Basil: It’s Not Just for Italian Food Anymore

By Vicki Blachman

Freelance Writer

s we approach Valentine’s Day, bouquets of red roses have a tendency to hog the horticultural spotlight. As much as we appreciate receiving flowers, Texas gardeners tend to see the day from a slightly different perspective. It’s the day we traditionally give rose bushes their heavy spring pruning, leaving a little time in the day to tuck a few prepared seed potatoes into the vegetable garden. It’s also a day my thoughts turn to basil. It’s not yet warm enough to plant this sun-loving herb, so what’s the connection? It may surprise you that beginning with the ancient Romans, a number of cultures have considered basil the herb of love. Even today, there are Italians who believe it has the power to attract a mate. So as you’re planning that romantic dinner for two, consider something with basil!

Sweet basil — can’t you almost smell its warm, complex scent when you hear the words? Was your next thought “Italian food”? If so, you’re not alone. That link between basil and a multitude of Italian dishes is a natural one given the herb’s affinity for tomatoes and sunny Mediterranean weather. Spaghetti with a sauce rich in garlic and herbs was very likely the first taste of basil for many of us. But don’t stop there. As perfect a pairing as that may be, it’s just a fraction of the way the world uses and enjoys this popular herb.

There are reportedly 64 species of basil within the genus Ocimum, with many of the culinary basils falling under Ocimum basilicum. Basil is believed to have originated in Asia and Africa, and to have been brought to Greece by Alexander the Great. To this day, it’s used in the Greek Orthodox Church for making holy water, in part due to the belief that it grew around Christ’s tomb. The Greeks also blessed the plant on the first day of each new year, called St. Basil’s day, then used it in the home to deter mice and other pests.

The ancient Romans, who called it the herb of love, also initiated the colorful practice of hurling insults and curses at basil when planting in order to make it flourish. I’ve always wondered if that was any indication of their idea of romance. Maybe that was when we began to attach such opposing symbolism to the herb: love and hate, danger and protection, life and death have all been attributed to basil at various times throughout history.

In the medieval period, the French were among the many Europeans who believed that smelling too much basil would breed scorpions in the brain. However, they seem to have made peace with it and now call basil l’herbe royale (the royal herb). Fresh leaves are torn and tossed into salads and also used to make pistou, a sauce very similar to Italian pesto. A hearty soup from the Provence region, soupe au pistou, adds pistou to white beans, carrots, squash, green beans and garlicky chicken stock for a satisfying meal that showcases basil at its best. You’ll also find pistou lavished onto grilled meats, especially chicken, and swirled into beans or lentils. If you’re looking for one of the smaller basils to grow in a container or tuck into a corner of your vegetable garden, try the dwarf variety called ‘Pistou.’ This plant reaches a height of 12 to 24 inches, has tiny leaves, delicate white flowers and a mild but delicious flavor. If you favor a more assertive flavor and fragrance, another good basil for containers or borders is ‘Greek Spicy Globe’ (O. basilicum minimum). This small-leaved basil forms a compact, rounded plant approximately one foot in diameter and six to eight inches high.

Holy basil (O. tenuiflorum, and also called O. sanctum) is particularly sacred in Hindu tradition where it has been attributed with great healing and spiritual powers for thousands of years. There are two primary varieties used in worship: one with purple-tinged leaves and flowers called Krishna, and the other, called Rama, with green leaves and white flowers. Known as tulsi or tulasi, the plant symbolizes love, life, harmony, purity, serenity, good fortune and protection. A ritual of placing a fresh leaf on the dead during burial ceremonies is thought to open the gates of Heaven, and some worshippers fashion prayer beads from the stems. In Ayurvedic practice, tulsi is also thought to have antiseptic qualities. The powdered form is sold as a remedy for a number of skin conditions. Although sometimes used for making medicinal teas, tulsi is very rarely used in cooking.

