The Telegraph Herald’s monthly Homegrown feature highlights vendors who sell at tri-state area farmers markets.
Watch for new installments on the first Sunday of each month. If you have a suggestion for a vendor for us to feature, send an email to email@example.com.
Location: Hopkinton, Iowa
Items offered: Basil balls, fresh basil, flavored breads and lemonade
Products sold at: Dubuque Farmers Market
HOPKINTON, Iowa — Standing beside a patch of fresh basil at her daughter’s house in Hopkinton, Jill Wagener demonstrated the proper way to harvest the delicate herb.
“You have to pick basil like you pick tea — pinch and drop, because it bruises so easily,” she said, carefully holding up a handful of small green leaves.
Jill knows her way around basil. She has spent more than two decades growing the herb and perfecting a family recipe for “basil balls,” which are highly concentrated, butter-based balls flavored with herbs that can be used in cooking a variety of dishes.
This year, she and her adult daughters, Kayla Wagener and Samantha Koppes, launched Basil Street Creations and began selling the basil balls, fresh basil and related products at Dubuque Farmers Market.
“Mom’s been doing this for over 20 years, and we finally decided that we were going to try this and sell the basil balls for everyone else,” Samantha said.
A fresh start
Jill Wagener has “always been obsessed with basil,” according to her children, and many dishes in the Wagener household when Kayla and Samantha were growing up featured fresh basil.
However, they missed the herb during the winter and struggled to find a way to keep it fresh for any length of time after the growing season had concluded.
“You can’t freeze it, because it ruins it. You could dehydrate it, but it does lose its freshness,” Kayla said. “(Making basil balls) was a way for us to keep basil to add to our meals throughout the year.”
Kayla and Jill grow the basil and other herbs, including garlic chives, rosemary and sage, at their homes. However, they must prepare the basil balls in a certified commercial kitchen to maintain proper food licensing, so the process takes place in the kitchen of the Hopkinton Fire Department, where Kayla volunteers as an emergency medical technician.
As Kayla placed a handful of basil leaves on the kitchen’s counter on a recent afternoon, Samantha and Jill pulled colanders and a food processor from nearby cupboards.
“We pick (the leaves) off one by one, and then they have to be carefully cleaned,” Samantha said.
She explained that the basil leaves gently are rinsed with water two to three times in a colander before being mixed with the other ingredients, which vary according to the flavor of the ball but always include butter, olive oil and lemon. The balls then are packaged in double-sealed bags and frozen.
The balls come in nine flavors, including lemon basil, rosemary sage, garlic chive and roasted garlic basil, which Kayla said is the business’ top seller.
Jill, Kayla and Samantha said the basil balls can be used to flavor almost any type of food, from pastas and vegetables to seafood and steaks. One ball serves about four to five people.
“As soon as you have the heat off, that’s when the basil ball goes in,” Jill said. “You just roll it around and let the heat melt the butter into it.”
At the farmers market, the family also has offered fresh basil and a variety of flavored breads baked with the basil balls, as well as lemon basil lemonade made with fresh basil.
As cooler temperatures arrive, the family is preparing for the end of their growing season.
“We’re on our last harvest now because basil is a tropical plant,” Jill Wagener said in late September. “It doesn’t tolerate much under 75 degrees. It gets a little bent out of shape.”
They plan to launch online sales of Basil Street Creations products during the winter and have begun selling the balls at TADA Meats in Maquoketa, with hopes to expand their sales to other area stores as well.
Tammy Adrian, co-owner of TADA Meats, said the basil balls pair well with the products her business offers and gives customers more options to cook their meats.
“The people that know what (the basil balls) are really like it and enjoy that we have it available,” Adrian said. “It’s going over well. I think it’s good for local businesses to help each other out.”
Basil Street Creations plans to return to the Dubuque Farmers Market next year, as well. Kayla said the family has found a supportive environment among the other vendors at the market and have enjoyed sharing their products with customers.
“From repeat people to the new people each week, everyone has been very receptive to trying something new, and they all seem to like the idea,” Kayla said.