Jul 22, 2013

The Basil Clan

This morning the sounds of summer play like a modern concert: the tinkling electronic whir of a neighbor's air conditioner, the high-pitched squeal and clank of a city garbage truck, and in between, the loud caw of crows, the low buzz of cicadas, the throaty groan of a distant lawn mower. It's a beautiful, if dissonant concert.

I've been feeling homesick today, and I don't really know why. I'm not technically far from home, and even my oldest brother, who lives on the opposite side of the planet, is only a Skype call away. But there is a spaciousness to the days of mid-summer that makes me a bit sad, as though everyone is far away doing their own thing: busy mowing the lawn or splashing in the waves of some fine beach. Being busy is distracting, and I realize when I have a second to stop and breathe, I miss my family.

Growing now on the porch and in the little garden outside the house are five different types of basil: Thai basil, Greek basil, Italian (Genovese) basil, African blue basil and holy basil. I've been enjoying cooking with each type, getting to know their different flavor profiles and uses in the kitchen. And while I was trying to decide which one to write about, as they each have a distinct story, I kept coming back to the group, realizing that what I needed to focus on is in fact the whole family. Even the word is comforting: family, family, family.

Technically though I mean genus. Because if I were to talk about the whole family to which basil belongs we'd be talking about the Mint family, or Lamiaceae, grouped for their flower structure, which includes not only basil, but other genera that include rosemary and germander. So the genus we're considering is called Ocimum, which contains more than 150 cultivars. For the record, here are the names of some cool cultivars that I hope someday to meet: Hoary basil, dark opal basil, Queen of Siam basil, Spice basil, lime basil, Cuban basil, and Mrs. Burns Lemon basil.

 Here's a bit about my nuclear family - or simply the basils growing on my porch:

Thai Basil (Ocimum basilicum var. thyrsiflorum) has a wonderfully licorice-like flavor that goes well in soups, especially with lemongrass. It's also brilliant with chocolate - I once had a dessert at Ten Tables that was chocolate cake with Thai basil ice-cream. Yes please.

Greek Basil (Ocimum minimum) has tiny leaves and packs a powerful punch (like a feisty Greek should?). It's perfect for sprinkling on grilled fish or pizza.

Genovese Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is a variety of sweet basil, the classic basil most of us are used to buying in the supermarket. It's used most for pesto and other Italian dishes. Sometimes it has a bit of clove scent to it.

African Blue Basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum) is a new variety I just acquired and it's really unique. It can only be planted via cuttings, but it has a hint of camphor (think Vick's Vapor Rub) to it that makes it a fun basil for tea or desserts. It's got that cooling, minty quality.

Holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) also called 'Tulsi' basil is used medicinally in SE Asia, especially in Ayurvedic medicine. It is connected to the God 'Vishnu' and Hindu families plant one in a special pot decorated with images of the Gods. It is lovely made into iced tea, and has a spicy flavor that combines well with fish and veggies.

Tonight I made a roasted eggplant, sweet corn and bell pepper salad that I tossed with chickpeas and threw over some arugula. A good summer dish! I first roasted the veggies and then chopped them up and dressed them with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and a big ol' gathering of members of the Ocimum clan. Not as fabulous as being united with the Cheney clan, but nonetheless comforting.