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Basil Beyond Pesto

Basil Beyond Pesto
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I love a rich basil pesto. That creamy mix of brilliant green leaves, garlic, toasted pine nuts, grated Parmesan, and a spicy olio nuovo is a heady companion for a summer pasta or grilled vegetables. But a gardener growing basil can do so much more with basil than making it a default ingredient for pesto. How do we know this? Because it comes in so many varieties and has been cultivated around the world in places where pesto is scarcely known.

Basil’s Origins

For decades, thanks to pesto, many of us simply associate basil with Italy. In fact, basil has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years across the globe. It’s commonly thought that its origins are rooted in India, but it’s possible that people in China’s Hunan region were using it at least as early as 807 A.D. Like the larger mint family basil belongs to, it was an easy spreader, traveling to the West to be adopted by cultures in Europe and the Americas. And, it hasn’t been used merely as a culinary herb. It has a tradition in various cultures of medicinal usage (India), in embalming (Greece), natural pest control in the garden, and cultural symbolism.

There are dozens of varieties of basil, and the benefits of growing more than one is that you can put the unique colors and shapes of their foliage to work as a paintbrush and to refine the flavors of the dishes you create with them. I always have some version of Genovese or Italian basils growing in warm months, but I have come to love having a dash of purple in the form of Dark Opal basil complementing my other summer herbs and vegetables like zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes in my cooking. Mexican cinnamon basil is the perfect herb to fold into a fruit salad, while Thai sweet basil is my go-to for curries and stir fries.

Having a mix of basils gives my garden a fresh look and the cook in me a wealth of options to punch up a meal. These are my favorites:

Dark Opal

Basil Beyond Pesto
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Dark opal basil pops in my garden with dark purple leaves that sometimes have bits of green running through them. But it’s the flavor that makes them so valuable in the kitchen. Dark opal basil’s scent is reminiscent of cloves, and it tastes more complex than traditional anise. I think of it as having Christmas cookie notes of ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and even a little mint.

Yes, it makes for a beautiful garnish, but be bold. Change up a traditional Caprese salad by subbing in Dark Opal basil leaves. They play beautifully with mozzarella cheese and tomatoes. Add them to eggplant lasagna or a vegetable stir fry. Sure, make a purple pesto—or just infuse the leaves in your favorite olive oil. One of my favorite ways to use it is in my Tomato Red Onion Relish, which I created to go with an old favorite dish from Anna Thomas’ classic cookbook, “The Vegetarian Epicure”, Eggplant Souffle.

Genovese Italian Classico and Italian Sweet

Basil Beyond Pesto
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These two basil varieties are classics for a reason. They’re the traditional basil used in pesto and on Pizza Margherita. Broad, expansive, and aromatic green leaves are everything Westerners think basil should be—and then some. Do they differ in taste? Not much. Visually, Genovese basil leaves are slightly larger, flatter, and have a point at the tip. I have grown both and, yes, they’re my pesto staple, but I also julienne them and add them to salads. They’re wonderful in a chilled summery tomato soup. I also add them to that Tomato Red Onion Relish I make.

Mexican Cinnamon

Basil Beyond Pesto
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You may be surprised by the appearance of Mexican Cinnamon Basil, with its glossy, elongated leaves and slightly serrated edges, purple stems, and pinkish purple flowers. Unlike the spicy licorice flavors of sweet basil, it has a warm, yes, cinnamon flavor that makes it perfect to stir into a fruit dish, brew as a tea, or muddle into a cocktail. I love surprising guests with desserts, like tea cakes or pies, into which I’ve baked in the herb. Another cool way to use it is to mince it finely and add it to heavy cream to make whipped cream. Imagine how wonderful that would taste over a chocolate lava cake or even a brownie. Or I mince it and sprinkle it over ice cream if I’m keeping things simple.

Thai Sweet

Basil Beyond Pesto
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If you compare Thai basil with traditional Mediterranean basils, you’ll notice a difference immediately. Thai basil leaves are far sturdier and also narrower. And while anise flavors are common to basils of all varieties, they’re far more pungent and spicier in Thai basil. That means that its texture and flavor hold up better to the heat of a stir fry or simmered dishes like curries. Julienne leaves and add to a stuffing for a spring roll. Add minced leaves to braised chicken or pork. Mince Thai basil and stir it into rice.

Basil Beyond Pesto
Source: Caron Golden

Tomato Basil Relish

Yield: About 2 ½ cups

• 1 ½ cups large heirloom tomatoes, chopped
• ½ cup basil leaves, julienned
• 1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
• ½ cup red onion, diced
• 1 ½ tablespoons garlic, minced
• ½ teaspoon sea salt or to taste
• ¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper or to taste
• ¼ cup balsamic vinegar

Directions Combine all ingredients. Chill for an hour. Serve with eggplant souffle from The Vegetarian Epicure (by Anna Thomas) or as a condiment with grilled chicken, pork, steak, or lamb.

For more information about Herbs, view our videos.

By: Caron Golden