality.

Sometimes when I make pesto I combine basil with other herbs, or substitute a different one altogether, such as chervil or cilantro. But my favorite alternate pesto is made with Italian parsley — tons of it. That might even be grounds for a parsley comeback.


Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”


Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”

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