Down to Earth: Cooking with Basil at an Oregon Truck Stop

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I was visiting friends in Dundee, Oregon, sometime back. We had just toured a great little winery and tasted some especially nice wines. My host suggested that we go for lunch at a nearby cafe.

“It doesn’t look like much, but the food is always good,” he said as we pulled up in front of a simple concrete-block building not unlike thousands of other roadside cafes across America. It also seemed to be quite popular–trucks crowded the parking lot, and inside, the owner chatted with a few of the truckers, asking about their families or what they were hauling that day.

Several items on the menu enticed me, including basil beef on rice, rosemary roasted chicken, and several delectable-sounding vegetarian entrées. “Truly not your ordinary truck-stop fare,” I said to myself, choosing the rosemary chicken.

During lunch, the truck drivers ­seated at the eight or ten tables in the cafe talked and joked among themselves. When the owner, a woman wearing a white apron and a hairnet, came out to visit a customer, a trucker sitting across the room called out, “Mary, we were just talking. Which basil did you use in the beef today?”

At first, I thought he was joking. After all, this appeared to be just an ordinary cafe, not a tearoom, and the clientele was nearly all truckers. Mary responded, “Oh, it’s that lettuce-leaf basil Sam gave me last year. I like the flavor, and the plants keep on producing leaves all summer.”

Another trucker broke in: “Have you tried using ‘Cinnamon’ basil in the recipe? My wife likes it better than lettuce-leaf.”

A third volunteered that he really liked the spicy flavor of ‘East Indian’ basil. A tough-looking character praised ‘Purple Ruffles’ for marinated chicken. A lively discussion soon broke out about which basil grows best and how best to use each kind. Yet another burly ­trucker offered that he likes to use one-third flat-leaved parsley and two-thirds plain sweet basil in his pesto. “My kids clean their plates when I put pesto on their pasta,” he bragged.

I almost slapped myself to see if I had stepped off a starship onto another planet. Where I come from, truck-stop conversation is never about which basil is best. I came away very impressed that in at least one roadside truck stop, basil is an acceptable subject for debate among everyday workingmen. This was not just a discussion prompted by hungry men waiting to be fed either. No, these were aficionados who commented, “I grow lemon basil because it is perfect for steaming shrimp on the grill” and “My wife uses ‘Mammoth’ basil instead of lettuce on my sandwiches when she packs my lunch.”

To prove my own manhood, I’ve been testing a new variety of basil called ‘Siam Queen’, a 1997 All-America Selections winner. It’s a variety of Thai basil bred for flavor but also useful in the landscape. With unusual dark purple, nearly flattened clusters of blooms instead of upright spikes, ‘Siam Queen’ shows some kinship to ‘Cinnamon’ basil, but its sweet and spicy flavor is more floral and aromatic. Great in pestos and cheese dishes, it is also tasty simmered with cubed pork and pineapple.

Here’s how I use it in stir-fried ­chicken.

1. After stir-frying two cut-up chicken breasts, I stir in a coarsely chopped medium onion, carrot, celery, zucchini, bok choy, yellow sweet pepper, and a couple of quartered, seeded jala­peños.

2. I cover the pan and let everything steam for about 5 minutes.

3. Then add 1/4 cup oyster sauce, 1/4 cup water, 1 teaspoon chili paste with garlic, and 1 tablespoon pear-ginger jam.

4. I bring the mixture to the boil and add five 4-inch sprigs of ‘Siam Queen’ with only the stalks and larger stems removed.

5. I quickly stir in 2 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup of water and continue to stir until the sauce has thickened. It’s now ready to spoon over steamed brown rice.

The fragrance is heavenly.

Who knows? Maybe conversations among truckers in the roadside cafes in Arkansas will soon include, “Have you tried that great new basil yet? It beats all the other basils I grow by a country mile!”

Jim Long is an herbalist and the owner of Long Creek Herb Farm in Oak Grove, Arkansas.

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