skip to Main Content

July 9, 2010. Here’s the first in a series of weekly Garden Watch reports. Yes, you’ll see what’s growing; no, that’s not all. This week there’s something great to do with all that basil you’re growing or seeing at the Farmers Market: little hand-held salads I think of as My Basil Rolls.

Thanks to this week’s crazy hot weather, I did pick my first few tomatoes. And the cucumber vines are in full flower; cukes in a couple of weeks. So let’s focus on basil because right now you, too, can roll your own.

Next week: Corn Porn, first photos and video!

Dick’s Delightful Basil Rolls
Whether you’re a veteran herb gardener or you can’t remember the last time you touched actual soil, here’s why you should do this: the means (growing) is as good as the end (eating).

The benefits of just-picked basil go way beyond the immediate flavor sensation – and the economy of a true luxury food for near-zero cost. First, you get to watch it grow: it really is amazing to watch this little green organism take nothing but light and water and make a big, healthy aromatic plant of itself. Second, it smells great: indoors, it perfumes the room; outdoors, you get some sort of aromatherapy benefit whenever you get near it.

Basil is so aromatic – sweet and spicy – you can chop up a few fresh leaves and toss them in a salad, sandwich or a bowl of pasta and transform an otherwise plain dish into a vibrant, special meal. Or you can make Dick’s Delightful Basil Rolls and eat them like a hand-held salad or serve them as a kinda fancy hors d’oeuvre.

There are a lot of options when you make this; the only critical ingredient is the freshest basil you can get your hands on. For the the basil roll’s “wrapper”, I usually use a soft lettuce leaf, something like Boston or Butter. If you want your roll to be more sandwich-like, you can use a soft tortilla or rice pancake. In any case, use something that’s roughly six inches in diameter.

There are plenty of filler options, too. Personally, I go for at least two things: one crunchy and one soft. For crunchy, you can shred (or very finely julienne) some carrots. (Nothing chunky – it’ll make a mess when you take the first bite.) Or you can use bean sprouts; or cucumbers (the outer portion, not the seeded center) or zucchini or sweet peppers. Or an apple or not-too-ripe pear. You get the idea. Still in the crunchy zone: a great addition to these rolls is finely chopped or smashed roasted nuts or peanuts.

Now something soft, but with some textural interest, maybe a little meaty feeling like mushrooms. I use basic white mushrooms; make sure they’re really fresh and white, and slice them pretty thin – just thick enough so that you’ll feel them, but thin enough that they’ll “wrap” – not break and crumble. Alternatively, you can use thin slices of tofu – just be sure they’re not too wet. Although I love the fact that this “recipe” is totally quick and raw — no cooking involved — its inspiration is the “Mu Shoo Basil Roll” at Zen Palate in Manhattan. There, they use (cooked) thin rice noodles inside a “cellophane” rice pancake wrapper.

You can prepare and assemble your non-basil ingredients in a few minutes. If you’ve chosen well, this should be pretty colorful so take a picture and send it to a friend who might like to try this. Or send it to the phone of whoever’s on the way over to join you. Pick your basil: you’ll want four or five medium-size leaves per roll. It’s fine to buy a bunch of fresh basil at the farmer’s market or a good local grocery source if you don’t grow your own.

Now put it together: lay flat the lettuce leaf or pancake wrapper. Cover the center half with a layer of shredded carrots or other crunchy vegetable or fruit. Cover this with a layer of sliced mushrooms or non-crunchy alternative. Then scatter a layer of peanuts on top. Finally, lay on the extremely fresh basil leaves – they’ll be at the center of each bite when you roll it all up. Roll it up as tightly as you can – and if you’re not going to eat it immediately (though you should), hold it all together with a toothpick or, much better looking, wrap a fresh chive sprig around the center of the roll and tie it as neatly as you can.

You can make 6 Basil Rolls for less than $1 with:
6 lettuce leaves; 1 carrot; 1 mushroom; 6 -12 peanuts; 30 basil leaves.

This is all about freshness and strong, clear, pure flavors. It’s also really quick and easy, perfectly nourishing and dirt cheap. So let’s talk about dirt: growing your own and the real value of freshness.

Grow Your Own
Basil is one of the best examples of the value of freshness because you can taste the difference so clearly. If you grow your own, you can do a side-by-side test. Pick a leaf when you wake up in the morning, put it in a plastic bag and then in the refrigerator. At dinner time, take the leaf out – then pick a fresh leaf. Taste them both – I’m certain you’ll taste what I’m talking about: the just-picked leaf wins hands down. Even though they’re both delicious and “fresh” — picked the same day you ate them — there’s a pretty powerful difference between an herb that’s truly “just picked” and one that’s merely same-day fresh.

