Uncommon Basil Varieties With Savor & Snap

Harvesting Autumnal Bounty

This year, I’ve enjoyed a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes, and evidently so has everybody else. Home grown tomatoes used to disappear in minutes from staff tables or potlucks, but these days, even non-gardeners grow a tomato or two. Basil, America’s current favorite herb, also appears on an amazing number of decks and windowsills in places where garden ground is non-existant. Maybe their common popularity is because they partner so well, maybe it’s because they are both amazingly versatile. In any case, both have become indispensable for the gardener who loves to cook.

That natural affinity of flavor is paired with a similar desire for warmth and sunlight. These tropical beauties thrive when summer stays reliably hot and night temperatures remain in the 60s or even higher. In my cool maritime garden, a more typical pattern is for foggy grey mornings to keep chilly night air captive until the marine layer burns off around mid day.

Heat Lovers For Cool Climates

In maritime and cool climate gardens, tomatoes and basil may struggle when temperatures swing or simply fail to climb. For the past few years, I’ve finally had outstanding success with these temperamental tropicals, thanks not to wondrous weather but to the horticultural magic of grafting. When flavorful but cold-sensitive varieties of these veggies are grafted onto sturdy, disease-resistant root stock, good things happen even in my windy, often chilly garden.

Thanks to grafting, I’ve been enjoying tomatoes since early June (amazing for my garden). It’s hard to pick a favorite, but for salads, everybody loves the INDIGO Cherry Drops, rosy, black-tinged cherry toms with a sparkling sweet-tart balance. For a gorgeous garnish, I often use INDIGO Pear Drops, with dusky purple shoulders above a glowing golden base. When company’s coming, I decorate the table with trusses of super sweet INDIGO Gold Berries to nibble with a glass of whatever. Plump little INDIGO Blue Chocolate tomatoes are almost dessert like, their rich, juicy sweetness layered with just enough tang to make them mildly addictive.

Perpetual Caprese

Blue Chocolates make an incredible Caprese salad, sliced with tiny balls of fresh mozzarella and pretty little leaves of variegated Pesto Perpetual basil, which brings a citrusy sparkle to the classic combination. Here’s my current favorite version:

Blue Chocolate Caprese Salad

2 cups Blue Chocolate cherry tomatoes, halved
2 cups half-inch fresh mozzarella balls
1/2 cup stemmed basil
1 tablespoon fruity olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a serving bowl, gently toss and serve at room temperature. Serves 2-4.

Perpetual Pesto?

Pesto Perpetual basil is a gorgeous plant, building into a statuesque bush that’s almost shrubby. Since it doesn’t bloom, fresh foliage never stops forming and the more you pinch, the bushier it gets. With its dainty, silver-tipped, soft jade green foliage, it looks delicate, yet a single plant can fill a half-barrel, towering 3-4 feet high, and will remain productive until frost cuts it down. Some of mine are still going strong on a sunny kitchen windowseat, now converted to a plant table. In cold years, I grow basil indoors in a sunny window, in 1-2 gallon pots, and often harvest through Thanksgiving.

Pesto Perpetual is a cross between sweet basil and lemon-scented basil (Ocimum basilicum citriodorum). The small leaves are tender-crisp, with a full, rich basil flavor brightened by the tang of citrusy snap. A form of lemon basil called Mrs Burns’ Lemon is one of my favorites, with small, pungent foliage that adds a lovely lemony scent and flavor to basil’s smooth richness. Both are especially resistant to fusarium wilt. This soilbourne fungal pathogen is the most common basil disorder and can devastate basil crops with scary speed. There’s no cure, so if your basil plants develop it, just pull them immediately, and don’t replant in the same bed for at least a few years.

Cross Humus With Pesto For Magical Mixtures

For the past few year, I’ve been creating ever-more versions of a cross between pesto and hummus. All involve grinding nuts or seeds with basil or another herb (such as cilantro, tarragon, lemon thyme), then adding chick peas or beans. You might combine cilantro with almonds and black beans, for instance, or pinto beans and pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and walnuts and mung beans…. All have some citrusy additions as well as fresh herbs, garlic or shallots, and sea salt. The other commonality is nutritional yeast, which adds protein as well as a bold umame flavor that gives these sauces surprising depth and body. Here’s my favorite:

Basil Pesto Spread

1 cup raw hazelnuts
2 cups stemmed basil leaves
2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cooked white Italian cannellini beans
1 large lemon, juiced, rind grated
1/4-1/2 cup flaked nutritional yeast (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
1/2 cup water

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to coarse meal. Add basil, garlic, and salt and process to a coarse paste. Add beans, lemon rind and 1 teaspoon lemon juice and process to a smooth paste. Add nutritional yeast and pepper and process briefly, then slowly add oil while machine is running, then thin with water to desired consistency. Adjust seasoning if desired and serve or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 2 cups.

