Sunday, June 29

Growing Purple Basil and What To Do with It, Plus My Purple Basil Pesto Recipe & the Easiest White Bean Appetizer Dip / Spread Ever

purple and green basil growing in my kitchen garden -
When it comes to basil, purple is the new green.

Got (or want) basil in your garden? You'll find links to all of my basil growing posts, as well as more of my favorite basil recipes, at the end of this post.

2011 Update: Farmgirl Fare readers offer up even more ways to use fresh basil here.

I have no idea how it happened, but spring 2007 found me and my kitchen garden completely basilless. Thankfully a gardening friend—whose tiny city garden I usually supply with plants—was kind enough to share a couple of basil seedlings with me, including a purple one.

I'm not very adventurous when it comes to herbs, and I'd never grown purple basil, but begging gardeners can't be choosers so I gratefully took what he offered and stuck it in the ground.

The purple basil plant flourished. It was gorgeous, but I didn't know what to do with it. I love fresh basil in all kinds of dishes, and I loved the color of these leaves, especially how they're outlined in green, but the thought of blackish purple basil pesto—or blackish purple basil anything for that matter—just didn't seem appealing.

My dear friend Kat, who writes the scrumptious blog, She's In The Kitchen, suggested I make basil vinegar with it: You fill a large jar with half white vinegar, half cider vinegar, stuff it with purple basil, and let it steep for a week. Then you strain it and pour the resulting gorgeous magenta vinegar into a pretty bottle with a few sprigs of fresh basil.

That sounded nice, but I wasn't sure what I would do with the vinegar either.

Growing and harvesting green and purple basil in the kitchen garden 9 -
First harvest of the 2011 season: a pound of Red Rubin basil from three plants.

I decided to appeal to my garden blog readers, begging them to tell me what they would do if they had a beautiful purple basil plant in their garden. They quickly came to my rescue with all sorts of delicious ideas, including:

—Add it to a white bean salad with some red peppers and green onions

—Throw it into a pot of beans, tomatoes, potatoes, zuchinni, and onion

—Put it in a red sauce made from fresh tomatoes

—Garnish anything that the flavor of basil will complement

—Stir into a slaw of chopped carrots, fennel bulb, and garlic just before serving

—Make purple basil lemonade or, better still, purple basil watermelon/honeydew melon agua fresca

Soilman in England suggested I put it in Mussels à l'Italienne and even offered up his recipe: Chopped onions sweated in olive oil for a few minutes. Add a few glugs of white wine and lots of chopped tomatoes plus tomato purée. Pour your mussels (cleaned and de-bearded) in, cover and cook for 5-10 minutes. Put into bowls with lots of chopped purple basil.

I couldn't wait to tell my city friend that I'd figured out what we could do with our purple basil. He listened patiently with a slight smile on his face as I recounted all these creative ideas. Then he said, "I turned mine into pesto."

"Oh yeah?"

"It was the best basil pesto I've ever had."


"It was like pesto on steroids."


"And it wasn't even that weird of a color."


So I skipped all the wonderful suggestions and turned my entire purple basil plant into the best pesto I've ever tasted instead.

Homemade purple basil pesto on homemade pizza (my easy pizza dough recipe is here)

Farmgirl Susan's Low Fat, Full Flavor Purple Basil Pesto
Makes about 1½ cups

**Click here to print this recipe**

This lower fat, reduced calorie pesto, which calls for less olive oil than most recipes, is bursting with freshly picked garden flavor. The tomatoes are a healthy way to replace some of the olive oil while adding a subtle new flavor.

When portioning out basil (and so many other ingredients), it works best if you weigh it rather than pack it into measuring cups. A digital kitchen scale is a worthwhile and useful investment, and once you have one you may wonder how you ever lived without it. I often use my Oxo 11-pound kitchen scale several times a day. The pull-out display is awesome, and it's also great for weighing outgoing packages.

Don't have any purple basil? Just use green instead!

1/2 cup (about 2½ ounces) roasted & salted whole almonds
3 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled
4 ounces fresh purple (or green) basil leaves (about 4 cups packed)
1 ounce (about 1/2 cup) finely grated Pecorino Romano (or other hard cheese)
10 ounces fresh tomatoes (about 3 smallish) any kind, quartered
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more to taste

In the bowl of a food processor use the S-blade to whiz the almonds and garlic until finely chopped.

Add the basil, cheese, tomatoes, and salt, and process until thoroughly combined and the consistency you like.

