Basil Flower Tea

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Post by Anna

I imagine there are few things as satisfying as growing your own basil. A few leaves can turn a humble tomato into a salad, or a glass of straight booze into a cocktail.

This stalwart summer herb is so easy to love, it almost needs no introduction. It’s one of the first green things a kid recognize as truly enjoyable—even if it’s just a listless, oily leaf atop a slice of pizza. And I’ve been told that adults can grow it easily on a balcony or porch, though I’ve never had success.

Basil needs California-esque heat and sun to thrive, and will die at the slightest cold snap. But the leafy plants are displayed year-round at the Capitol Hill Trader Joe’s checkout line, beckoning to Vitamin D deprived city-dwellers on their Sunday grocery shop who dream of caprese in November, or want to ease into a kitchen garden. I have bought dozens of these grocery-store-variety plants over the years, in little plastic pots. Each held the promise of a bountiful summer living off the land/pesto-and-cheese sandwiches; each one died in my care.

We now live in a real house, which includes a half-laid brick patio shaded by apple and maple trees. There isn’t room to grow much, so we secured a full-sun plot in Jefferson Park down the street, where basil seemed like it would be an easy win. Spring unfolded in complete domestic chaos, and the plot was long-forgotten. By the time I finally dragged myself to the plant sale in late May, I was hoping for even modest success with a few summer staples.

Social media would have us believe that each of our lives are picturesque, with clean edges. We project lives with tables cleared of crap, an inbox in the single digits, and a garden full of herbs. Our lives are of course filled with many shades of chaos and failure that we seldom talk about, no less share on the internet.

My own failures range from the existential to the mundane, one of which is another summer in which I have not successfully grown basil. June came and went, I worked long hours and went out of town and didn’t always make time to water or weed the purslane that crept into every spare inch of the garden. I felt immobilized by the news and overwhelmed at the choices presented by the long days. I danced at my sister’s wedding. By early July, my eight plants were drooping, and from the top of each cluster of leaves shot a single rod of basil flowers, going to seed far too early, their white flag of surrender to my neglect.

When picked in succession, I’ve collected a steady flow of flowers and stunted leaves, which, it turns out, make a refreshing iced tea when steeped overnight. I’ve enjoyed it all summer. There’s always next year (and the tomatoes are doing great, thanks).

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Makes: 1 half gallon (two quarts) tea | Prep time: steep overnight | Equipment: Cheesecloth or fine-mesh strainer

What You Need

  • 2 cups basil flowers
  • 8 cups water
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ¼ cup maple syrup

What You Do

Though technically part of the mint family, basil tastes a bit like anise, and its presence in a dish is unmistakable—sweet, spicy, earthy, and complex. Alex’s grandfather used to woo ladies in Italy by keeping a few leaves tucked behind his ear. While I’m most familiar with it in savory Italian dishes, it works well to add complexity to sweet stuff—in fruit jams or cakes, or in this case, slightly sweetened tea.

In true form, this recipe is a great way to use every part of the plant: stems, leaves, flowers, etc. Trim off the tough parts of the stem at the bottom, which can be bitter. If you’ve had success with your basil (tell me your secret), you can plan for this recipe in early fall when they go to seed.

  1. Boil water
  2. Add basil flowers (leaves and stems too, if using), steep overnight
  3. Strain through cheesecloth
  4. Add lemon juice and maple syrup, stir to dissolve
  5. Serve over ice

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