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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Growing Better Basil

Spicy globe basil, left and Thai basil center.
From two nationwide surveys I conducted, basil has consistently been the top selling herb in the United States for the past 20 years. I surveyed both wholesale and retail nurseries and seed companies, first in 1989 and again in 2009, and my book, Growing & Using the Ten Most Popular Herbs, was the result. Basil remained at number one in both surveys.

Sweet basil, the most common variety.

Many people think of basil as simply a generic basil, as if all basils were alike. I grow around 12 to 14 basil varieties each year, and each has a different flavor and use.  Sweet basil, which is the generic basil most people think of, is good for spaghetti sauces and pizza. Lemon basil, and its cousin, lime basil, works well on grilled shrimp and in pesto for grilled fish. Thai basil is perfect for Thai cooking, and ruby or red ruffles basil is better for making vinegars, jellies and sorbets. Lettuce leaf basil produces extra large leaves that are good on sandwiches or in salads, just like you would use lettuce.

Thai basil is delicious with Thai foods, shrimp and chicken dishes.

Regardless of which basil you grow, there are some basics that help your plants produce well. Basil requires a full day of sunshine to grow well, meaning, 6 to 8 hours, or more. Since basil plants are also decorative in the landscape, you can plant several plants among your landscape plants. Spicy globe basil, for example, stays in a perfect round mound and looks good all summer.

Basil plants can look great in the landscape. This is a curly-flower Thai basil.

The flavor of basil will be best if you keep the plant clipped. I’ve noticed people who plant one single basil in a pot on their patio, then are afraid to “hurt” the plant, so they’ll timidly pull one or two leaves to use. Basil responds well to getting a haircut. Don’t you feel good after you’ve had your hair cut or fixed? I’m convinced that basil plants like that, as well. Every two or three weeks, take a pair of scissors and give the entire plant a really good haircut. The flavor of the leaves will be much better.

Variegated Sweet Aussie basil, better for landscape than cooking.

Since all plants have a genetic goal to bloom and set seed, when that process starts, the chemical make-up of the plant changes. If you allow basil to start blooming, the leaves will become bitter. Keep the flowering tops pinched out and the flavor will be noticeably  better. If your basil plants are already blooming, trim them back by one third all over so they will go back to producing better tasting leaves.

Basil-tomato salad, served in homemade cracker bowls.

There’s no perfect way to preserve the taste of fresh basil, but several methods come close. You can dry basil leaves slowly and on the lowest heat setting in a food dehydrator. You can chop the leaves and freeze them in water for adding to soups and sauces later. Or you can make pesto and freeze it in ice cube trays.

Basil Pesto for Freezing
4-6 cups basil leaves, moderately packed
1 cup, approx, olive oil (buy the good olive oil for this)
4 tablespoons walnuts or almonds, or pine nuts if you wish
6 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon Fruit Fresh or 1 T. fresh lemon juice (not the bottled kind)
Salt to taste

Combine ingredients and process in a food processor, scrape out into ice cube trays and freeze. When frozen well, remove from trays and put in Zip-loc bags.
When ready to use the pesto, let thaw and add grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, or equal portions of each. Or you can drop into sauce or stew without adding the cheese.

When cooking with pesto:
For soups, add in the last 5 minutes of cooking, otherwise the basil may taste bitter.
For chicken dishes, such as baked chicken, put the pesto under the skin of the chicken and bake at no more than 325 degrees to preserve the flavor of the pesto, and to make the chicken tender.
For use on bread, add a bit of extra cheese, spread on French bread and broil under the broiler until bubbly and eat while still hot.

For homemade cracker recipes, go to my website for my book, Easy Homemade Crackers Using Herbs. More of my recipes for using herbs are in my book, How to Grow and Use the Ten Most Popular Herbs.
Happy gardening!

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