It’s January 1st, and while most people are thinking “New Year’s Day,” I’m thinking it’s “Saint Basil Day” and time to do two things. First, bake the traditional St. Basil Bread, a tasty yeast bread that contains (of course) basil and other spices and most importantly, a gold coin. The bread is sliced with all the family and/or friends around the table. The first slice always goes to the eldest, the next to the next-eldest, continuing until the youngest is served. Then a slice goes to whoever else are important “family members” that contribute to the family’s well-being (the milk cow, family horse, guard dog.) Whoever finds the gold coin in their serving will be blessed with good luck in the coming year. The recipe is below.
The second project, that I often do while the bread is baking, is to select the basils I will grow this year. There are SO many delightful varieties, and if you haven’t tried some of them, you are definitely missing out on some deliciousness! Of course, the standard “Sweet” basil or “Genovese” basil that is used in Italian cooking and pesto is a must and always makes the list. It’s one of the basils I use most in the kitchen, and also the one for basic “Housewife’s Tea.” But after that, the fun begins. Three of my very favorites are “Clove” basil (or Kaprou) and “Cinnamon” basil which are both spicy basils that are great in tea and in St. Basil Bread, and “Mrs. Burn’s Lemon” basil which has a definite citrus lemon scent and flavor that is also wonderful in tea, St. Basil Bread, and my favorite Italian Cream Cake. These often self-seed in my potager, and so far they are coming true each year since they are on opposite sides of the area. I also love using stems of all three of these basils in bouquets. Clove and Cinnamon have purple flowers, Lemon basil has white flowers and all contribute a lovely scent to any arrangement. The bees love them, too!
Then there are the more decorative basils, which can still be used in cooking, but often the flavors are not as appealing or the leaves are not as tender. “African Blue” basil is one that must be grown from cuttings rather than seed, but it is a stunning plant that often reaches 4′ tall and across, with purple-veined leaves and luxurious long basil flower stems. “Cardinal” is one with a large cluster of reddish flowers at the top.
“Thai” basil is one of the more anise-scented basils and is often called for in Thai or Vietnamese recipes. The strongest flavored of the Thai basils is “Queenette” and one that has a weird “exploding” flower head similar to “Cardinal” is “Siam Queen.”
Some green basils have been developed for more variety in leaf shape or size. These include the now-famous “Spicy Globe” with its tiny leaves, rounded shape and smaller stature; “Lettuce Leaf” with light green leaves that are somewhat frilly on a stocky plant; “Fino Verde” that has small, flavorful leaves and grows in a more columnar shape; “Greek Bush” which has excellent flavor, small leaves and is good in containers; “Green Ruffles” is very ruffled, a pretty bright green but I find the leaves a bit tough; “Mammoth” will produce leaves as large as your hand, which can be useful if making a rolled or pocket style appetizer stuffed with cheese mixtures. “Marsailles” is very uniform, 6-12″ tall and is often rated the best-flavored bush basil. “Sweet Salad” has medium-sized leaves and is excellent for fresh use, but it’s real asset is that it dries well without turning brown or black. “Green Gate” was the first non-Genovese basil with fusarium resistance, has a high oil content, and also dries well.
The first true variegated basil, “Pesto Perpetuo” was released a few years ago. It has smaller leaves, a columnar form that can reach 4′, and rarely flowers. The drawback is that like “African Blue” it can only be propagated by cuttings, so you can’t order seeds for it.
There are many deep purple-leaved basils to choose, which can give a nice contrast in both the kitchen garden and in the flower border if dependable purple foliage is desired. “Purple Ruffles,” “Red Rubin,” “Purple Petra,” and “Osmin” are the most easily found. “Osmin”is a selection of “Opal,” the old first purple-leaved basil released commercially, and still my favorite for its tender leaves, flavor and deep color it gives to vinegars.
“Green Pepper” basil came on the market a few years ago. I grew it for several years and never detected the elusive green pepper flavor that it is reported to have. It is a traditional Mayan remedy for stomachache and diarreah, and is also said to repel mosquitoes. There are a few other basils grown mainly for medicinal purposes, or used in ceremonies rather than as culinary herbs, although in some parts of the world they are commonly eaten. These include the “East Indian” (or Tree Basil) which grows quite tall (4-5′) with slightly fuzzy, light green leaves; “Tulsi” or sometimes called “Spice” basil which is sacred to Hindus. “Tulsi” is also a tall basil with fuzzy grey-green leaves, and will rampantly self-seed. I find its scent offensive. “Camphor” basil is tall with a distinctive camphor scent that is used commercially, small pale green leaves.
Only small sample of the basils available are discussed here. It seems every year there are new introductions! Basil is easy to grow as long as one remembers it loves heat and moisture. Seeds need warm soil to germinate, and plants cannot tolerate even a hint of frost. They love sunshine, and to be harvested often. If allowed to set seed, they will quit producing large, tender leaves. The most common problem is fusarium, a soil born disease that can also be transferred through the seeds, so be sure to use fresh soil for basil each year, and do not save seeds from diseased plants. The most telltale sign of the problem is a very dark brown stem that spreads upward, and then leaf drop.
Basils are truly wonderful plants, and essential in many dishes. Enjoy their flavors, their scents, their leaf color and shapes. Put “growing basil” on your New Year’s Resolution list, and you won’t regret it! Happy 2021 to ALL! May each one of you special readers find comfort in your gardens, joy in growing, and many blessings in the coming year. Stay well, stay safe!
St. Basil Bread
Mix together in a large bowl: 1 c. warm strong basil tea (standard basil is fine, or any flavor you like, but I prefer cinnamon or clove or lemon); 2 T. sugar, and 1 pkg. yeast (2 1/4 tsp.) Stir to blend and let rest for 2-3 minutes. Stir in: 2 T. soft butter and 1 egg.
Mix together: 3 1/2 c. flour, 1 T. ground dried basil (any flavor you like, but co-ordinate it with whatever tea you selected); 1 tsp. salt; 1 tsp. grated lemon zest; 1/4 tsp. nutmeg; 1/4 tsp. cinnamon. Stir into yeast mixture until well blended, roll out onto floured board and knead until smooth. Let rise in a buttered bowl in a warm place till doubled in size. Shape into a loaf, and put in a buttered loaf pan. Let rise again. Bake at 425 degrees for 25-30 min.