It’s funny sometimes how memories click in. While sorting various basil seeds into the seed box (see “Winter Projects” post for more on that) a memory of gardening author Jim Wilson’s visit to my herb farm years ago flashed. He was still host of the “Victory Garden” television show at the time. We became good friends over the years. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2010 and I still miss him. He was the author of over a dozen books, the last being “Homegrown Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs.” My favorite of his works was “Landscaping with Herbs.” Jim was an encyclopedia of gardening knowledge, and just listening to his deep southern drawl was a delight. I recall a time we were walking about my gardens and talking about seed sowing lore, like “Plant peas when the daffodil blooms.” Typically, the old lore is based on science that old-timers just couldn’t explain, but knew worked. Jim contributed, “Stomp on basil seeds or they’ll go to the devil.” When I looked perplexed, he explained that basil has a gelatinous covering that helps hold moisture until the seed germinates. If you sprinkle the seeds on soil and water them, the covering swells and sometimes pushes them out of the ground, where they dry out and die. “Stomping” on them ensures they will stay covered and germinate. Whenever I sow basil seeds, I always remember Jim’s story and press them into the soil securely.
Sorting through leftover seeds for the potager, I had several packets of old basil seed and decided to do some germination tests by putting them in moist paper towels for a few days. When I checked them two hours later, they were swollen, glossy black balls. They looked like caviar, and I immediately thought how delicious those pungent seeds could be. It took some experimenting, but I found that soaking the seeds for at least 30 min. softened them nicely, but still left a little crunch in the texture. You’ll need at least 1 1/2 tsp. water per 1 tsp. seeds. This will make slightly over 2 tsp. of “caviar.” Seeds that are very old or stored in paper envelopes rather than foil or plastic may need another 1/2 tsp. water. They also often will not have quite as much flavor. I have left seeds soaking (covered in the refrigerator) overnight and they still retained a bit of nice crunch.
Sprinkle them on a cream cheese spread cracker, or use them to garnish a deviled egg. Make a salad of tomato and mozzarella slices with a thin stripe of “caviar” down the center, or to garnish around an elegant tomato aspic (ala “You’ve Got Mail,” where Tom Hanks spoons up all the caviar to Meg Ryan’s horror!) Let your imagination be your guide! It’s a great way to get a bit of mild basil flavor until the seeds you’ve sown produce enough leaves to harvest, or to use seeds left from past years that may not germinate well. I use any variety of basil, the Italian or Green types, purples, and even lemon basil.
So, check your old seeds. Or, the next time you buy seeds, purchase an extra packet or two to make a tasty caviar. If you don’t buy organic seeds (please do!) be sure to give them a good rinse. Seeds in packets should be black. If they are pink, purple, blue, green, or some other color, they have been treated with a fungicide and should not be used for culinary purposes.
Here’s my recipe for “Basil Seed Caviar Spread” shown above. Drain 1-15.5 can cannelloni beans. Place in bowl and mash with pastry blender or potato masher until beans have lost their shape. Add 1 T. olive oil; generous grinding of black pepper; 1 T. lemon juice, 2 tsp. finely chopped onion or shallot; 1 tsp. dried basil finely ground; and two dashes hot sauce. Mix well. Spread about ½” thick on round sesame or whole wheat crackers or thinly sliced baguette. Cut narrow strips of roasted red peppers to make an interesting curve and place on top of spread. Add a small dollop of “basil caviar” in the center. 12-14 servings.
Be innovative! And don’t throw out those old basil seeds!