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GARDEN FRESH

More Than Lemon, More Than Basil

June 29, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

Don't you find something two-fer-a-dime more tempting than one-for-a-nickel? Mother Nature knows this. She could have given us just plain mint, sage or thyme. Instead, her two-fers--the likes of mint hinting of chocolate, sage fragrant with pineapple, thyme heady with caraway--are irresistible.

To me, the taste of lemon is one of Mother Nature's crowning achievements, in a class with peanuts, hen's eggs and moonbeams. To me, the most exciting two-fers are half lemon. While lemon mint and lemon thyme are exquisite, lemon basil makes you shake your head in awe.

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How is lemon basil best used on our table? Forgive my saying the obvious, but sometimes the obvious eludes us: Combine lemon basil with foods that have an affinity for a) lemon and b) sweet basil.

Top of my list are leafy greens. Any leaf in a salad, of course, is a natural. But the green I love best with lemon basil is spinach. Blend a little of the chopped fresh herb into cooked spinach with melted butter and a scrap of nutmeg. Finely chopped, this makes a heavenly filling for pastas. Speaking of which, toss small whole lemon basil leaves with vermicelli or capellini and dress lightly with hazelnut oil. Resist the temptation to add cheese.

Spinach aside, tomatoes have been called "the basil vegetable"--or is basil called "the tomato herb"? Whichever, it's the more so with lemon basil. Slice ripe tomatoes--translucent white varieties for drama--as thick as you please. Overlap the slices on salad plates in a circle, decorate with thin ribbons of lemon basil, dress with olive oil, grind white pepper over and set the plates in a cool place for an hour to let the flavors blend. Serve as the quintessential summer first course.

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Long ago, a friend taught me a delightful way with summer squashes: Heap tender-cooked baby squashes--crooknecks and zucchini as big as your little finger, walnut-size patty pans--into a bowl. Serve hot strewn at the last minute with torn leaves of lemon basil.

Which reminds me: Lemon basil's leaves don't hold up in cooking. Unless you want a broth or syrup steeped in its flavors, add the leaves, whether fresh or dried, just before serving.

Eggplant, mushrooms and beans at every stage are delicious with lemon basil--some would say carrots and peas are, too, but I find their sweetness distracting. Same with eggs. Mild creamy cheeses, however, are superb with this herb. Richly flavored Chilean sea bass, shark and tuna brighten with lemony basil, and chicken and turkey are almost as good with it as tomatoes. For a party, pat minced lemon basil leaves and flowers thickly over the surface of a buttered boned breast of turkey, roll it up, tie and roast. Serve the green-swirled slices cold.

Since lemon enhances nearly every fruit, think of fruits that are sparked by the taste of clove, then you can imagine which are good with the clovelike half of lemon basil. Apples, quinces, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, strawberries, cherries, blackberries, grapes, oranges, grapefruit, mangoes, pineapple . . . and so on. Sprinkle chopped lemon basil over fruits singly or in combination for an unusual and delectable dessert.

Fresh and dried lemon basil leaves make heavenly tea.

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In Southern California, several groceries offer Thai ingredients, including lemon basil seeds. In summer, bunches of the fresh leaves are sometimes in the produce section. Ordering the seeds of lemon basil from a catalog can be daunting, especially if you have more than one catalog and if you pay attention to botanical names. If you do, ignore whether it's O. basilicum , O. citriodorum or O. americanum . Same dance, different interpretations. O . stands for Ocimum , basil's genus. Basilicum is the Common or Sweet basil species, citriodorum is the cultivar. Some botanists have replaced basilicum and/or citriodorum with americanum .

But do remember that although all the cultivars may be lemon basil, climate, soil, insects and chance will have altered the plant's seeds. If you find a plant you love, let flowers set seed (lemon basil's seeds breed true). Often, plants self-sow, but to be certain, gather some seeds and sow them. You won't be disappointed.

Thus far, there's been just one Mrs. Burns Lemon Basil, phew. But as lemony basil becomes chic, new strains are introduced, making for confusion. The Thai term for lemon basil transliterates as maeng-lak/mangluk . Fresh from Bangkok, Shepherd's Garden Seeds now offers Maenglak Thai Lemon Basil. The plant's leaves are twice as long as those of domestic lemon basil. And until now, the term Thai indicated a basil with anise flavor. Now Thai has become a basil venue.

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