There is another type of O. tenuiflorum used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking, similarly referred to as holy basil. This variety is known as ka prow by the Thai and rau qué or hung qué in Vietnam. It has much smaller leaves and is less camphoric than the holy basil of India, having more of the clove and anise flavors. It is not the same as the so-called Thai basil varieties ‘Siam Queen’ and ‘Queenette,’ both of which are species of O. basilicum. Because of the confusion in names, it is often easier to grow and use these acceptable substitutes. Seed orders placed for “holy basil” may result in a crop of tulsi, definitely not the desired flavor for culinary use.

Drawing on its multi-ethnic roots, Louisiana’s Creole culture has developed its own flavorful traditions with basil. Dried herbs and spices are often used, but the flavors of an etouffée, shrimp Creole or classic Remoulade dressing really shine when prepared with fresh herbs, including basil. Substitute approximately twice the amount of dried herb called for in the recipe when you begin cooking, then add more to taste just before serving.

Lest you think that only sunny climates grow and use basil, it’s worth noting that the former Soviet republic of Georgia has an herb mixture as essential to its cuisine as the various masala spice mixtures are to Indian food. It’s called khmeli suneli, and the proportions of the ingredients vary with the intended use. Most commonly used with lamb, stews and other slow-cooking foods, it’s prepared at least a day before using to allow the flavors to meld. Here’s a basic recipe:

2 teaspoons dried basil

2 teaspoons ground coriander seed

2 teaspoons dried dill

2 teaspoons dried marjoram

2 teaspoons dried savory

1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves

1 teaspoon dried ground marigold petals

1 teaspoon dried mint

1 teaspoons dried parsley

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 bay leaf

All of the herbs are put into a mortar and crushed until well combined.

China has a long history of medicinal and culinary uses for basil. Paired with ginger and garlic, it flavors a variety of traditional chicken, eggplant and noodle dishes. The Chinese name for basil translates to “nine level pagoda,” a fitting and poetic description of the multi-level bloom and seed stalk. While any of the so-called “sweet” basils can be used successfully in Chinese cooking, those with a more pronounced anise or cinnamon flavor are particularly tasty. For delicate lavender flowers and a hint of cinnamon, try O. basilicum ‘Cinnamon.’ For beautiful purple-tinged leaves, try ‘Red Rubin’ (O. basilicum x O. forskolei ‘Red Rubin’).

Khmeli suneli may take the prize as the most colorful name, but one of the most interesting ways to use basil employs the seed rather than leaf. As many types of basil seed form a gelatinous coat when soaked in liquid, enterprising chefs around the world use them to lend thickening, texture, visual interest and flavor to desserts and sweet beverages. In Thailand, lemon basil seeds are used to make nam met maenglak; and basil seeds called “tukmaria” appear in falooda, a popular beverage in Mumbai, India. Looking a bit like tiny frog eggs, the seeds may not appeal to everyone. But when used as an accent, they can certainly make a dish stand out from the normal restaurant offerings. Just think of them as dessert caviar!

Soak some of the seeds you collect from your own garden, or purchase packaged seeds in the spice section of your local Asian or Indian grocery. The two-ounce packets of Vietnamese seed run about $3.00 and save considerable time and effort. (It takes a lot of basil plants to yield the same quantity.) The soaking liquid can be hot water, tea, fruit juice, nectar or even sweet wine — almost anything other than citrus, which will not work. The simplest recipe uses equal measures of seed to hot water and is allowed to soak a minimum of two hours in the refrigerator. Stir in a bit of corn syrup or honey to sweeten, add a squeeze of lemon juice and the tiniest pinch of salt to enhance the flavor, then serve over ice cream or drizzled around the perimeter of a dessert plate to garnish your favorite dessert.

