All About Basil

All About Basil

There’s a reason basil is so popular—it’s delicious! There are about 150 known species of basil, but Ocimum basilicum, also known as Sweet Basil or Genovese Basil, is the most commonly grown. Basils are enjoyed for their rich, spicy flavor with a trace of mint, clove, and even licorice.

Along with basil’s wonderful fragrances and flavors, basil flowers and foliage are also quite beautiful. Some varieties, such as Purple Petra, are used as attractive ornamentals in the summer landscape, and to add interest to cut flower arrangements.

Basil is also thought to have many health-promoting properties and is full of essential vitamins, such as K and A; minerals; and other nutrients. Ancient Egyptians used basil as a medicine for snakebites and scorpion stings. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, recommended basil tea as a remedy for nerves, headaches, and fainting spells.

Basil has been used for so long it is difficult to pinpoint its native range; most believe it to be Africa, but it has a long history of legends and uses worldwide. In Tudor England, farmers’ wives often gave little pots of basil as graceful gifts 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 grow only 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, Lamiaceae, (note the characteristic square stem). Seasoned gardeners find it to be a great companion plant for tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers, and can be grown in a container with other herbs indoors or outdoors.

Basil is great in an outdoor garden; however, it is very frost-sensitive and prefers a 70ºF 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 its fragrant oils.

Flower buds should be pinched off, as the production of flowers can cause the leaf flavor to decline. That said, bees love the small spotted flowers, they add a nice touch to bouquets, and they are basil-flavored and edible, making a beautiful garnish. Don't be afraid to prune your plants every 2 to 3 weeks—the bushier the better. Cut them back to about ¼" above a node (where the leaves emerge off the stem). If grown indoors in a pot, give the plant a minimum of four hours of bright light, in a location away from drafts.

Outdoor Basil Harvest
If your basil is sown outside, 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. Also, the leaves will contain more oils (better flavor) if watering is withheld for 2 days before harvesting. Pull the whole plant out of the ground for your final harvest and use only the leaves.

Basil Storage
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. That’s why good air circulation, low humidity, and a location out of direct sunlight are 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. Basil retains its flavor better if stored as whole leaves, and then crushed at time of use. Store in tightly sealed glass jars away from heat and light.

Freezing Basil: Chop 2 cups of leaves in a food processor, add ½ cup 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. Frozen basil is best when used within six months. NOTE: Quickly (10 seconds) blanching basil leaves prior to processing will prevent the pesto from turning black and it will mellow the basil flavor a bit. (this is new to me. Dip the leaves in boiling water? When does pesto turn black?)

Basil Vinegar and Oil: Stalks of basil can be added to bottles of vinegar to use on salads. Select a good quality white wine vinegar and allow the basil to steep for at least two weeks before using. This works well with 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, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil are delicious. Basil pairs well with various egg and cheese dishes as well as fruit jams. In general, add fresh basil at the last moment, as cooking reduces the flavor quickly. When adding dried basil to a recipe that calls for fresh, use 1/3 the amount called for in the recipe.

When you think of basil, your thoughts often go directly to pesto. At least ours do! Pesto is perfect mounded on angel-hair pasta and surrounded with fresh sliced tomatoes; spread on broiled fish, grilled chicken, or a baked potato; as a topping for green beans or pizza; or whatever else you can think of! It's tasty, easy, and quick to make.

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

In a food processor or blender, combine the oil, garlic, salt and pine nuts; blend until smooth. Add the basil, being careful not to overprocess the leaves. Mix in cheese just before serving.

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