Market Watch: Basil


Basil has definitely arrived at the party.  Bunch upon fragrant bunch are cramming tables at the markets.  Not surprisingly we mostly think green and the same familiar scent and flavor when basil comes to mind.  But there are loads of heirloom varieties that are becoming much easier to track down.  (and grow yourself!)

Try a new one on your next trip to the market.  What's old will be a little newer again.


Genovese Basil:  The traditional Italian large-leafed sweet basil that we all know and love.  Ideal for all things pesto, but best when the leaves are small.  If the leaves are huge, blanch them quickly to remove some of the (too) strong flavor, making them more suitable for a delicately balanced pesto sauce.

Holy Basil:  Becoming more and more popular on menus with chefs, it is called holy basil primarily because it is used as an offering in South Asia in Hindu temples.  Generally eaten raw, it has a bright, sweet smell, that is strikingly like Juicy Fruit gum.

Thai Basil:  This is those big fragrant sprigs strewn across your Thai green curry noodles, or tucked inside a Vietnamese summer roll.  A deep magenta stem with small green leaves, it is much spicier than Italian basil.  Heavy anise and clove flavors compliment Southeast Asian cuisines perfectly.

Dark Purple Opal Basil:  There are several purple basil varieties out there, and I always love to have at least one plant in my garden.  Very similar in flavor to traditional Italian basil, it is a gorgeous way to add unexpected color to a dish.  Thinly slice with green basil for instant edible confetti.

Lemon Basil:  Smaller leaves with a deep citrus smell and taste.  A great compliment to seafood dishes, cocktails, and summer salads.

Garlic Scape and Herb Pancake


Move over scallions.  I may have to cheat on you.

My love affair with dim sum scallion pancakes is no secret.  There are few times I can think of when they don't appeal to me.  (or make me start to go all Pavlovian as I even type the words.)  Though green and doing very well, the scallions planted in my garden are still about the size of glorified dental floss and won't be serving up any exotic savories for a few weeks.

However, we do have garlic scapes!  And herbs!  Lots of both!

Scallions?  Who needs scallions?

While not exactly a necessity, (more of an insatiable craving), mother invention shone down and offered up this bright, summery, mildly garlicky, herby, southeast Asian-inspired perfection on a greasy paper towel.  There is a tremendous (and tremendously cheap) hole-in-the-wall dumpling shop in NYC's Chinatown, to which I make frequent pilgrimages.  Alongside their dumplings, they have a monstrous cast iron pan in which they make a very similar sesame pancake.  You can get a pizza-slice-sized wedge "stuffed with veggies" for $1.25, which is split laterally and crammed with shredded carrot and chopped cilantro leaves and stems.  There was definitely some inspiration from there in this as well.

Give these a try, using all that summer is offering up right now.  Shredded zucchini, carrot or beet, torn squash blossoms, thyme, sage, thinly sliced chard could all be welcome additions.  Fried dough + farm fresh herbs and produce = What could possibly be bad?


New Year’s Thai Sauce for Oysters

First, I would love to have mouthwatering photos of fresh, succulent oysters, glistening under the spell of my dipping sauce.  But alas, the shucking big snow storm this week kept my delivery from getting from the Chelsea Market to me in middleofnowhereville, and my dinner guests from being my oyster sauce guinea pigs.

So you'll have to take my word for it, that it both tastes and looks spectacular.

Thai food typically has a balance of four flavors: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.  This sauce is no exception, with sour lime, salty fish sauce, spicy thai bird chili (frozen from this year's garden), and a little sugar to balance it all out.  I am a purest when it comes to slurping down those bivalve blobs of heaven, often eating them plain, or with just the slightest drizzle of a classic mignonette sauce, but there is something about this sour-herbal-savoriness that thrills me.

It will also look like confetti in a bowl for your new years fete.

Oh, and with all of the extra herbs and limes you have, try out a mint & thai basil mojito.


Thai Sauce for Oysters
by Catie

Makes about 1/3 cup.

2 tablespoons warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 cup lime juice, from about 1 lime
1 1/2 tablespoons Thai Fish Sauce (Nam Pla), available at asian food markets
1/2 teaspoon thai bird chili, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh mint, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon fresh basil, use thai basil if available, finely chopped

In a small bowl dissolve the sugar in the warm water.  Add lime juice, fish sauce, and chili.  Chill until ready to use.  Add fresh herbs just before serving.

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Catie Baumer Schwalb is a chef, food writer and photographer, who splits her life between the city and the country. Not too long ago Catie was a New York City based actress and playwright for more than a decade. She has her Master of Fine Arts from the National Theater Conservatory, and her Grand Diplôme in classic culinary arts from the French Culinary Institute in New York City. ... Read More

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