Cooks have generally considered basil a savory herb rather than sweet, but its flavor contains elements of anise, clove and cinnamon, making it wonderfully compatible with desserts. Years ago in Spain, I tasted the unusual combination of a silken chocolate mousse topped with a thin basil gel. It sounded so improbable, but turned out to be absolutely delicious. The chef was an avid gardener and said she was taking a cue from basil’s family ties to mint. I’ve since used that idea as encouragement to use basil in chocolate truffles and substitute basil for mint in other desserts, even in mojitos! I also love to grill fresh figs or peaches, then serve the sweet grilled fruit with one of our delicious local goat cheeses, drizzled with a good balsamic vinegar and topped with thin shreds of basil. Yum!

If you’re timid about trying basil with chocolate or peaches, a less intimidating experiment might be using a lemon-scented basil such as ‘Mrs. Burns Lemon’ or ‘Lemon Tabriz’ in a lemon pound cake; or try finely minced fresh cinnamon basil in a simple sugar cookie recipe. Lemon and basil are deliciously compatible. When you have anise, clove or cinnamon in a recipe, emphasize them with a bit of fresh basil in addition to the actual spice. Don’t want cooked basil shreds marring the texture or appearance of your dessert? Any liquid called for in your recipe, such as cream or melted butter, can be infused with basil. Allow the fresh leaves to steep in the warmed liquid until it is well flavored and scented, strain out the leaves, then use the liquid as directed. Still not a believer? Start with just a few leaves and work up to using more as you see how well the flavors work.

Just as it doesn’t belong to one culture or cuisine, basil isn’t just one scent or flavor. Different varieties may smell strongly of anise, cinnamon, cloves, lemon, lime, camphor or even bell pepper! Basil can have tiny almond-shaped leaves or enormous ruffled leaves resembling lettuce, smooth or serrated edges, and colors ranging from deep purple to green to variegated with creamy streaks.

Although difficult to find, a relatively new basil worth looking for is O. selloi, commonly called bell pepper basil. Looking at it, you might have trouble identifying it as an Ocimum. The leaves are shiny and leathery, but the delicate lavender blooms somewhat resemble those of other basils. If planted in a large container and overwintered in a greenhouse, this is one basil that stands a chance of becoming a perennial. Planted in the ground in Zones 8 and warmer, it often returns from the roots in spring. The young, tender leaves are used fresh to impart the flavor and scent of green bell peppers. The mature leaves and flowers would also be a surprising addition to that Valentine’s Day bouquet.

What all basils have in common is a love of warm weather, stubbornly refusing to grow until average temperatures rise above the mid-60s and warm the soil. In Texas, basil is considered a tender annual, with a mature height from 8 inches to 6 feet based on variety and growing conditions. Its square, slightly hairy stems indicate that the genus Ocimum is part of the mint, or Lamiaceae, family. As with mint, all basil varieties develop opposite leaves and form pairs of opposing branches. As anyone who has ever let basil go to seed can tell you, basil is also surprisingly easy to grow from seed. Blooms left on plants too long will scatter the tiny black or brown seeds in the garden, resulting in a crop of “volunteers” late in the season, or even the following year. Be aware that if you have several kinds of basil growing near each other, they will cross-pollinate, giving your volunteers a muddled flavor.

Because it’s so easy to start from seed, it takes very little effort to enjoy a diverse assortment of basils each year. The seeds may be broadcast in the garden or started in flats. In flats, space seeds 3/8 to 1/2 inch apart at a depth not more than twice the size of the seed. When seedlings have at least two pair of true leaves, they should be transplanted into small pots. In the garden, space plants at least 12 inches apart to allow adequate room for healthy growth. The full sun that basil loves can also cause it to wilt when our temperatures consistently hit 90 degrees and higher. Keep it watered regularly and mulch plants to retain soil moisture and maintain cooler soil temperatures. ‘Aussie Sweetie’ (also known as ‘Greek Columnar’) is one basil I’ve found to be both flavorful and drought-resistant. When grown in full sun, it has a very upright growth habit, reaches a height of nearly three feet in most regions of Texas and very rarely blooms. There’s also a variegated version that makes a wonderful accent in the scented garden. ‘Aussie Sweetie,’ however, must be started from cuttings as it is a non-seeding variety.

