Basil Is The Crowning Jewel Of Summer!
There are almost as many species of basil plants as there are countries in the world. Indeed, every region seems to have a coveted variety touted as the best. Most of these Basils are green and often are referred to as Sweet Basil . Interestingly, these plants are really spicy and not the least sweet. While there is some debate as to the best Sweet Basil, most kinds will do well for almost any recipe calling for Sweet Basil. Bush Sweet Basils make attractive summer edible borders. Spicy Globe Bush Basil is even preferred by some for cooking. For us, the leaves of these plants are so small that preparation of large quantities is too tedious.
There are also sweet tasting basils though they are never called this. These varieties include the reddish green Cinnamon Basil and Licorice Basil which lack the fire of green Sweet Basil and, instead, add a subtle sweetness mixed with a hint of spice. Lemon Basil, with its strong citrus flavor, makes a good substitute for other lemony herbs in most recipes. Darker reddish purple varieties like, African Blue Basil, are often added to vinegars where their deep rich colors infused into the vinegar are appreciated.
We have experimented with many kinds of Basils and find most to have culinary appeal. These sweeter basils though are easily overpowered by garlic or tomatoes and should instead be included in recipes for baked goods, fruity salad dressings, even ice creams and sorbets.
We prefer to tear our Basil leaves rather than chopping them with a knife when we are adding them to a salad or as a fresh garnish. Adding fresh leaves after a salad is dressed or as the pizza comes out of the oven will preserve the flavor.
Our most unique Basil, African Blue Basil, is a gorgeous specimen in the landscape where it may often attain heights of three feet or more. Because it is a sterile hybrid continued new growth is continuous as the plant tries to make seeds. Not quite as spicy as some of the green Basils. The flavor of African Blue Basil is still quite kitchen worthy. In fact, children often prefer this milder form of Basil to its fiery counterpart.
One of the few herbs not used for tea, potpourri or aches, Basil is simply a gastronomic delight. Often, Pesto is one of the first recipes tried with Basil.
A PESTO STORY
The first Pesto I made was so bad it took nearly five years and some powerful persuasion before I would even consider tasting it again. It had seemed like such a great idea. Three cups of nutritious, dark green leaves used raw in a recipe that looked like it might take a minute and a half to prepare in the food processor. The first problem with my recipe, as I found out later, was the parsley. Second, was the addition of walnuts. While walnuts are an authentic ingredient in pesto in some parts of Italy, there they are used fresh when the flavor is mild and they are full of water. They are definitely not akin to the dried bitter walnuts we buy in the bag. I still see this combination frequently used in Pesto recipes. Just not my pesto recipe!
Finally, a good friend tempted me with his fiancée’s version of Pesto. I have been hooked ever since. Of course, I had to have the recipe and I wanted to know what creative genius discovered that these were the magical ingredients for Pesto. What my friend told me was the perfect story. I learned that this mouth-watering treat had been handed down from his fiancées Sicilian grandmother. I was delighted to have an authentic recipe. Several years later my friend ‘s (now) wife said that her grandmother had actually taken the recipe from Good Housekeeping or another popular cookbook of her day. Fortunately, by this time I was so completely addicted to Pesto, I didn’t care if it came from Popular Mechanics.
The recipe for Pesto follows. But be warned you may be starting a life-long tradition.
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3-5 cloves garlic, peeled
- 3 cups fresh Basil packed
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup pinenuts
- 3 tablespoons Romano cheese (or more Parmesan)
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
Run all the ingredients together in a food processor just until smooth. Or, if you want the very best pesto, mash this in a mortar and pestle. The word Pesto is actually derived from the word pestle and which is how Pesto was first made, by crushing all the ingredients together in a mortar and pestle.
This makes enough for one pound of pasta. To serve, the pasta should be drained, returned to the pot and the Pesto added while the pasta is still hot. Mix thoroughly.
If you would like to make more than one batch of Pesto at a time. A convenient way to preserve Pesto is to freeze small amounts in pint size freezer bags. Press all the air out and smooth the bag out flat and then stack one on top of the other in the freezer.
To use, let thaw in the refrigerator or on the counter; it doesn’t take long. Pesto makes a wonderful spread for sourdough bread with a fresh slice of tomato on top or use as a gourmet coating for popcorn.
Basil is best preserved in oil, with or without other Pesto ingredients, and then frozen. Because the oil doesn’t freeze hard, little chunks are easily broken off to add to soups and sauces. It’s a wonderful quirk of fate that Basil and tomatoes are ready for harvest at the same time. Preserving Sweet Basil in homemade tomato sauce is almost as good as in frozen Pesto, but that is another story.
