Abundant Basil

Guest post by Eleanor Athens

There are the tomatoes, of course; perfectly ripe, full and heavy with juice. Ivory cloves of garlic (I love garlic) and smooth, nutty gold-green olive oil. But it isn’t until I tear the leaves that it all comes together. The perfume of summer, notes of anise and clove… mouth-watering basil. I’m supposed to be making bruschetta topping, but eat half of it straight from the bowl before the bread is grilled.

A promise of love and the rumored birthplace of scorpions, basil has been adored and reviled since the beginning of Western civilization. One legend has it that basil plants were found growing around Christ’s tomb after the resurrection. Giving one’s lover a sprig of basil is said to be a promise of fidelity, and traditionally in Romania for a man to accept the token means engagement.

But basil’s reputation hasn’t always been so amorous. In ancient Rome the plant was associated with the basilisk, a serpent whose gaze could turn you to stone. Supposedly a favorite nesting place for scorpions is under a basil bush; Culpepper in his famous herbal recommends basil for treatment of venom, citing, “every like draws its like.” Centuries ago some physicians averred that the plant itself was poisonous.

Still, threats of scorpion stings and marriage aside the fragrance of basil is summer savor; fresh and rustic dishes of roasted peppers, corn, and melons given a cool, spicy edge. Basil loves the heat, preferring temperatures of 80-100 degrees, full sun, and well-drained soil. Sow some in containers midsummer to have basil through the winter, it needs only a sunny window. Or you can follow the custom of Tudor era farmwives and give your guests a little pot of basil as a parting gift.

Basil Serving Suggestions and Recipes

  • Sprinkle honeydew melon with Thai basil leaves and lime juice for a pretty, cool first course.
  • Add leaves to a simple summer salad of fresh tomatoes and new onions. Make a tisane of lemon or lime basil by pouring boiling water over a handful of lightly crushed sprigs. Serve hot or cold, sweetened if you like.

Basil, Fig, and Walnut Panzanella
Toss bread cubes with a generous amount of olive oil and toast until golden. Chop an equal proportion of fresh or dried figs and walnuts and mix with the bread cubes. tear fresh basil leaves over all, and dress with more olive oil and red wine vinegar to taste.

Egg Salad with Basil and Honey-Mustard Dressing
Make a dressing of 2 spoons olive oil to 1 spoon each of honey, coarse-grain mustard, and cider vinegar; salt and pepper to taste. Chop 4 hard boiled eggs and mix with 1/3 cup chopped, toasted pecans. Dress salad and sprinkle with 10 large torn basil leaves, mix gently and garnish with a basil sprig.


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