Not Your Garden-Variety Basils: Think purple, citrus, spicy – and then think of the fun you’ll have in the kitchen

You know sweet basil, the tomato’s best friend. But did you realize that there is a lemon-scented basil? There’s also a variety that smells (and tastes) like bay leaves, and another with such beautiful ruffly purple leaves, you’ll want to plant it in your flower garden. Here’s an introduction to five groups of basils that you might not have met before. Plant them, and you’ll realize how much you were missing.

Large-leaved basils, such as Lettuce Leaf and Mammoth, share sweet basil’s heady scent and flavor, but with leaves up to four times as large. “These are for pesto when I need a lot of basil,” said Barbara Manson of Bridgeton, an avid herbalist with the Webster Groves Herb Society. Large-leaved basils are also great for chiffonades. Stack the leaves, roll them up and sliver with a very sharp knife. Chef John Sewell of JFires’ Market Bistro in Waterloo, Ill., suggested that “a chiffonade of the leaves mixed with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala makes a great Caprese salad.” Perfect for hot summer evenings.

If you want to jazz things up a little, colorwise, try a purple basil. Purple Delight, Purple Ruffles and Red Rubin are widely available. Purple Delight is similar to sweet basil in scent and taste, but its leaves are a luscious shade of purple – the color of a Black Beauty eggplant. Purple Ruffles makes a spectacular plant with amazing frilly leaves, also in eggplant purple. It’s so pretty that you’ll want to put this one in your flowerpots. Vic Donati, a student at L’École Culinaire who also works at Frisella Nursery in Defiance, emphasized its pungency. He said that Purple Ruffles has a much stronger, more forward flavor than Purple Delight. Combine the two, as Donati does, to add both pungency and depth to your dish. Red Rubin is similar in taste to Purple Delight, but its leaves are more of a beetroot color. Any of these purple basils are ideal for making herbal vinegars, Manson said, as they impart color as well as flavor to the finished product.

Small-leaved bush basils differ from sweet varieties in growth habit and flavor. Pesto Perpetuo, Fine Verde, Spicy Bush and Spicy Globe have smaller leaves than traditional basils and carry a strong peppery flavor. Their boldness is a pleasant rebuttal to oily fish, black olives and beef. Donati noticed a black licorice taste to the leaves of Spicy Bush and suggested using it in sweet dishes. “I’d use it in an ice cream or as a garnish for desserts,” he said. Pesto Perpetuo is a favorite at JFires’, where they refer to it as “cream basil” because of its beautifully cream-bordered leaves. Sewell suggested using it as a garnish for salads or roasted red meats. JFires’ owner Jennifer Pensoneau uses Pesto Perpetuo in a Bloody Mary, where its peppery flavor complements horseradish, lime, tomato and an unusual garnish of red-veined sorrel. (Find her Pesto Perpetuo Bloody Mary in the recipe search at www.saucemagazine.com.)

Even more divergent are the citrus-scented varieties. Various strains of lemon and lime are common. Their delicate flavor should be added at the last moment; add them too early and the citrus taste will disappear. Sewell suggested using Mrs. Burns’ Lemon, rumored among gardeners to be sturdier and more vigorous than other lemon varieties, with a tomato gastrique. Or, try “steamed mussels in a white wine, garlic and lemon basil broth,” he said.

There are also the exotics, varieties that don’t fit into any of the categories but still have a place in the garden and kitchen. Some of the more common are Blue Spice (spicy fragrance with vanilla hints – for sweet dishes), African Blue (camphor fragrance), Oriental Breeze (spicy fragrance and flavor) and Cardinal (brilliant red flowers, typical basil flavor). Sewell uses the exotic varieties in soups and stews because their taste holds up to a long cooking. He particularly likes African Blue, a natural cross between Purple Opal and hoary basils. Its bay laurel-like aroma and taste enhance earthy flavors, such as duck ragout or pork stew. (For Sewell’s recipe for Pork and Turnip Stew With African Blue Basil, go to www.saucemagazine.com.) Manson appreciates its attractive purple-flushed foliage. “African Blue is spectacular in any garden,” she said.

Five families of unusual basils – who could ask for more? You still have time to plant; look for basils in larger pots this time of year at your favorite nursery. Then use them fearlessly in the kitchen.