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Sweet Basil – the herb of Thanksgiving?

I’m reprinting a handout from a talk I gave many years ago to the Temecula Garden Club here in its entirety because it includes a Thanksgiving side dish recipe for Basil Corn Pudding that is a favorite in my family and I thought you might like to add some basil to the parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme that are the usual herbal suspects at our big national meal. Happy Thanksgiving America!

~ this Thai Basil is three years old, growing in a pot by my front door, and is destined for flavoring my favorite Thanksgiving side dish this coming Thursday.

The Lore and Culture of Basil – Ocimum basilicum

By Karen England http://www.edgehillherbfarm.blog

The botanical name for basil comes from the Greek word Okimon, meaning, “smell”, and the Greek word basilikon, meaning “king”. From these origins, we call Basil – “the King of herbs”! (Probably because calling it “Basil – the smelly King” does not have the same ring to it…) Basil is native to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America.

In the Victorian language of flowers “common basil” means hatred (egad!) and “sweet basil” means love and good wishes (oh joy!). When basil was used in a tussie mussie, the name for the Victorian herb and flower bouquet made to send messages in the floral language, it was important that the correct basil be used or the recipient might get the wrong message. I think I’ll stick to email for messaging & just eat my basil.

The last stanza of John Keats (1795–1821) poem Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil reads . . .

“And so she pined, and so she died forlorn, Imploring for her Basil to the last. No heart was there in Florence but did mourn In pity of her love, so overcast. And a sad ditty of this story born From mouth to mouth through all the country pass’d: Still is the burthen sung—‘O cruelty’, ‘To steal my Basil-pot away from me!’”

. . . thus finishing a gruesome tale of love and murder rivaling a modern soap opera. Other basil lore involves basil as a breeding ground for scorpions, and a magic basil patch that held lost pieces of Christ’s crucifix. In some countries, basil seeds must be sown while stamping and swearing! Possibly to ward off scorpions? Who knows! – This “Basil King” is quite the “drama queen” of the herb world.

The general information available on growing Sweet Basil, Ocimum basilicum, states the plant is an annual in need of full sun and “in general” this is true, however, in parts of sunny southern California, like Vista, where I live, and in Temecula, etc, it actually grows best in half-day sun, not all day or “full sun” and it is a short lived perennial, growing & producing for several years. This is because there is no frost or snow to kill the plants in this climate and the Basil rewards us for it by living for several years. If you live in an area with freezing temperatures then the general info will apply to you, and you should grow basil plants in full sun in order to maximize plant growth before your weather kills it. I grow about six varieties of Basil, on the east side of the house, in a garden bed, a portion of which gets morning and early afternoon sun and then shade from the house in the afternoon. As the basil plants set flower heads, something they are very prone to do, I pinch some of the flowers into my morning scrambled egg, afternoon sandwich & evening salads almost daily in order to encourage new growth, but purposefully I don’t get all the flowers – I leave some for the bees and the finches to enjoy. Basil apparently is full of trace nutrients, especially iron. I am particularly happy to know it is also a good source of magnesium, which is linked with helping migraine sufferers, of which I am one, and I eat it not only for flavor but also for health. Every time I harvest fresh bunches for cooking I take a few stems from each plant and that way no one plant is over pillaged for pesto. I prefer to cook with fresh basil but I cook a lot with both fresh & dry basil depending on my mood and availability, sometimes I use both fresh and dried in a recipe. The dry basil goes into a dish, like a soup or stew, at the beginning of cooking and then fresh basil is added, as well, at the last moment before serving. Try it – and enjoy basil’s many flavors. Here is one of my favorite recipes using fresh basil – Enjoy!

Karen England’s Basil Corn Pudding

Adapted from a ‘90’s issue of Victoria magazine

No Thanksgiving feast for our family would be complete without corn pudding with fresh basil.

4 large ears of corn

¾ cup grated cheddar cheese

¼ cup fresh basil leaves, lightly packed

6 large eggs

1½ cups cream, half n’ half, or evaporated non-fat milk

½ teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste

½ teaspoon sea salt

Freshly ground pepper, seasoned pepper and sugar, to taste

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease a 1½ quart casserole dish. Cook the corn on the cob and cut the cooked kernels off, discarding the cobs. Slice the basil very thinly (this is known as a “chiffonade”). Combine the corn, cheese and basil in the casserole dish.

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and stir in the remaining ingredients. Pour the mixture over the corn and cheese. Put the casserole in a large roasting pan and add enough hot water to come halfway up the casserole dish. Carefully put the “bain-marie” (name for a casserole in a water bath) into the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes until pudding is set and golden. Makes 6 servings.


DeBaggio, Thomas & Belsinger, Susan. Basil-An Herb Lover’s Guide. Colorado: Interweave Press, 1996.

Gips, Kathleen. Flora’s Dictionary. Ohio: TM Publications, 1990.

Hampstead, Marilyn. The Basil Book. New York: Long Shadow Books, 1984.

Scoble, Gretchen & Field, Ann. The Meaning of Herbs; Myth, Language & Lore. California: Chronicle Books, 2001.

Keats, John. “38. Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil.” Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com/126/38.html.

Foster, Bunny. “A Trio of Basils” The American Herb Grower Magazine April 1947: Pages 6-11.

Tucker, Art & DeBaggio, Thomas. The Big Book of Herbs. Colorado: Interweave Press, 2000.

Murphy, Virginia. “Basil – King Of Herbs & Queen Of Pesto!” Temecula Valley News. June 2005

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