When our freezer died early this spring, we lost a lot of food — home-grown and on-sale items. One I particularly regret was homemade basil pesto. To compensate, I’ve now planted too many sweet basil plants. It’s very useful in side dishes such as potato salad or pesto pasta, as well as being a tasty and attractive sauce over bland white fish or meats.
The basil I’m growing this year is Dolce fresca basil from Richters, an All-America selection in 2015. There are so many other basils available, it’s difficult to choose which to grow, but I chose this one for its claimed bushyness. Richters offers seeds for 32 varieties, and plants only for four different varieties. I recently ordered seeds for Persian, or Reyhan, and Kaprao basils from another vendor. I’m already growing Cinnamon (aka Mexican) basil, and have lemon and Tulsi basil plants coming from Sunrose Nursery in Boise.
This is a hugely useful and varied species of the genus Ocimum, varying in flavors and aromas. Most are annuals, but three are perennials: African Blue, African Spice and Ajaka, the latter a new cultivar from Germany that features strong tall growth, bushyness (hence, many useful leaves), enticing aroma and red-purple flowers in late summer. None of these are winter hardy here.
The sweet basil most of us grow is the annual “genovese” variety (that is, from Genoa, Italy) that we use for flavoring sauces such as spaghetti sauce or pizza as well as mixed in olive oil with grated hard cheese such as Parmesan or Asiago, minced garlic and chopped nuts, walnut or pine nuts. These basils are very tender in frost, turning black and unusable at 38 degrees F. Accordingly, refrigeration is not a preserver of this herb unless it’s chopped in oil. If it’s just mixed in water or refrigerated without processing, it turns black.
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Like many other popular herbs used in European and American cuisines, basil is native to the Mediterranean area. To grow it, start pinching the top back when it has at least four leaves. Pinching out the top sends growth hormones lower on the plant, spurring branch growth. The more branches, the more leaves, and that’s the part you use anyway. You don’t want the plant to go to seed, for that diminishes the full flavor of the leaves.
If you grow one of the compact varieties, you can use stems and leaves as long as the stems are herbaceous (tender and watery) rather than woody. Leaves on that variety are about the size of thyme leaves, so using stems and all is much less labor-intensive than if you just picked off the leaves. You can dry any basil or process it into pesto. I don’t include garlic in the pesto that I’m freezing, but add it just before I use the thawed pesto. Garlic develops a musty flavor when frozen, I think.
Some folks prefer to use the lettuce-leafed basil to the smaller leaves of Genovese, even though the lettuce-leafed variety is crinkled, so is harder to wash clean. Washing any green leaves is facilitated by dunking in tepid water. That loosens silt or other contaminants, and dousing leaves up and down cleans greens quite well, but I also visually inspect each leaf for clinging insects after dowsing.
Purple-leaved basil can flavor and color vinegar when a stem is thrust into a jar and stored out of direct sun for several days. Poured into an attractive container, it’s a useful gift from the garden. Dried crumbled leaves are also welcome gifts. Basil leaves, whole or crumbled, flavor mild meats such as chicken, veal or fish, and most vegetables, the flavor intensifying during cooking. It’s popular in European cuisines, as well as Thailand and India. In India, basil is a holy herb, dedicated to the gods Krishna and Vishnu. Indian basil is usually labeled Tulsi or a variation thereof.
It grows readily from seed, germinating in warm soil in about three days. It needs full sun in which to thrive, and prefers rich soil and a pH of 6.0, but it grows acceptably in our more alkaline soil. Make sure your basil has good air space, too, for there is a disease called “downy mildew” that afflicts basil plants in the U.S. and Canada, and it is fatal to the plant. There’s no organic cure for it, and that means if you were able to cure it with a toxic substance, it would not longer be edible. Monitor your plants frequently, and if any show signs of yellowing (dusty spots appear on the undersides of leaves, so not easily visible), remove the plant quickly, lest it spread. It can become soil borne too, so beware. I’ve not had that in my garden, so its occurrence may not be geographically present yet.
You can, of course, dehydrate basil, for that’s what you get when you buy basil in spice jars. I use dehydrator or pillowcase (stuffed with whole basil plants) hung outdoors days, and brought indoors evenings until the leaves and stalks are dry. Then pick off dried leaves and put them into containers for later use. You’ll have a wonderfully aromatic pillowcase too.
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