Sandwiches, Spreads, Sauces…

Whether given a Tex-Mex spin, a Middle Eastern accent, or a Mediterranean makeover, this yummy stuff can be used in countless creative ways. Add a dollop to your usual vinaigrette and toss with greens or mix it into pasta or potato or tuna or egg salads. Offer it as a raw veggie or chip dip, smear it on crackers, or mash it with goat cheese, spread on crusty bread and toast to a bubbly finish. Spoon it over hot rice, steamed vegetables, or grilled fish or chicken. Use it instead of mayo on sandwiches and wraps.

Give the basic sauce a Thai twist and add it to a shrimp and vegetable stir fry or toss it with rice noodles and shredded chicken. Make a refreshing summer salad combining raw corn, sweet onions, sweet peppers and blueberries with a chipotle-infused sauce version. Any delicious partnership you can dream up can give this simple sauce a whole new flavor, suggesting a dozen new uses. I’ve made amazing deviled eggs using a basil and lime version. How about grilled eggplant slathered with a peanut, fresh ancho chili and lime version? Grilled nectarines with a lemon and tarragon Amazing Sauce? Sesame seeds, ginger and mint? Amaze yourself with these Amazing Sauces, all of which are healthy and wholesome as well as utterly toothsome.

Make Mine, Then Make Your Own

To get started, make smallish batches, keeping notes about what you did. To change it up, use different kinds of beans and/or nuts and seeds, try favorite herbal or spice combinations, or switch out various citrus fruits and oils. If you love the result, make a bigger batch; you’ll need it! The basic small batch makes about 1 cup of sauce, and leftovers, if any, can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. However, the sauce won’t last that long if anybody knows about it, because if your house is like mine, the sauce will mysteriously disappear….

Basic Amazing Spread

1/4 cup raw almonds
1/4 cup cooked chickpeas
1 teaspoon celery seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 large lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup flaked nutritional yeast
1/2 teaspoon oregano, stemmed
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/3 cup water

In a food processor or blender, grind nuts to coarse meal. Add chickpeas, seeds, lemon rind, garlic and sea salt and process to a smooth paste. Add nutritional yeast, oregano and smoked paprika, process briefly, then slowly add oil and lemon juice while machine is running. Thin with water to desired consistency, adjust seasoning if needed and serve or refrigerate for up to 3 days. Makes about 1 cup.

Posted in Recipes, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Safer Antibiotics and Safer Food

Preserving Health And Well Being, Naturally

I recently saw yet another article protesting the need to raise food crops organically. Really? Really?? Anybody who doubts the validity of the organic food movement is not paying attention to the daily news. Like what? Hmm, let’s see. How about this? American chicken farmers (or might we better say producers?) are lobbying hard for the legal right to ship chickens from America to China for processing before shipping them back home for consumers.

Why? American food safety precautions are too burdensome and expensive for poor underpaid big-scale farmers. So…after the recall of American company, Foster Farms’s salmonella-tainted chicken in March of this year, we are happily gearing up to send chicken to China, where, oh, yeah, a huge scandal broke in July of this same year because of contaminated processed meat supplied to thousands of outlets…. Wait, really? Really. I am not making this up. Sadly.



Deadly And Stupidly Irresponsible Tactics

An estimated 23,000 people die each year because bacterial infections prove resistant to over-used antibiotics. Attention is finally being directed Sadly, the bulk of antibiotic use (and overuse) is agricultural, not in homes and hospitals. Government estimates indicate that more than 70% of antibiotics are given to farmed animals, mainly chickens, cows, and pigs. Much of this antibiotic use is prophylactic, intended to keep animals healthy enough to be marketable despite stressful and skirting-the-law unsanitary conditions. Ack!!!