Now that we have an adequate supply of Pesto, we are reacquainting ourselves with some of its other uses. Three pesto pasta dinners in one week makes us want to reinvent the wheel so we can keep rolling but on down a new track. Enter the pizza. Pizza is such a great facilitator for herbs. You can put herbs in the crust, herbs in the sauce, herbs on top and herbs in the barbeque for scent. We make our Pesto Pizza with a thin layer of tomato sauce, redolent with herbs, of course, topped with alternate blobs of Pesto and ricotta cheese. In the summer, our preferred method of cooking is on the BBQ. We lay our pizza stone right on top of the grill and cook away. Our Weber charcoal grill imparts a deep smoky flavor we don’t seem to get on our gas BBQ. Just be sure to make enough!
MAINTAINING HUMAN SUPERIORITY
Like homegrown tomatoes, Basil from your own chemical free garden is superior to any product purchased from the market. Also like tomatoes, Basil grows as a perennial in the tropics. But, here, with a seasonal climate, we treat them both as annuals. Preferring sun and warmth, Basil is referred to as a tender annual. All danger of frost must be passed before planting. Even the briefest drop to 32 degrees will cause its demise.
There are some measures you can take to insure your basil is the best.
WATER WELL AND FERTILIZE A LITTLE
The best way to grow Basil plants is to treat them like a crop. The planting site should have good drainage and receive at least six hours of sun a day. Not one of the drought resistant herbs, Basil plants require water on a regular basis. Conditions vary, but here with average garden soil they receive water every two or three days, more when our temperatures rise above 90. Basil plants that are allowed to droop in the heat will have poor quality leaves and invite insect pests. Planting them closely together, between 12-18 inches, will help conserve water and space. And, because it’s the leaves of Basil we use, it’s important to provide adequate nitrogen. Be sure to choose an organic fertilizer and add a little to your planting hole. Plants that are stressed for food and/or water send out chemical messages to bugs that sound like ‘come on over’
MULCH WELL AND COVER UP
As with all plants, a deep mulch is advised. But don’t just cover the ground, use row covers over the plants if pests are enjoying more of your Basil than you are. These light weight covers let air and water in but keep the bugs from the leaves.
SNAILS AND BASIL
Slugs and snails are often the greatest challenge in producing a successful Basil crop. Trapping or handpicking is the single best method for their destruction. Lay a board near your garden and check it in the morning for the destructive creatures. If you are faithful, the populations of these night crawlers will be greatly reduced. Also, be on the look out for their eggs. Like little, milky pearls they are usually found just under the surface of the soil. Or, if you don’t want to trap snails, you can band your garden or pots with copper. Copper is poison for snails and slugs and they will not cross a band of it. If you have a lot of space to protect, consider copper hot water tubing. This malleable tubing is idea for protecting large gardens or just one pot. Encircle the garden with it or lay it on the inside of the pot. You could even tie a bow with it around the outside of your pot. Lifting up the tubing and shaking off the debris that falls on it is important for its continued effectiveness.
Sluggo is also an effective way to deter slugs and snails. It is shaken around the plant and kills the snails as they crawl through it. Sluggo is an organic product that works well but must be applied on a regular basis to be effective.
PLANT IN SUCCESSION
Succession crops of Basil will ensure a fresh supply throughout the summer. The first harvest can usually be taken when the plants are about 12 inches tall and have branched. Cut 1 or 2 sets of leaves from the top while leaving small new leaves below ready to grow. After two cuttings, usually two or three weeks apart, plants start to wane and become woody. Also, flowering Basils are finished producing leaves and should be replaced.
There are three stages of development in all plants. For Basil lovers, the juvenile is the most productive stage. This is the phase where the plant is growing nice fat leaves. When the plant gets to the stage where it is saving energy for flower or fruit production, this is called a transition stage. Once Basil enters this phase, leaf growth slows. By the next stage, the productive stage, the basil is not being productive for us, but is saving itself by making flowers and ultimately seeds. It is not true, that pinching the flowers out of Basils will extend their leaf making days. For once an annual plant enters the transition phase, the messages in the cells of the plant to make flowers cannot be reversed. This is why we suggest successive plantings of basil throughout the season. By planting new young plants every three to four weeks fresh, large Basil leaves are always available. Succession planting also helps to avoid some pests, because just like plants, insects have seasons they prefer. And, if your plants are being devoured by the great spotted whatever now, then that bug may be gone later.