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The Coastal Gardener: Basil -- so universal and so delicious

August 20, 2010|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • GREAT IN MANY DISHES: Basil is certainly the most popular summer herb in local gardens. The warm, long days of this time of the year are perfectly suited to these easy-to-grow plants.
GREAT IN MANY DISHES: Basil is certainly the most popular… (Daily Pilot )

Basil is certainly the most popular summer herb in local gardens.

The warm, long days of this time of the year are perfectly suited to these easy-to-grow plants.

Basil supposedly derives its name from a terrifying beast of Greek mythology, the Basilisk. Legend says a Basilisk was a half-lizard, half-dragon creature, with a piercing stare that was fatal to whomever it gazed upon. Fortunately, a single basil leaf was considered a magical cure against the stare, breath or bite of the feared Basilisk.

Today, basil may not fend off any dragons in your garden, but is one of the most prolific herbs used throughout the world. Often associated with Italian recipes, basil is also used in herbal remedies, to create flavored vinegars, in teas, and as a key seasoning in many other recipes.

Fresh or dry leaves can be added to stews, soups and sauces, as well as meat, fish or egg dishes. Basil seasons salads and vegetables. Of course, almost any tomato dish benefits from basil, adding flavor to pizza, spaghetti sauce, soups, dressings, salads, sausage — virtually anything tomato based. When blended with pine nuts, oil and cheese in just the right amounts, it creates pesto.

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There was a time when the only basil we could buy was the common large leaf variety called sweet basil. Although delicious and a workhorse of the summer garden, sweet basil is also just the tip of the basil iceberg. Depending on where you shop, the number of basil species and cultivars can be intimidating, if not overwhelming. My suggestion: Try one of each.

Once graduated from standard sweet basil, the next variety to try is lemon basil, particularly a variety called Mrs. Burns. Supposedly discovered growing in a New Mexico garden several decades ago, Mrs. Burns is the most lemony of all the basils. It is a green-leafed basil with a wonderful citrus flavor and aroma. Excellent for use with seafood, or add a couple of crushed sprigs to a pitcher of iced water, fresh lemonade or sun tea.

Purple-leaved varieties may be the prettiest of all the basils and are worth growing, if only for their dazzling appearance in the garden or on the table. Purple-leaved varieties might be named purple ruffles or dark opal, or just simply purple. By whatever name, they are all useful, in much the same way as standard sweet basil, although a bit milder in flavor.

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