On September 18, the Obama administration finally unveiled its plan to do something constructive about the increasing risks of antibiotic resistance. There are some good guidelines here for reducing at least some of the public health and ecological risks, but amazingly, amending the irresponsible and culpably reckless factory farm antibiotic abuses, which account for the most public health issues, are not included in the government’s plan. Those 23,000 annual deaths must not count because the people who paid the penalty for antibiotic abuse are no longer able to speak for themselves.

Here’s a link to the new national strategy:


Too Much Is Too Much

However, we still have to do our part at home and at work to reduce antibiotic overuse. People like me who wash hands many, many times a day can be contributing more to the problem than we realize if we use antibiotic hand soaps. A squirt here, a squirt there, it all adds up to a lot of free-range antibiotics set loose to roam our waterways.

It’s ironic that one of the miracles of our age can protect us from diseases that were fatal for millennia and also threaten our health and well being in the all-too-close future. For millions of years, dirty hands could be deadly. Sir Joseph Lister’s groundbreaking sterile surgery protocols started saving lives back in the 1880s, but enough is better than too much. As harmful bacteria gain resistance to antiseptics, diseases like pneumonia are once again becoming fatal. In addition, recent research suggests that children raised in excessively clean environments lack the health protections that exposure to beneficial bacteria offer our immune systems. Unusually high rates of allergies and asthma can be another result of hyper-clean homes. (Luckily that’s not a problem at MY house….)

Wash With Safe, Simple Soaps

Alcohol-based hand sanitizer doesn’t promote resistant bacteria, but it also doesn’t kill a number of important baddies. In fact, it doesn’t even remove dirt, and Triclosan, a key ingredient, is under FDA review as a suspected hormone disrupter. Instead, sanitation experts recommend a 20-second scrub with plain soap and hot water, lathering up for about the time it takes to sing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” or recite the ABCs. Turns out that though dirty hands are still hazardous to human health, clean enough (NOT sterile) hands are just fine for most things (short of surgery, of course).

For preference, use a simple castile soap such as Dr. Bronner’s liquid baby soap, which scores a mere 1 on the Environmental Working Group’s potential dangers scale. Rather than aiming to eradicate all bacteria, we might remember that our bodies hold many times more bacteria than human cells. Nearly all bacteria are harmless or beneficial, and wiping them out indiscriminately is a very bad idea. Indeed, bacteria are our very good friends; beneficial bacteria aid in food digestion, help our immune systems to develop appropriate responses, and reduce inflammatory processes.

Safe, Simple Shampoo

My favorite homemade shampoo combines luxuriant lathering with gently cleansing. It won’t get your hair “squeaky clean” because it doesn’t strip away natural oils, but your hair will dry silky soft.

1 cup organic castile liquid soap
1 tablespoon organic cider vinegar
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
1/3 cup water

Combine ingredients in a spray bottle. Shake gently before use, then work a tablespoon of shampoo into wet hair while massaging scalp, then rinse thoroughly. Gently towel dry hair.

Posted in Sustainable Living | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Cover Crops Boost Soil Power

To Build Soil And Foil Weeds, Sow Fall Cover Crops

Though summer is fading, the still-warm days of fall are an excellent  time to do all sorts of garden chores, from planting trees and shrubs to prepping new beds and lawns. If you’re making new beds, refreshing old ones, harvesting crops and renovating vegetables bed, or planning to install a new lawn, you may find yourself with a goodly expanse of undeveloped soil right about now.

Rather than spending the winter fending off weeds, why not try a cover crop? Cover crops are temporary plantings, useful but doomed to die. They serve several functions, from erosion control and weed suppression to building the tilth and nutritional value of your soil. Cover crops can be tailored for many purposes, and there are all sorts of recipes for cover crops that can help or hinder almost any condition you can think of.

Rolling Over In The Clover

Some blends get pretty fancy, but even a single-ingredient cover crop can work wonders on depleted soils. For instance, nutrient-poor earth can be juiced up fast with a planting of
crimson clover. This handy creeper thrives in clay or sandy soil and takes drought in stride (it’s less vigorous in wet spots, however). Simply by growing, clovers can boost soil nitrogen levels measurably. That’s because the clovers are nitrogen fixers, plants that can draw nitrogen from the air and store it in the plump nodules in their roots. When we turn under or till in red clover next spring, the stored nitrogen will be released into the soil.