Even if you buy a bunch at the farmer’s market from a great grower who picked it earlier that morning, your own will actually be better if you pick it right before you eat it. And you won’t have to go anywhere to buy it — it’s right on your windowsill or just outside your door. What does it cost? Well, even if you buy potting soil for it – it’s just a few bucks for months and months of this incredibly delicious leaf that’s like a magic ingredient that adds culinary luxury to everyday salads, sandwiches and pastas. You’ll always be tempted to use it, because it’s always right there.

What does it take to grow your own? Not much. I grow it in small pots on my terrace in the middle of New York City. I actually have enough space to grow two or three pots worth, but if I had to cut back on my basil habit, I could easily get by with this one pot that’s right outside the kitchen window (and just inside during the winter). So we’re talking cubic inches, not cubic feet. You do, however, need sunlight. If you live in the city without outdoor space but you’ve got a sunny window, you can grow it on your windowsill. In fact, you can have a whole herb garden on a windowsill and get the bonus of a truly green addition to your interior decor.

If you have a yard, all you need is a square foot or two – though you’ll probably want to plant a lot more. At the end of the season, it’s great to have a surplus to make up a big batch of pesto to put in the freezer for a series of wonderful summertime reminders throughout the winter or, as I used to think of it, The Time Without Basil.

If you’re not already a grower but I’ve got you thinking, “I could do this”, here’s what to do. Depending upon where you are and what time of year it is, you may have two options: buy a small plant from a local grower; or, start your basil from seeds.

If you’ll be growing outdoors from seeds, you can plant as soon as nighttime low temperatures are reliably above 50 degrees F. If you want to jump-start your own seedlings indoors, start them four to six weeks before the outdoor temperatures are right — they’ll be big and sturdy enough to transplant and you’ll have pickable basil that much sooner.

When it’s got its first dozen or so little leaves, pick one and rub it between your fingers, then eat it and smell your fingers. You’ll be cheering it on to grow faster. It won’t be long before you can harvest half a dozen medium-sized leaves daily – and if you don’t just pop them straight into your mouth, you’ll find that a very few leaves go a very long way toward making almost any meal taste like a summer classic.

If you sow from scratch, get good seeds. And if you have space, try two or three varieties of basil to see which you like best. I buy my seeds online from a California supplier, Renee’s Garden. You can probably find them locally.

If you don’t get started in the Spring, you can plant throughout the summer. But keep in mind that outdoor plants won’t make it past the first frost. Indoor plants may make it through the entire winter, but their productivity will gradually decrease as the diminishing daylight hours and lower angle of the sun generate less photosynthesis.

I think the ultimate benefit is the plant’s ability to get you to pay attention to it. You’ll be watering it, you’ll be looking at it and smelling it. Finally, you’ll be amazed at how much pleasure you’ll get from taking care of and eating it – and talking about it with anyone who’ll listen. Without wishing to sound too much like an old hippie, I must say that growing things for yourself can be transformational. It’s a totally hands-on experience that slows you down and lets you appreciate something that’s both very simple and unimaginably complicated. Better. Cheaper. Slower.

Just , thank you:

1. Wash and dry 1 large, soft lettuce leaf per Basil Roll
2. With a vegetable peeler, shred all or part of a carrot (one medium size carrot will be enough for 6 – 8 Basil Rolls)
3. Finely chop 1 or 2 dry roasted peanuts per Basil Roll (this ingredient is optional)
4. Finely slice all or part of one medium white mushroom (one will yield 12 – 18 slices, enough for 5 – 6 Basil Rolls)
5. Pick, rinse and dry 5 or 6 medium size basil leaves
6. Layer these ingredients: lettuce leaf on bottom, then carrot, mushroom, peanut and basil in that order
7. Using the lettuce leaf as the wrapper, roll the assembly as tightly as possible without cracking the lettuce leaf.
8. Dip in sauce (or not) and take a bite. (If preparing in advance, hold Basil Roll together with a toothpick; or, tie it with a chive sprig. [Details at left; photos below. Download a recipe.]

Preparation Time: 5 – 10 minutes

Leftovers: a salad’s worth of lettuce; peanuts

A Dip: To taste, combine in a blender chopped raw garlic and fresh ginger with soy or tamari sauce and (toasted) sesame oil. Blend until smooth.

Last year, I got a great crop from Sweet Green Basil and Italian Pesto

I fertilized monthly with Dr. Earth’s Organic Tomato, Vegetable and Herb formulation. Yeah, the brand name’s goofy but the fertilizer works.

my basil in June:

my basil in December:

Last year, I got a great crop from Sweet Green Basil and Italian Pesto

Back To Top