Basil - All About Basil

Basil - All About Basil

To many gardeners, basil is truly an incredible herb. There are about 150 known species of basil of which Ocimum basilicum or 'Sweet Basil' is the most commonly grown. It is enjoyed for its rich, spicy flavor with a trace of mint, clove and even licorice.

Along with basils' wonderful fragrances and flavors, some varieties are also used as attractive ornamentals in the summer landscape and others add interest to cut flower arrangements.

Basil is native to India and Asia, but has a long history of legend and use worldwide. In Tudor England, little pots of basil were often given as graceful compliments by farmers' wives to visitors. In present-day Italy, basil is a symbol of love, but it represented hatred in ancient Greece.

The ancient Greeks depicted poverty as a ragged woman with basil at her side. Both the early Greeks and Romans thought the plant would only grow if the gardener shouted and cursed while sowing the seeds.

Growing Basil

Basil is an annual herb in non-tropical climates and a member of the mint family (note the square stem). It is a great companion plant for tomatoes, eggplant and peppers.

It is easily grown indoors or outside, but is very sensitive to frost injury, and prefers a 70 degree F soil temperature. A sunny location in well-drained, rich soil with ample moisture will keep it very happy. A soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5 is best, and fertilizer should be used sparingly, as too much will dilute the fragrant oils.

The flower buds should be pinched off, as the production of flowers tends to add bitterness to the leaf flavor. Don't be afraid to prune your plants every 2 to 3 weeks - the bushier the better. Cut it back to about 1/4 inch above a node.

If grown indoors in a pot, give the plant a south-facing window, a minimum of four hours of direct light, and a location away from drafts.

Basil Harvest & Storage

Since basil is so sensitive to cold, make sure you do your final harvest before the first cold snap. The ideal time is on a sunny morning after the dew has evaporated and before the day becomes hot. You will also have more oils (better flavor) if watering is withheld for two days before harvesting.

Pull the whole plant out of the ground for your final harvest and use only the leaves. Basil is best fresh, but can also be preserved by drying, freezing, bottling in oil, or steeping in vinegar.

Drying Basil: In general, basil loses much of its favor when dried. The faster the herb dries, the more flavorful the results.

Good air circulation, low humidity and a location out of direct sunlight is best. Covering with a single sheet of newspaper while drying outdoors will help retain its green color. Bunches can be tied together and hung upside down or laid out on screens.

Those with gas oven pilot lights can quickly dry herbs by placing them on cookie sheets, with oven and oven light off, for a day or so. Check the basil daily to assure thorough drying before storage.

Basil retains its flavor better if stored as a whole leaves and crushed at time of use. Store in tightly sealed glass jars away from heat and light.

Freezing Basil: Chop the leaves in a food processor, add olive oil to create a smooth, loose paste, and freeze in ice cube trays. These cubes, when solid, can then be put into a freezer bag and used as needed in soups, stews, and pasta or for making pesto. For the best pesto flavor, add the cheese and pine nuts after thawing.

For a basil and oil puree to use fresh or to be frozen for winter use, combine two packed cups of basil leaves and 1/4 to 1/2 cup of olive oil. Frozen basil is best when used within six months.

Vinegar Basil: Stalks of basil can be added to bottles of vinegar to use on salads. Use good quality wine vinegar and allow the basil to steep for at least 2 weeks before using. This works well in olive oil, too. The red basils add a very pleasing red color to both vinegar and oil.

Basil In The Kitchen

Fresh garden tomatoes sliced and sprinkled with chopped basil, vinegar and oil are delicious. Basil mixes well with various egg and cheese dishes as well as fruit jams. In general, add fresh basil at the last moment, as cooking destroys the flavor quickly. When adding dried basil to a recipe that calls for fresh, substitute 1/3 the amount called for in the recipe.

My first thought of a basil recipe is pesto. I love pesto - mounded on angel-hair pasta and surrounded with fresh sliced Botanical Interests tomatoes, or spread on broiled fish or grilled chicken, or a baked potato, or a sauce for string beans or pizza, or - you get the idea. It's tasty, easy, and quick to make.

Pesto (1 cup)

  • 3 cups fresh basil leaves, tightly packed
  • 2 large cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Add all ingredients except the cheese to a blender or food processor. Blend until well processed. Beat in cheese just before serving.

Fresh Lime-Basil Sorbet

  • 1 cup fresh squeezed lime juice (8 to 10 limes)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup simple sugar syrup (1 cup sugar plus 1 cup water, boiled then cooled)
  • 12 whole basil leaves
  • 1 egg white (optional)

Combine all ingredients, except egg white, into a freezer-friendly container and freeze 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

Remove from freezer and allow to soften a little. Put chunks of frozen mixture into a food processor and process until all crystals have disappeared and mixture is smooth. Re-pack into container and keep frozen until needed. This will keep for up to 2 months. If you prefer a lighter, less icy sorbet, add 1 egg white during processing. Yields 4 servings. (Recipe from Herbal Gardens' website)

Don't forget the flowers. Basil flowers are edible and are a nice complement in salads or used to decorate the dessert or dinner plate. Our Siam Queen and Purple Petra basils are especially nice for this use.

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