Uncommon Basil Varieties With Savor & Snap

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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.

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