With the motor running running, slowly drizzle the olive oil through the chute. Add more salt to taste if desired. Store your pesto in the refrigerator for several days or freeze.

Except for the fact that purple basil isn't as pretty as the green and does make a rather oddly colored pesto (as you can see in the photo above), I would probably quit growing the green stuff altogether. Mixing a few green leaves into the pesto does help brighten it up a bit.

Unfortunately my friend couldn't remember what kind of purple basil we were growing, so I figure I'll just work my way through every purple variety I can find and do some scientific taste comparisons. There are even certain types of basil plants that are half purple and half green.

I didn't forget to plant basil seeds this year, though I did get a rather late start. Five different types of basil, including Purple Ruffles and Purple Osmin, plus a mixed variety surprise pack are just now sprouting in little containers, but I have high hopes for a bumper summer crop. (And besides, my tomatoes won't be ready for ages either.) 2011 Update: I had really good luck growing Red Rubin basil (see photo above).

I might even turn part of my purple basil harvest into something other than pesto. But don't hold your breath, especially since I've discovered such a delicious way to use it.

Homemade pita chips: tastier than store bought & made in minutes

Really Easy White Bean Pesto Dip / Spread

**Click here to print this recipe**

Opening a bag of cheez doodles and pouring them into a bowl would probably be a slightly easier appetizer to make than this, but they wouldn't taste nearly as good - or be as good for you. This stuff isn't exactly beautiful, but trust me when I say that no one will notice.

The consistency of this spread will vary depending on the type of beans you use, how well you drain them after rinsing, and the thickness of your pesto. I made one batch with Great Northern beans and a slightly thinner pesto and ended up with a dip rather than a spread.

If it's too thick for your liking, simply thin it out with a little olive oil or water.

Cans of organic beans are an organic bargain and a handy staple in my farmhouse pantry; I buy them by the case. I really like Eden Organic brand beans, which are organically grown in the U.S.A. on family farms, have no salt added (I prefer to add my own), and are packed in BPA-free cans.

1 15-ounce can organic white beans, such as cannellini (also called white kidney beans), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup homemade or purchased basil pesto
1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano or other hard Italian cheese
Salt to taste

Combine beans, pesto, and cheese in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the 'S' blade and whiz until smooth. Salt to taste.

Serve with pita chips (check out my easy recipes for homemade pita chips and pita bread, plus easy pita pizzas), crackers, raw veggies, or a spoon.

This spread improves with age, so try to make it a day ahead. Of course then you'll also have to try not to gobble it all up before serving time comes, but fortunately the recipe can easily be doubled.

After coming up with this recipe while my foodie mom was visiting last fall, I've become slightly obsessed with white bean dips. Sometimes I even have them as a main course (because I eat so much I don't have any room left for the actual main course).

It turns out that almost anything can be successfully mixed with a can of white beans (where have I been?), and I'll be sharing some of my other favorite creations soon.

More posts about basil:
9/21/06: How To Keep Your Basil Growing Into Fall
5/4/11: Bad Luck with Basil and Some Basil Growing Tips

More Farmgirl Fare recipes that call for basil:
Savory Tomato Pesto Pie with a No-Fail Biscuit Crust (one of my most popular recipes)
Simple Fresh Tomato Pizza Sauce (no blanching or peeling required)

Still hungry? You'll find links to all my sweet and savory Less Fuss, More Flavor recipes in the Farmgirl Fare Recipe Index.

©, where there can never be too much fresh basil, no matter what the color.


  1. What a great post for Weekend Herb Blogging. I have to confess I have never grown the purple type, and I'm actually not sure I've eaten it either. But both these recipes look great. I'm drooling at the pizza.

    I've also become converted to the idea of the digital scale in the kitchen, really loving it because I stink at estimating weights. (Or so I have realized.)

  2. I ate an embarassing amount of a white bean and garlic scape dip I made for a party. I ate a lot of it at the party, and then I came home and made another whole batch just for me. The recipe, from the New York Times, came just in time for our huge harvest of garlic scapes.

  3. Wonderful post, Susan. I followed your Pita link and also your baking stone link. I grow both green and purple basil and do use both colors fresh in salads, sauces and salsa,and also to make pesto. I enjoyed finding your lower fat pesto recipe too. Now I am hungry!

