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Groundwork: Beguiled by basil

Joe Brunetti keeps the sweet basil pruned back at the Smithsonian's Victory Garden on the Mall. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Many herbs have the ability to charm, but surely the most beguiling of all is the basil. What other plant is flourishing so well in our awful endless summer? Basil is easy to grow, shrugs off most pests and disease, perfumes the garden, and just looks fabulous. What else appears as fresh in the searing fog of August? It's the one plant that turns us all into cooks and gardeners. Just pinching off a leaf and crushing it is a form of aromatherapy.

Given basil's vigor and flavor, it's not surprising that it has been cultivated for thousands of years. This has led to the development of a wide range of varieties.

At the Victory Garden at the American History Museum, gardener Joe Brunetti has brought four antique strains to their late summer glory, and he distinguishes between them with the eye and passion of a master vintner tending his vines. He introduced me to a couple of varieties I hadn't seen before, proving once again that in the connected spheres of gardening and cooking, at least, you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Lettuce Leaf is a form of the common or sweet basil but with ginormous leaves. It's leaves reach, from stalk to leaf tip, six inches long and three inches wide. The petal is thick, almost leathery -- gardeners call this substance. This quality makes for a plant that can physically endure heat, sun, hail, rain and wind, and stay in prime shape. Lettuce Leaf has been grown for well over a century, and it is the vegetative king when it comes to pesto making.

Basils on parade. From left, Dwarf Greek, Mrs. Burn's Lemon, Sweet Basil, Lettuce Leaf. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

This year, Joe is also growing Mrs. Burn's Lemon, a variety of sweet basil with obvious citrus undertones. This variety and the related lemon basil go well with any sort of fish dish. In the blistering heat of the day in this garden, Joe will take a sprig of Mrs. Burn's Lemon and stevia, growing next to it, and throw them in his drinking water to add a bit of refreshing flavor and sweetness.

He is also growing Dwarf Greek basil, which should be in every garden for its compact beauty alone. A fix textured plant, it forms an attractive mound.

The last basil growing here this year (another novel one for me) is the Holy Basil, another diminutive form valued for the calming effects of its oils, especially when used as a tea. It's also called Sacred Basil or Sri Tulsi, and is a revered herb in Hindu tradition. Generally, Mediterranean basils have their sweetness tempered by the underlying anise flavor. Asian basils, including the lovely purple forms, have more of a clove flavor. As garden plants, they are more open in habit, and their blooming doesn't affect their flavor as much as in sweet basil.

Plants put an enormous amount of energy into flowering and seed production, so you want to discourage common basil from flowering in spite of its need to do so at this time of year. Spend a few minutes snipping off the flower spikes.

Sweet basil can get to 4 feet at this time of year, and cutting it back will not only delay flowering but encourage a bushier habit for the rest of the season. Cut no more than a third of the plant, and make the snip just above a pair of leaves. The cuttings can be kept in water in the kitchen until needed.

Sweet basil reaches tall, full of oils to cool the summer palate. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Basil grows willingly from seed, and starting a new batch to replace tired plants around Labor Day will perk up the basil scene until the end of the season. Joe just sprinkles some seeds at the base of mature plants to have vigorous replacements as needed.

Basil hates cool air and cold soil. Seeing it for sale in April is a little maddening when you know it has no business going into the garden until temperatures are consistently in the mid to upper 70s. But it hangs on until nighttime temperatures fall into the 40s. In a good year in a protected site, you can harvest sweet basil well into October around here.

If yours has just bloomed itself out, you can buy the young pot-grown basil in the herb sections of the supermarket and divide and plant them out, either into garden beds or containers. Basil, of course, flourishes in the container provided there is ample moisture and a little bit of nutrient. "A nice compost is all you need for it," said Joe.

-- Adrian Higgins

Lemon Basil Buttermilk Ice Cream

Makes 1 quart

Italian lore says to place a pot of basil on your windowsill to invite the attention of romantic suitors. Serving lemon basil ice cream for dessert may help solidify the relationship. If lemon basil isn’t available, substitute sweet basil, but decrease the amount of leaves to half a cup and increase the lemon peel to 1 tablespoon. From Cynthia A. Brown.

5 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
2 cups half and half
1 cup loosely packed lemon basil leaves
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
1 cup buttermilk

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until light, foamy and about doubled in volume.

In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the half and half with the lemon basil leaves, bruising the leaves with your spoon to infuse the flavor into the half and half. Bring the mixture just barely to a gentle boil (some bubbles, no froth). Remove from the heat and let the leaves steep for five minutes.

Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large mixing bowl and discard the basil leaves. Stir the buttermilk and grated lemon peel.

Slowly stir about ¼ cup of the buttermilk mixture into the eggs and repeat, stirring in small amounts of the buttermilk mixture to temper the eggs, preventing them from cooking. When the eggs are the same temperature as the buttermilk mixture, you can finish combining the two mixtures at once.

Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly until it is slightly thickened and coats the back of a clean spoon. Take your time with this part – and do not let the mixture come to a boil.

Pour the custard into a bowl and refrigerate until it is very cold, preferably overnight.

Process the cold custard in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

By Adrian Higgins  |  August 16, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Groundwork  
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Thanks for your article on basils; however the basil you identified as "lettuce leaf" appears to be the very vigorous-growing "Napolitano". The basil I know as lettuce leaf has rippled, very large leaves. Most of us think "Genoa" makes the best pesto. And Asian "sacred basil" has the aura of cinnamon, not cloves. Basils may also be water-rooted from mature stems, but do best as seeds. All of the "rare" varieties grown in the Victory Garden are those that originated at the greenhouses of Basil Master Tom DiBiaggio. He single-handedly introduced the D.C. area to such wonderous and extensive varieties of herbs.

Posted by: rlgrennie1 | August 17, 2010 7:18 AM | Report abuse

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