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Basil: King of the summer herbs

Posted: June 10, 2014

Basil is one of those herbs that just screams, Summer!

Like its best friend, the tomato, basil thrives during the hottest days and warmest nights of summer. Once planted in good soil, whether in the ground or in a pot, basil is easy to grow and offers a bounty of glossy leaves that find so many uses in food.

Basil has been used around the world for centuries to season food, and as a medicinal herb, primarily as a digestive aid to relieve nausea, stomach cramps and gas. The Chinese, who cultivated basil since the 6th century, use it internally and externally. They believe it helps circulate the blood and also apply it to the skin to cool hives, insect bites and bloodshot eyes.

As wonderful as all this sounds, beware of someone who gives you a bouquet of basil flowers, for their meaning is “hatred.” Flower meanings aside, the tiny blossoms of basil can be plucked and used in salads, on pasta, and are also delicious sprinkled on fresh fruit salad to provide a unique licorice-like taste. Many different kinds of bees and wasps enjoy basil nectar too.

Varieties of basil

You can’t go wrong with basic sweet basil. But why stop there? Your local nursery is likely to have one or two basil varieties, but if you want to experiment further visit a specialty nursery or order seeds.
Here is just a sampling of basil varieties:

  • Blue Spice—has a strong basil scent and taste and bright green foliage.
  • Bush or Globe—a compact, mounding basil that has tiny leaves and makes a terrific edging plant.
  • Cinnamon—a spicy basil that offers a warm and pungent flavor. Pairs well with fruit.
  • Genovese—Italian variety that is considered superior for making pesto.
  • Holy—Hindus revere this 2-foot plant and grow it around their temples. They use its reddish leaves in cold dishes but never cook it.
  • Lemon—has a strong citrus taste and smell that pairs well with seafood. Can also be used to make vinegar.
  • Lettuce Leaf—has large leaves that can be used as a wrapper for various stuffings. Originated in Japan.
  • Lime—has bright-green foliage with a lime scent.
  • Purple Leaf—dark purple, ruffled leaves are very ornamental and fun to mix with flowering annuals or perennials. Pair with hot oranges and reds, or try in more muted combinations with white-flowering annuals.
  • Siam Queen/Thai—Has small pointed leaves and purple stems. Strong, spicy scent and taste is used in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Very useful as an ornamental too.

Growing basil

Basil plants are easy to find all through the growing season--even into late fall--at your local garden center. Like other Mediterranean natives, basil is happiest in hot sunny locations but does appreciate regular watering when dry. Basil rots in waterlogged soils and sulks in heavy clay soils. It tolerates some shade but plants will be leggier than if grown in sun. Pinch regularly (and enjoy the cuttings) to delay flowering and encourage side shoots to form, making the plant bushy. Don’t be shy about cutting back by half or more, in no time the plant will respond with fresh new growth.

Basil is also easy to grow from seed. Start them indoors in the spring 6-8 weeks before you plan to plant outdoors. Press seeds into moistened sterile seed starting mix and cover with 1/8 inch of soil. Cover with clear plastic. In a week or two the seeds will start to sprout. Remove the plastic and place under fluorescent lights. Basil is not frost hardy and does not grow well in cool conditions, so don’t be too eager to plant seedlings outdoors. Be sure to harvest your plants before the first frost.

Cooking with basil

Basil pairs well with so many foods, and it’s fun to experiment with it. First there’s the classic layered tomato-fresh mozzarella-basil-olive oil salad of summer, beautiful in its colorful simplicity. Chopped fresh basil leaves are great in salads, stir frys, and pasta primavera too.

Then there’s pesto. To make, place a few handfuls of basil in a food processor and whirl with a sprinkling of pine nuts or walnuts, a splash of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Use on pasta, roasted chicken, or sandwiches. Pesto freezes beautifully and is a welcome treat in winter. Place spoonfuls on waxed paper or in ice cube trays and freeze overnight. Place the frozen pesto in tightly sealed freezer bags.

The leaves of basil freeze beautifully too. First, rinse well and pat dry. Strip leaves from the stem, place on a cookie sheet in a single layer and freeze overnight. Keep frozen leaves in a zippered freezer bag and use as needed in soups, stews and sauces. Basil leaves tend to lose their bright green color when frozen, but you can blanch them before freezing to help retain some of their color.

To dry basil, hang in small bunches or lay leaves on paper towels until they are crispy (takes a week or two). If you have a tabletop dehydrator or a dehydrate setting on your oven, those work well too. Drying in the microwave tends to result in flavor loss.

As with all herbs you plan to eat, wash harvested basil thoroughly before using. Select only the best leaves and discard those that are old, have insect damage or disease. Keep harvesting your basil to enjoy its fresh flavor for months.