  4. What a doll - many thanks, Fig , for the heads up!
    Still waiting to remember to make the bean dip - and the basil ( I have ONE plant) pesto, which I still think looks like a mushroom ( and a delicious one at that) spread. Yummers!

  5. I loved this post. I have only grown green basil, I never knew there was a purple type. Now I'll be taking a closer look at the farmers market next week. Thanks.

  6. Everything looks delicious and very tasty! I love pesto and bean spread... A wonderful post!



  7. I love purple basil! Here's what I most often do with it:

    But I agree that it's terrific in pesto. Or just the fresh leaves on pizza. It looks especially nice paired with squash blossoms too.

    I'm going to try the bean dip soon!

  8. My basil is starting to hedge-out, so I think I'll try the pesto first, since FINALLY I've managed to get a purple basil to thrive.

    Imagine. I planted it near a water source instead of as an afterthought at the edge of the garden and WHAM, it totally grows.


  9. What a pretty plant! The pesto looks amazing, and not all that purple at all! Yum.

  10. I've grown purple basil for several years, but for some reason Michael isn't into it. Your pesto looks great!

  11. I like the sound and look of this. I shall mark this on my to do list.

  12. This year, after taking years to perfect my ability to not kill pansies and impatiens in pots, I went to potting only herbs--mostly basil because I could live on pesto. (In addition, flowers arejust an added bonus with herbs, whereas flowerless pansy plants usually make me feel like a failure). I found a lady at a farmers market in St. Louis who sold more varieties of basil than I'd ever seen--and I bought several including purple. They've all done well, but the purple basil has flourished and it's the only basil the japanese beetles seem to dislike. I am thrilled to find your recipes for purple basil dishes and I'm letting mine go to seed so I can get lots more next year! :)thanks

  13. Every time I google an ingredient I want to use but don't know what to do with, up comes your fabulous site!!! Purple basil, pretty, but the unknown as far as recipes, was the only one of mine doing well this summer. I made the purple pesto to specification this afternoon and wowee-zowee, pesto on steroids no kidding!!!
    Thank you!!!!

  14. Oh yum! I'm so hungry from reading this! My I post this recipe on my seed company website? With a link and credit to you of course!!!

  15. Hi Farmer John,
    Of course you may. Thanks!

    I've just been poking around your Sustainable Seed Company website. It looks great, and how neat to see that you're near my old northern California stomping grounds. I've even seen a movie at that theater! ; )

  16. I have been trying to figure out what to do with the abundance of Purple Basil that I have and this is perfect!

  17. Wow, I just saw your post...months later! So you used to live here!!! Why did you make the move to MO? Come back!!!!

    What did you think of our little seed co? We should exchange back-links on our sites. Are you still connected to any farmers here? We (the seed co.) is looking for local farmers to help us grow out seed.

  18. I love white bean dip made with lemon, rosemary, garlic and olive oil. I haven't ever tried it with pesto and am now smiting myself on the forehead for not having thought of it. That's going on the top of my must-try list.

    Another great combo is white beans and tuna--a good imported tuna in olive oil, mixed with the beans, some lemon and parsley is so simple and so good. Mashed and seasoned white beans make a good stand-in for mayo on a tunasan, too, especially if you use nice hearty bread.

  19. hey, what about black bean and purple basil salad--could look great..and use eggplant with it for crusty toast and lots of garlic..try some stuff....???
    Other purple basil recipes sound great--bisquits with basil, OK then--don't forget the cheese!

  20. Just bought a big bunch of purple basil at my local farmer's market. Excellent post, excellent culinary suggestions! Can't wait to get into the kitchen with it!

  21. I've made jelly out of lemon Basil. I have yet to make some pesto. I can't seem to get it to grow to well up here in Alaska, even inside here.

  22. Was wondering what to do with some purple basil I got, now I know.. thank you!

  23. I came here looking for growing tips, as I've just returned from Armenia, where aromatic purple basil was often sprigged onto a salad. Love the recipe tips! Thank you!

  24. hi i have a purple basil plant at home, it's not big enough for pesto but i use it in salads, but im worried it seems to be turning into anise, i mean it doesn't smell like basil anymore, is this normal? will it turn back to a basil smell? also the flowers are very aromatic can i use them for something?


December 2015 update: Hi! For some reason I can't figure out, Blogger hasn't been letting me leave comments on my own blog (!) for the last several months, so I've been unable to respond to your comments and questions. My apologies for any inconvenience! You're always welcome to email me: farmgirlfare AT gmail DOT com.

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