Here’s an article I wrote for Countryside Magazine. It’s timely since right now my basil is flowering like crazy!
I’m willing to bet that if you start an herb garden, growing basil (Ocimum Basilicum) will be high on your garden herbs list and one of the first herbs you’ll plant. Common sweet basil has tones of cloves and licorice. Other basil types can have a thyme/clove/anise/mint-like flavor with hints of cinnamon. Growing and using basil is fun and easy.
Varieties of Basil
There are so many varieties for those gardeners interested in growing basil. Genovese, lettuce leaf, opal, African blue, cinnamon, Thai, lemon and spicy globe basil with its tiny, pungent leaves are just a few options.
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In India, people herald purple Tulsi basil as sacred. Sacred basil/Holy basil is a beautiful pale green basil with a warm, spicy scent. The kids think it smells like bubblegum! It’s the only basil that I grow that reseeds itself.
History of Growing Basil
Considered an aphrodisiac in ancient times, Romans fed basil to horses during mating season. If a lady left a pot of basil in her window, her sweetheart knew he was welcome to visit.
Brought to Europe during the 16th century, basil was cultivated by monks and farmers. From there, settlers to the United States brought seeds with them.
Basil is a sun-loving annual that should be planted when the temperature and soil is at least 50 degrees or more. Whether planting herbs in pots or growing them in the ground, give them plenty of room to grow, at least a foot apart. Plant some next to your tomatoes to repel insects and diseases. Pinch flower heads off as they form (use in cooking) for healthy plants and a longer harvest.
Health Benefits of Basil
There are many basil health benefits from the vitamins it contains including vitamin C, potassium, omega 3’s, folate and iron. Good for the immune system, basil has been used for natural cold remedies. Basil also helps regulate metabolism.
Basil is used in aromatherapy to uplift and harmonize the spirit, and basil tea is taken to relieve the nausea of chemotherapy and radiation (steep a tablespoon of fresh basil in a cup of boiling water, strain and swirl in some honey and lemon).
Harvesting and Storing Basil
Once the plant is flourishing, prune by pinching off flower heads as they form. You’ll get a longer harvest, since once flowers form, leaf production declines and flavor diminishes.
Chop leaves and spread out on a towel or rack. Or hang in bunches, upside down in a well-aired area. Store, covered, away from heat and light.
Freeze basil in small amounts of water in ice cube trays, or make a paste and freeze in trays.
Freeze basil with Parmesan cheese. Make layers of Parmesan and basil in a freezer safe container. They will flavor each other and the basil doesn’t turn real dark. This is wonderful in soups, stews and sauces.
Store seeds in cool, dry place away from heat and light and plant them the following spring.
Cooking with Basil
Add basil to salads, vinegars or use as a substitute for lettuce on sandwiches. It is wonderful with tomatoes and mozzarella (see the photo of Caprese salad above) and is essential in tomato sauce. Basil pairs well with poultry, vegetables and grains.
For an explosion of flavor, add fresh basil during the last few minutes of cooking time.
Rita’s Freezer Pesto
This makes a great base for lots of dishes. Go to taste on the garlic. I use a food processor, but you could use a blender or make this by hand. Freeze in amounts you think you’ll use. Or pack into baggies and remember to let the air out. What you want is a flat package. That way they stack nicely in the freezer and you can just push some out of the baggie as you need it.
1 to 1½ teaspoons garlic, minced
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted if desired
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional but good)
½ cup parsley leaves
4 generous cups basil leaves, packed
1-1/4 cups Parmesan cheese or to taste
1/2 to 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
With processor’s motor running, add garlic and nuts. Add everything else and process until smooth.
Pasta with Pesto Sauce
There are no specific amounts required here, but it’s easy to make a delicious pesto pasta sauce. Boil some pasta and save a bit of the pasta water to thin the pesto down so that it coats the pasta nicely. While the pasta is still warm, add the thinned down pesto and toss gently. I like to add tomatoes, shredded Parmesan and a sprig of basil. Yum!
Basil Splash for Skin
Put a handful of basil leaves in a bowl. Bruise to release oils. Pour a cup of boiling water over and steep 15 minutes. Strain and cool. The antibacterial qualities are good for skin exposed to polluted air. Don’t get it into your eyes. I like to add a few rose petals as well for astringency.