Herbs & I: Cooking with Greek Columnar Basil
It was time for me to talk to a professional.
Back in 2010, I brought a small basil plant home. I had never been a serious cook, but as I placed the plant in my kitchen window, visions of caprese salads and pesto sauce danced through my head. I had always loved the idea of a kitchen herb garden—maybe growing one would inspire me to cook more, too.
Still daydreaming, I idly plucked off one of the plant’s tiny leaves and stuck it in my mouth. The taste surprised me. It was sweet and a little peppery, like cinnamon, and left a tingly numbness on my tongue. This was definitely not the kind of thing you put in pesto. I re-read the plastic marker that came with the plant. It definitely was basil—“greek columnar basil," the tag said. So why did it taste so weird?
For the next few years, I’m ashamed to admit, I didn’t really try to answer that question. I did start to cook more, but when I did make caprese salads, I bought normal-tasting sweet basil from the supermarket. I kept the greek columnar plant, but only as decoration; when I trimmed back its weird-tasting leaves, I threw them in the trash. I had to do this pretty often, because the thing grew like a weed. Every day, it seemed to send a new stalk shooting up toward the ceiling.
Not wanting to waste all of the clippings, I started sprouting some of them in water. Long, thin roots would shoot out from each stalk within days, until they got dense enough to knot themselves into a thick, tangled mass. As pots of sprouts multiplied in my kitchen, I realized that the situation was untenable. I couldn’t keep hoarding basil without using it. It was cook or die.
That’s when I finally decided to consult an expert. What I observed in my plant was pretty typical for the variety, said Victoria Anderson, manager of the herbs and vegetables section at Andersonville’s Gethsemane Garden Center. This type of basil almost never flowers, so it lives a long time and reproduces almost exclusively by sprouting. Another quirk is its shape. Unlike most basil plants, which stay low and bushy, greek columnar is tall and slender—the plants “grow straight up like a poplar tree.” Some columnar basils can reach heights of up to 3 feet, densely packed with leaves.
By those standards, however, my plants are dwarves. Even after three years of patient watering, the first one still stands only a foot tall. And instead of sticking straight upward, its long stalks flop over to the side, as if they can’t support their own weight. Anderson said that this weakness was probably due to lack of light. The plant really needs six to eight hours a day of full sunlight to prosper—something my dim kitchen is unable to provide.
“It might fill out if you prune it some,” Anderson suggested.
Now it was time to reconsider my dismissal of greek columnar’s culinary possibilities. It was useless for pesto, but maybe there was some other way to incorporate it into a recipe? Considering the plant’s sweet-ish taste—and the sweltering summer heat—a cold dessert like sorbet seemed ideal.
Alison Bower, founder of Ruth & Phils Gourmet Ice Cream, often incorporates herbs into her frozen confections. She suggested pairing the cinnamon-y basil with strawberries or peaches, ideally very ripe ones from a farmer’s market. “Herbs have so much flavor that whatever you pair [them] with has to have flavor, too,” she said.
I didn’t make it to a farmer’s market, but I did snag two very tender peaches at Olivia’s Market in Wicker Park. I also don’t have an ice-cream maker, so I needed a recipe for making sorbet without one. This recipe for peach-basil sorbet from Not Without Salt fit the ticket perfectly.
The dessert that resulted was maybe not the firmest sorbet I’ve ever eaten, but on a sweltering Sunday night, it really did the trick. It was sweeter than it was savory, with a hint of extra texture from the puréed peach flesh. The basil’s flavor, however, only slightly peeked through. No problem—I’d welcome an excuse to stuff in a few more leaves next time. After all, my plants are always in need of a trim.
Recipe: Peach-Basil Sorbet
First, I get two peaches...
…and chop them up. Put the pieces in the freezer to ice up a little bit.
In the meantime, make some simple syrup by stirring together one cup sugar, half a cup water, and a few shredded basil leaves, and bringing it all to a boil.
The syrup goes in the fridge, too.
When everything is good and chilled, combine it all in a blender.
Stick the resulting concoction in the fridge for a while, occasionally stirring to break up chunks of solid ice. And voilà! Mostly frozen sorbet.
Photo: © Nathalie Lagerfeld, Groupon