Besides scent and flavor, basils serve another purpose in the garden. They may be the best bee attractant you’ve ever grown! I’ve participated in The Great Sunflower Project two years in a row, counting and identifying the bees that visit the sunflowers we’ve grown as part of the project. (To participate, go to the project’s Web site at Each year, I’ve had to report that all of my Texas bees completely ignore the nodding sunflowers in favor of any variety of blooming basil. If you’re planting basil for this purpose, try lime basil. It produces white flowers so prolifically, you may as well not even attempt to prevent flowering. Any pinching back just seems to produce more blooms.

That brings up the topic of extending the life of your basil plants. We’ve all been told at some point to keep the bloom buds pinched back to prevent basil from forming woody stems and dying. I finally learned from Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay that it’s even better to prune effectively. If you cut basil back regularly so that only two to four leaves remain on each stem, it’s much less likely to get the chemical signal to start producing blooms and shut down for the season.

Before average night temperatures are expected to drop into the 40s, harvest all remaining basil to make sure you can enjoy its fresh flavor all year. My storage preference is to make a smooth paste of the fresh leaves with as little vegetable oil as needed to blend, usually about 4 parts firmly packed leaves to 1 part oil. Store this in the freezer. When needed, allow it to thaw slightly. Then scrape off the needed measure. Use an oil with a neutral flavor and this concentrated basil paste can be used in everything from desserts to savory dishes — you can even add it to cheese, nuts and a bit of olive oil to make a traditional pesto. My friend Becky uses a dehydrator to separately dry each type she’s grown that year. Can you imagine getting a basil sampler of exotic varieties like ‘Mrs. Burns’ Lemon,’ ‘Queen of Siam’ or ‘Lettuce Leaf’? What cook wouldn’t appreciate such a gift? If you choose to dry your basil harvest, never do so in an oven or microwave because the essential oils that give basil its flavor will volatize and be lost between 85° and 90°F.

Herbal vinegar and jelly are also delicious ways to capture basil’s summery essence. For vinegar, loosely pack a glass jar with basil and top off with vinegar — my favorite combination of color and flavor is ‘Purple Ruffles’ (O. basilicum ‘Purple Ruffles’) with rice vinegar. The deep purple of the leaves tints the vinegar a beautiful hue that is particularly attractive in clear glass gift bottles. For a delicious basil jelly, try the simple recipe in this article.

We lost two generously talented women this past year, both of whom taught us a great deal about basil. It just wouldn’t seem right to end this article without remembering them. Madalene Hill awakened our senses to basil and a wealth of other culinary herbs. Our kitchens and gardens won’t ever be the same. Sheila Lukins ushered in a new style of American cooking with her four Silver Palate cookbooks. Primarily due to her influence, we now consider pesto a culinary staple rather than an exotic ingredient. I treasure fond memories of and lessons learned from both of them.

With a world of basils to choose from, there’s still time to get out those seed catalogs and try a new variety this year. Whether it’s for love charms, herbal gifts or simply for the bees, it’s certainly not just for Italian food anymore.


Basil Wine Jelly


2 cups firmly packed fresh basil leaves

2 cups red or white wine

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

3-1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 oz. pouch of liquid pectin

Sterilize four one-half-pint canning jars in boiling water. Set aside.

Bring wine to a simmer and add the basil leaves. Remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for 30 minutes. Strain well, pressing to extract all of the liquid from the basil. Discard the leaves. Add fresh lemon juice to the wine and measure. You should have exactly 2 cups liquid. If necessary, add additional lemon juice to bring the measure up to 2 cups.

Return liquid to heat, add sugar and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Bring to a rolling boil, quickly add the pectin and return to boil. Stirring constantly, allow to boil for exactly one minute. Remove saucepan from heat and skim off any foam. Pour immediately into prepared jars and seal.