Other classic cover crops for lawn areas include a blend of winter rye and vetch. Rye offers strong roots that hold soil in place during winter rains, tall stems that shade out weeds, and plenty of green manure to recycle come spring. Like clover, vetch is a nitrogen fixer that will leave your soil in much better condition once it’s tilled in. This is a pretty crop combo, swaying gently in winter winds, and birds love it for the cover it offers (I often see quail strolling through the rye).

Oats Peas Beans And Barley Grow

Both Austrian field peas or fava beans are terrific soil builders for vegetable beds. Field peas are coarse, mealy legumes used to feed pigs, so don’t try to add these to your dinner menus. They grow best in decent soil with good drainage. Fava beans are also rather coarse plants with broad, flat beans. In Italy, cooked fava beans are served with olive oil and plenty of garlic. Those accustomed to the flavor love it, but if you didn’t acquire it in childhood, you are unlikely to find favas delectable (perhaps I am biased but I think they’re icky). Better to consider them as fodder for soil building, a role they fill brilliantly. Favas grow well in clay soils and are more tolerant than field peas of soggy spots.

Any of these cover crops can be sown now and left to grow all winter. Next spring, you can turn or till them under before they have a chance to complete their growing cycle. The idea is to chop them before they set seed, so you don’t fight volunteer cover crop plants all summer. When you are ready to grow your real crop, whether it’s a lawn, vegetables, or ornamentals, simply turn or till the cover crop under. Wait a week or so for the cover crop to break down, then you can rake out your beds and plant right over it.

Sow Now And Whack Often

In the vegetable garden, you can turn under or till what’s left of your summer crops right in place. Wait a week or so, then sow a cover crop while the ground is still warm. Rake out the soil, then sow your cover crop like grass seed. To be sure you get even coverage, make two passes over each piece of ground (moving in opposite directions each time). Next, rake the seed in a bit (most seed sprouts best when covered to its own depth, usually about 1/4 inch.) Water it well and keep it moist. Most seed will sprout in a week or so, giving you decent coverage in a month. Naturally, growth is slow during the cooler months, but you’ll be impressed with how much happens even in winter. In fact, you may need to weed whack every month or so to keep legume cover crops at the optimum height of about 18 inches. (Otherwise they can turn into a tangled mess.)

When you are ready to turn or till your cover crops in spring, reduce them to stubble with a weed whacker or machete first. When I gardened on a recently reclaimed field, we used an old fashioned scythe to cut the rye and wheat cover crop. This has a long curving blade (just like the grim reaper’s) attached to an even longer and more curving handle called a snathe. It’s quite scenic to watch somebody else use a scythe–the action looks soothing and utterly medieval. However, the repetitive, swinging motion required is harder than it looks. The real trick is to cut the wheat or rye blades so the stalks fall in neat bundles instead of messy tangles. That way, they can be gathered into the classic sheaves to dry. Lacking a scythe, you just whack the tall stems and till or turn under the roots. In a warm year, we can sow any of these winter cover crops through October, but the sooner we get them in the ground, the better they will grow.

Posted in fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Weed Control, Winterizing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Restocking The Kitchen Garden

Feeding The Garden & You

The rains are back, and though the days are still beautifully warm, night temperatures are dropping once again. As summer gently fades away, the garden soil is still warm enough to make a lovely nursery bed for young vegetables. If you enjoy cooking with fall and winter crops, this is the time to tuck in new starts of greens and other cool season vegetables.

Greens are the backbone of my winter garden, since we eat them daily in salads, soups, and stir fries. I love all kinds of kale, especially an Italian kind called Lacinato. Its ruggose, crinkled leaves have a lovely, almost sweet flavor and taste terrific in salads as well as all manner of cooked dishes. Redbor is another favorite kale with frilly red foliage. Strip the little leaflets off the main stems and toss them in salads, sandwich fillings, or stir fries for a tender treat. The offspring of these two is called Lacinato Rainbow, and it has crunchy, lacy foliage that runs from rose and purple to soft blue-green.

Summer’s End Salads

Raw kale has a bit of a bite that is pleasantly mellowed by sweet, earthy, golden beets. This raw salad combines them with creamy white beans or chick peas (garbanzo beans) and a lively mint, lime and ginger dressing. Grate the ginger root with a microplane grater and watch your fingers!