Pad Ka-Prow

In Thai, the word “phat” or “pad” indicates a dish that is stir-fried. This recipe comes from the chef-owner of Ka Prow restaurant in Austin, Texas. “Chef O” grows the true Thai holy basil from seeds he imports from Thailand in order to get the true taste of home, but he says sweet basil may be substituted.


2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil

5 ounces of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, scallops or soft tofu

2 or 3 large slices of yellow onion

8 to 10 green beans

4 or 5 large slices of red bell pepper

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 fresh Thai chiles

1 jalapeño

1 dozen sweet basil leaves

4 to 5 fresh mushrooms with stems

1/4 cup water

Put oil in a wok over high heat. Place small to medium slices of meat, or 1 inch cubes of soft tofu, in the hot oil and cook for about one minute; if using tofu, brown on all sides. Add the other ingredients and stir with a large wooden spoon. Then add the appropriate sauce, continuing to stir for about two more minutes. Serve with steamed white or brown rice.

“Regular” Sauce — stir the following together and add to stir fry:

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon Thai seasoning sauce (Golden Mountain brand)

1 teaspoon sugar

“Vegetarian” Sauce — stir the following together and add to stir fry:

1 tablespoon vegetarian “oyster” sauce

1 teaspoon thin soy sauce (available at Asian markets)

1 tablespoon Thai seasoning sauce (Golden Mountain brand recommended)

1 teaspoon sugar

Lemon Basil Poundcake


1 cup unsalted butter

2 cups granulated sugar

5 large eggs

2 cups flour, sifted

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1/4 cup lemon basil leaves, measured then finely minced

Preheat oven to 275°F. Grease and flour a tube or bundt pan. Set aside.

Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Add flour and mix just until incorporated. Add lemon extract and fresh basil and fold in thoroughly. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for approximately one hour and 15 minutes. The top of the cake should be well-browned but the center should remain moist. Allow cake to cool in pan for 15 minutes before turning out onto a rack to cool completely.

Pineapple Basil Sorbet

This recipe is based on a dessert at Cena restaurant in New York where it was served with roasted pineapple and a basil caramel sauce.


2-1/2 cups water

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 ripe pineapple

2 Granny Smith apples, unpeeled and finely diced

50 basil leaves, such as ‘Genovese’ or ‘Purple Ruffles’ (sorbet color will vary)

1/2 cup fresh pineapple juice

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice

Peel, core and dice pineapple. In a 3-quart saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Add diced pineapple and apples, and simmer two minutes. Remove from heat and add half the basil leaves. Cover pan and allow to steep 20 minutes.

Place mixture in a blender and puree. Add remaining basil leaves and blend until smooth. Strain through a fine sieve into stainless steel bowl. Place bowl over a larger bowl containing ice and water. Stir occasionally until mixture is chilled, then add pineapple juice and lemon juice. Pour into ice cream maker and process according to manufacturer instructions. If desired, serve with grilled or roasted pineapple spears and a sprig of fresh basil.

Basil Cream Salmon

Serves 4

Sauce Ingredients:

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1-1/2 cups fresh basil, chopped

1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped

3/4 cup dry vermouth

1/2 cup heavy cream

Kosher salt to taste

1-1/4 pound fresh salmon fillet, skin and small bones removed

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 shallots, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

In a blender or food processor, combine sauce ingredients just until smooth and set aside.

Cut salmon into 4 equal servings. Melt butter in large, heavy skillet and sear salmon, cooking each side 3 to 4 minutes. Place salmon on a plate, loosely cover to keep warm, and set aside.

Reduce the flame to low, add shallots and garlic, and cook until softened, 5 minutes or less. Add blended sauce ingredients to pan and cook until reduced by about one-third, stirring frequently.

Return salmon to pan just long enough to reheat in the sauce. Serve topped with sauce and garnished with shreds of fresh basil.

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