Snappy Raw Beet and Kale Salad

1/4 cup avocado oil
1 organic lime juiced, zest grated
2 tablespoons minced mint leaves
1-2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger root
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup cooked white beans or chick peas
1 golden beet, peeled and coarsely grated
(about 2 cups)
4 cups finely ribbon-sliced Black Magic kale
1/4 cup chopped Walla Walla Sweet onion

In a serving bowl, combine oil, 1 teaspoon lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon lime zest, mint, 1 teaspoon grated ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon sea salt, adjusting lime juice and zest, ginger, and salt to taste. Add grated beet, kale, and onion, toss gently and let stand for 15-20 minutes before serving. Serves 4.

An Even Crunchier Kale Salad

This crunchy, savory salad is a perfect complement to grains and roasted vegetables. For a deeper, bolder flavor, crumble in some soy bacon (we like the Morningstar kind) or a little nutritional yeast (1-2 teaspoons). Avocado oil has a clean flavor and rich quality that lets other flavors shine without being overwhelmed.

Crisp Tomato Kale Salad

1 tablespoon avocado oil
1 shallot, chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups little kale leaflets, stripped from main stem
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup basil, stemmed and sliced into ribbons
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2-3 strips soy bacon, cooked (optional)
1-2 teaspoons nutritional yeast (optional)

In a serving bowl, combine oil, shallot, sea salt, kale and kale, toss gently and let stand for 10 minutes. Add basil and tomatoes and bacon or nutritional yeast if using, toss to combine and serve. Serves 4.

Renew and Refresh

Before planting, replenish weary soil with a blanket of compost mulch. Wherever beds were emptied by recent harvest, spread 4-6 inches of mature (aged) compost. Anywhere you want to sow seeds of fast growers like spinach, lettuce, kale and arugula, blend the refreshing compost in with the top few inches of soil, then top dress with an extra inch or two to keep weeds from sprouting.

Give the rows plenty of room, sowing your seeds and placing starts of lettuce, leeks and radishes at least a foot apart (18 inches for most greens, 2 feet for kale and Brussels sprouts) to allow for rapid growth in the warm autumn air. Until fall rains arrive for good, you’ll need to keep the seedlings and starts evenly moist. Plan on watering on hot days, at least three times a week through the month (or longer).

Onward With Onions

This is also a good time to set out onions sets. Look for Walla Walla Sweet onions as well as yellow and white onions. Both garlic and shallots make good fall crops as well. Leeks are a classic fall and winter crop, improving in flavor after frosty nights. These slow growers take at least three months to size up, so seedlings set out  now won’t find their way to your kitchen until late winter or early spring. However, you can set out sturdy starts now and expect to harvest them around Thanksgiving.

It’s too late to start Brussels sprouts from seed, but starts should size up nicely. If your Brussels sprouts tend to get aphids, try growing any of the splendidly handsome Italian versions like Rubine and Red Ball, with red stems and sprouts. As tasty as they are lovely, these sprouts hardly ever suffer pest damage.

A Gaggle of Greens

If you missed the window for sowing lettuce, arugula, and other greens, you should be able to find starts now at your local nursery. These are never available until the summer heat starts to dissipate, since they prefer growing in cooler conditions. Set your starts in now and you’ll be enjoying fresh salads through fall and into winter.

Spinach loves the cooling nights and warm days of fall and you can often get several crops in if you sow short rows every two weeks for the next month or so. You can also get in a few short rows of arugula, corn salad, and radicchio if you sow them right away. Otherwise, look for starts and set them a foot or more apart for fall and early winter harvest.

Quicker From Starts

Many of the Oriental greens like Chinese mustard, joi choy, and pak choi will size up quickly from a late summer planting and be ready to eat within about 40 days.  Tender Florence fennel bulbs take about 60 days to fatten up from starts, but can be left in the ground  to harvest all winter.

One of the most beautiful winter crops is chard, of which there are many lovely forms. Some of the prettiest Swiss chard strains include Aurora, Bright Lights, and Celebration Mix, all of which boast gorgeous stems and leaf veins in glowing ruby, hot yellow, sizzling pink, and sunset orange, contrasting with deep and softer green foliage. The young leaves retain their color well and are delicious sliced into fine ribbons for raw salads or used to garnish soups and stews.

Posted in composting, fall/winter crops, Garden Prep, Recipes, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living | Tagged , | Leave a comment